Across China: Tibetan school for orphans offers home, healing

Kangzho Degyi was trained as a lawyer but now teaches Mandarin to second-graders at a school for orphans in her hometown, a Tibetan community in northwest China's Qinghai Province.

"I love my job. I see the reflection of my old self on the children's faces," she said.

Kangzho Degyi lost her parents and two siblings in 1998. The family was on a pilgrimage to a local monastery, but the truck they hitchhiked overturned. Kangzho Degyi and her sister Puryang were the only survivors.

Puryang, 16 at the time, was sent away to a nunnery of Gyegu Monastery in their home county of Yushu. In most Tibetan communities, monasteries also serve as schools, where older children learn Buddhist sutras and the Tibetan language.

Kangzho Degyi, who was only 10, was sent to a boarding school for orphans in Yushu County. A straight-A student, she was admitted to Qinghai Normal University upon graduation.

Instead of securing a well-paid job in the legal sector, Kangzho Degyi took up teaching at Bayi School for Orphans, the school she once attended in Yushu.

"The kids need me. They're all orphans like myself," she said. "They often call their teachers 'mom' and 'dad,' and break into tears when words like 'parent' or 'family' appear in the textbook."

When the children are older, she will tell them about her own experience. "I will tell them their strong-willed teacher was once a teary little girl. But our experiences, happy or sad, make us stronger," she said.

The school is one of nine welfare homes for orphans in Yushu Prefecture. It provides food, lodging and education for 516 children, mostly Tibetans from across the 267,000-square-kilometer prefecture.

It was initially opened in 1993 to teach orphans traditional Tibetan medicine, as the predominantly Tibetan area desperately needs health care.

"A severe shortage of medical workers is one of the reasons why there are so many orphans in Yushu," said school principal Nyima Rigzin.

Today, the revamped campus has new classroom buildings, tidy dorms, a cafeteria and a big playground. This "home and school in one" for the orphans teaches primary and middle school courses like other schools, and also provides vocational training to older children.

Nyima Rigzin and the 38 teachers do their best to make the children feel at home. Each of them is in charge of 10 to 13 students, tending to their needs and playing a parental role.

During summer and winter holidays, children who have no relatives to stay with often go home with their teachers.

"Most Tibetan schools have an additional six-week holiday for worm fungus harvest," said the principal. "But these children have no family and nowhere to go."

So the school uses the annual holiday for a camping trip on the pasture land at Bathang. "The children all stay in tents and try their luck at finding the fungus, too. Most of the time, they have fun, singing, dancing and playing football."

The children's tents are all brightly colored. "When I placed orders for them, I deliberately avoided the simple blue ones that were used as makeshift homes and classrooms after the 2010 quake," Nyima Rigzin said.

That quake orphaned more than 400 children in Yushu, about half of whom are now attending Nyima Rigzin's school. "We try to avoid pricking their old wounds," said the principal.

Across Qinghai Province, 17 government-run orphanages have been built thanks to a project backed by the central government to improve children's well-being, said Zhang Zuosen, an official with the provincial civil affairs bureau.

Qinghai has an additional 16 orphanages financed by private investors or non-governmental organizations, he said.

Banru Deleg, 37, runs a small orphanage with 81 children in Yushu county. He, too, has wounds to heal.

He watched his mother die while giving birth to his twin sisters. He left home at 16 to study Buddhism, first in Qinghai and then in Sichuan Province and Beijing, before returning home to manage the orphanage.

"We Tibetans believe life is an eternal cycle of birth, death and reincarnation," he said. "I willingly serve others and trust that my kindness will pay off."