With a little help from a friend

Vickie Chang, a former journalist with Taiwan’s China Times, has been chosen as the Reader’s Digest Asian of the Year for 2012 for her work with children in leper communities in China

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Wed, Nov 28, 2012 - Page 12

As an award-winning reporter for the China Times, Vickie Chang (張平宜) has seen more than her share of the world’s inequity and horror, but a visit to a Chinese leper colony in 1999 changed the direction of her career. She quit her job as a journalist and in 2003 established the charity Wings of Hope (希望之翼) to engage with the situation she had witnessed. Her efforts have won her the acknowledgement of the Chinese government and this year she received international recognition after being named as Reader’s Digest Asian of the Year 2012.

MARGINS OF SOCIETY

When Chang first visited, most of the people living in leper colonies in China had been isolated on the margins of society, unable to access even the most rudimentary social services. Many were without any form of official identification, making it impossible for them to seek education or work outside their community. What made the situation even more appalling was the fact that not only is leprosy now treatable, but that many of the people living in these communities, children of people with leprosy, were not infected at all.

This situation was the result of Chinese government policy in the 1950s in which lepers were isolated in remote regions to contain outbreaks. The disease is still stigmatized by society at large, and in the area of Liangshan (涼山) in Sichuan Province where the majority of residents belong to the Yi (彝族) ethnic minority, the disease is traditionally equated with demonic possession.

“As a journalist of many years standing, I felt that I didn’t have to remain a third party merely reporting on the issue. I thought that if I took action, I would be able to make a difference. It would be taking my work as a reporter to the next level. I could help these children win support from public opinion that would put pressure on the government to formulate a policy to give these children an opportunity,” Chang said.

UPHILL STRUGGLE

Faced with government inertia and social discrimination, Chang faced an uphill struggle; one that was made considerably more difficult by the fact that she was a Taiwanese trying to operate in China.

“Of course, as a Taiwanese in China seeking to win formal recognition for a community and obtain basic human rights from the Chinese authorities, there were many difficulties,” Chang said.

“I stupidly jumped into the fray and together with these children, we gradually found our way. … My main concern is organizing the daily needs of these children inside the leper community, and not with the political aspect of things,” Chang said.

Working with the authorities was nevertheless an inevitable part of Chang’s routine, but as an outsider, this was not always easy.

“There has been friction with the authorities, but through this we have come to understand each other better,” she said.

TOUCHING INDIVDUAL

The biggest change has been after she was selected as one of China’s most “touching individuals” for 2011(2011感動中國). The award, given by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV (中央電視台) is one of the most prestigious given to individuals who can serve as a role model for society, and in its 10-year history, Chang has been the first Taiwanese to be honored in this way. The award conferred a degree of recognition by the central government for her efforts, and made it easier for her to obtain the cooperation of local officials.

When Chang first arrived in Liangshan, she took on the 70 children at an “educational depot” housed in two windowless rooms and taught to fourth grade level by a single teacher with no formal qualifications. By July 2005, the Dayingpan (大營盤) elementary school in Liangshan celebrated its first batch of graduates, and next year, Chang said, the organization might see its first student advance on to university. This year, the school at Dayingpan has 355 students, many drawn from outside the Liangshan district. The school is open to students from leper communities in all counties in the province, and remarkably, one in 10 students now come from outside leper communities.

FINDING THE ROAD

Chang said that not only does Dayingpan have education through to middle school, but she has already helped set up a vocational training program. “When I first started, my goal was to help these children build a road on which they could find their way back into mainstream society,” she said. “Now, after middle school, it is not always possible for these students to progress to high school and university, but by providing vocational education, these kids can acquire a skill to ease the transition into society. It is a continuous process.”

Chang’s original work trying to rescue a limited number of children from a small area has expanded, reaching out within the region and ultimately, Chang hopes, nationwide.

“At the moment we can provide a reference, ideas and practical assistance, for other similar projects, but my eventual aim is to establish a foundation in China. I feel that from Taiwan, we have completed the first phase of dealing with this legacy of leprosy. In the next stage I would like to combine the talent and material resources from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, so that China can act independently in dealing with this issue.”

Chang is hopeful for the future, seeing leprosy gradually disappearing and the communities that have grown up around the disease becoming more empowered and self-sufficient. “As the children from the leper communities grow up, become educated and enter society, they will be able to bring benefits back to their community.”

More information about Wings of Hope and Chang’s work can be found at the foundation’s Web site www.hopewing.org.tw.