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Caring for China’s “Left-Behind” Children

Due to the government’s hukou registration requirement, many children were left behind in villages as their parents went to work in the cities. While a few fortunate ones were looked after by their mothers, most were in the care of extended relatives, mostly aged grandparents. These are the “left-behind” children that Cherry Wong and other volunteers have been visiting and holding camps for over the past decade. In this article, she tells of some of her experiences and children she has worked with.

This past Christmas Day, we received a number of greetings from our brothers and sisters in China. We had last met with them about two and a half years ago. Since 2018, our work with them organizing summer camps for the left-behind children had been increasingly difficult due to the government’s tightened religious policies. I remember the constant need to change venues to evade the surveillance of local officials; we also had to cancel a number of camps at the last minute. However, nothing would compare to the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic as everything came to a halt. I can still vividly recall the last day of our summer camp in 2019 when we promised the children that we would return soon; that pledge has still not been realized. 

We had long been aware of the issue of left-behind children (留守儿童) in China but had never personally encountered them. Then, in 2013, an opportunity arose when Brother Cui, a migrant pastor that we met in Beijing, asked if we could deliver summer camp programs to the left-behind children in his hometown. Who would have missed a golden opportunity like this! We thanked God for opening this door, and we immediately jumped to accept the invitation. “Mind you,” Brother Cui continued, “there are hundreds and hundreds of children in the villages; you may need to recruit more volunteers.” This started a journey that has lasted for many years.

The first time we ventured into the villages outside a city (in Henan province), we were surprised by their isolation and backwardness. There were no proper paths or signposts; nevertheless, the children were able to locate our activity centers which were the village homes of faithful Christian families. Most of the children had been left behind in the villages as their parents worked in the cities; a few fortunate ones were looked after by their mothers, but most were in the care of extended relatives, mostly aged grandparents. The little ones spoke in their local Henan dialect not yet having mastered Putonghua. That initial encounter was really an eye-opening experience for us. Despite our extensive preparation, we had to make spontaneous changes to our programs as the village environment was very different from what we had expected. Open fields became makeshift classrooms and playgrounds.

After the first summer camp, the local Sunday school teachers asked if we could visit again during spring break. We then established a pattern of visiting the left-behind children in various villages on a regular basis of twice a year. Soon, by word of mouth, we were invited to other villages in Henan province to provide summer and winter camp programs for these children. We praised the Lord for opening up more opportunities to share the gospel with them.

Every morning when we arrived at a village house, many children were already there waiting for us. Some who were as young as four or five years old came with their older siblings and friends. Many of them had to walk over an hour to get there. On rainy days, they had to trek through thick mud and slippery paths and in the cold of January through layers of snow. When they arrived, they would all have red faces, cracked with cold rash and blisters due to the extreme winter weather. However, this did not bother them much as they were more eager to join all the activities and hear stories about Jesus. These children have developed the tenacity to endure these extreme weather conditions, a skill that we city dwellers have yet to master.   

Despite the huge number of left-behind children joining the camp, we managed to get to know some of them well. Due to the lack parental concern, many of them were reticent and withdrawn, not knowing how to express themselves or handle their emotions. When dealing with setbacks, these children tend to remain uncommunicative, and some even resort to violence to get their own way. Once a group of relatively older boys fought over a piece of plastic fruit, something that children in Hong Kong would not even bother to pick up. We immediately separated them and explained that using force was not the way to solve the problem. Over time, we gradually established a bond with these children; some started to open up and even invited us into their homes.

We had been visiting an isolated village two hours from a city for three consecutive years. There we met an old couple with their four grandchildren: three older girls and a younger brother. The parents of the children worked in the city and only returned a few times a year. Like most traditional Chinese families, the old couple doted on the younger boy, though doing this unknowingly. The grandmother constantly punished the two older girls by having them crouch outside the house for an extended period of time. We observed that these girls were detached and reticent. On the other hand, the younger boy had difficulty interacting with others because of the way he was being brought up.  

Another boy, “Ennis,” grew up in a village in the original area we had visited. His parents were very devoted Christians and they helped out in the camps. The couple’s greatest concern was that this son had been lazing around in his room for years. Knowing his situation, we tried to approach him, and through repeated efforts, we observed his improvement during our visits. He started reading the Bible and helped with camp activities. We were all overwhelmed with joy and praised the Lord for opening his heart. 

“Mike,” a nine-year-old boy, demonstrated extreme bravery and tenacity. The teachers would take the children to a nearby stream to play. One day, Mike was cut by some sharp rocks and his toes were bleeding seriously. We immediately sent him to the closest clinic a few hours away, and he had to brave several stitches. When he returned to the camp, he did not complain or cry but was more curious to know what he had missed during his absence.

“Evelyn” was originally from a village, but she had gone with her migrant parents who serve in pastoral ministry to Beijing. For years, the family had been struggling with her schooling due to China’s hukou system (household registration system). As she was not entitled to public schools in Beijing, her parents had to send her to private schools. However, due to the lack of government support, these schools charge exorbitant fees which are beyond the means of most migrants. The real challenge came when Evelyn reached middle school age as affordable private schools were virtually nonexistent. The parents had no choice but to send her to her hometown to continue with her secondary school education while living with her grandparents. When Evelyn returned to Henan province, it was found that she was much below the required standards in most subjects, and she had to repeat two lower grades. It has now been five years since Evelyn has been studying in Henan. We were overjoyed to know that she has become very motivated and mature throughout the years. She now ranks among the top in her grade.

We have missed working with these children over the past two years due to COVID-19, but this gap has only made our hearts grow fonder for them. Thank God that through WeChat, we are able to connect with the village teachers and hear updates about some of the children. Now, Ennis is helping out at church and Evelyn is motivated to enter a good university. We are so thankful that the Lord has given us a connection with all these children.

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Image credit:  Ajay Karpur via UnSplash

Cherry Wong

Cherry Wong (pseudonym) is a fourth generation Christian who has been visiting migrants and left-behind children for over a decade. Being an English teacher, the Lord has equipped her with what she has learned in her profession to further his kingdom. She and her church volunteers started visiting a migrant …View Full Bio