Adventures and New Ventures in Lanzhou, Gansu
LWB recently opened a Believe in Me school program inside the Lanzhou orphanage in Gansu province. A team from the U.S. visited the school in late March, and we thought you might like learning a bit more about this region and our newest project.
As you fly into Lanzhou, you can immediately tell you are in an area very unlike the more populated eastern part of China. As far as you can see are brown, treeless mountains, fronted by a landscape which initially looks like desert. Once on the ground, however, you realize that the ground is not sand, but instead a powdery, dry silt. Of course this region was part of the famous Silk Road in China and so has a long and interesting history. The mountains are dotted with caves, which served as homes to many people during the 1950s to 1970s.
It takes about one hour to get from the new airport to the city center. On the way, we passed many small villages.
The local people say it is so dry here that your whole life depends on the gods. If it rains, you live. If there is no rain, your life is very hard indeed. Most rural people are farmers, and sheep are the animal of choice. We saw lots of sheep skins, including this one on the back of a motorbike.
We asked if we could stop in one of the small villages, and it was quite interesting to walk around. We were told that there are almost no people in the villages aged 6-30 any longer. Almost everyone that age has moved to cities, as the economy is just so poor in this region. We were actually invited into an elderly couple’s home, which was a really nice honor.
When the grandfather came around the corner, he had oil all over his hands from working on one of his farm tools. He had several sheep, and he grew dates, wolf berries, and millet on his land. They treated us to a fermented pear juice which they had grown from a tree in their courtyard. They take the ripe pears and put them in a bucket, and then they are covered with snow all winter. In the spring when the snow melts, you mash the pears with the water and make a thick juice. It was really delicious!
Their sole source of heat was a coal stove in the middle of the room, and they had one small well for water, covered up with a wooden board. We talked about the challenges of farming in such a dry region and learned they had built their home all by themselves. We also learned they would soon be taking in their baby granddaughter for five years, so that she could be raised in the countryside while her father worked in the city.
The family could not have been nicer to us, and they followed us back to the car to wave goodbye. I hope if perfect strangers ever show up in my front yard that I can be just as kind and welcoming to them!
If you are familiar with this region of China, you know that Lanzhou has a high Hui minority population, who are Muslim. There are many mosques in the city, and the Hui are famous here for their beef noodle restaurants. A few years ago Australian cattle ranchers visited Gansu, giving advice on how to raise organic beef, and Gansu beef is highly prized. The food in Lanzhou was incredibly delicious. At just one meal we had there were five types of noodles: cold, hot, spicy, mild, and medium.
Lanzhou is narrowly built between mountains, and so they can only build and grow lengthwise. Because of this, it can take over two hours to get from one end of it to the other. With the Yellow River and mountains not allowing easy expansion, we learned the traffic is quite intense here. The orphanage is about an hour and twenty minutes from the downtown section of Lanzhou, a long commute for many of its workers. It was built three years ago, and they now have 280+ children in their care.
We had a great time getting to know all of the children enrolled last month in our school. I was immediately struck by how bright and cheerful the classrooms are. Local teachers from a private kindergarten in town came and helped our teachers learn how to decorate, and they did such a wonderful job.
Our teachers are very young, but they are extremely enthusiastic about learning to work with kids with special needs. Our next special education training will be held this summer, and I know these young ladies will really enjoy meeting and learning from all the great teachers attending.
We had cars and My Little Ponies as a treat for all the kids, and we were trying our best to decide quickly who was a boy and who was a girl. There was one gorgeous little child on the end, and so we went up and gave her a pink pony. She looked at it with a death look.
Then I went up and started saying to her, “Piaoliang (beautiful)!” But she was scowling at me. I kept thinking, “Wow, she is a really serious little girl.” So then we offered her a car instead, and she happily took it and started playing. It was only later in the van that we learned of course that the “she” was a “he.” It was little James from our school, and I am sure I insulted him GREATLY by giving him a pony and saying he was beautiful while all of his little boy buddies were watching. Epic fail. : )
We also got to meet the kids who will be coming to Kaifeng for our Cleft Exchange in a few weeks. Several of the kids have quite complex bilateral clefts. Maureen Brogan, the head of our cleft surgery team, explained the importance of the kids having gentle pressure put on the protruding tissue. The kids will be wearing gentle pressure bands until the trip so they can have the best outcome possible.
We all enjoyed meeting with Emily, who is a student in our school. Emily is almost twelve and has brittle bone disease. She is super smart, and you can immediately sense what a sweet spirit she has. We had some headbands for her as a gift from a mom in the US, and in perfect English she said, “Thank you Ayi.”
The orphanage told us that Emily’s file had been submitted many years ago, but she was never chosen. Any family would be so blessed to have her as a daughter. She is so tiny that she actually fits in a baby walker, but we are working on getting her something a bit larger and easier to move around the classroom.
We also had the honor of delivering a care package to one little boy in our school with the cutest personality, and he was thrilled with all of his little presents. Our teacher in his classroom kept pointing to the photos telling him mama would be coming soon.
We then had a good discussion about the importance of foster care, and we have made preliminary plans to open a partnership foster care program together, beginning with ten kids. I really respected that the director was concerned about honoring the different minority groups in the city. He explained that recently they found three separate babies who were left with white caps on their heads, indicating they were abandoned by Muslim families. Some orphanages probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but this director said he feels obligated to allow the children to be raised in Hui homes, to honor their birthparents. He was hoping we could take all three into our foster care program with Hui families, and of course I said, “Absolutely — yes!”
We really enjoyed our visit to the orphanage, and I look forward to returning soon. I think by partnering together in even larger ways, we can do really wonderful things for the children here. The new staff is very committed to making things as positive as possible for the children in their care. With our school, a new nutrition program, and now possible foster care, I know many lives can be impacted.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer