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A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents can not afford.

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7 septembre 2002 6 07 /09 /septembre /2002 00:00
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THE LETTER FROM THE NINGXIA/
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Letter 10 - September 2002

Dear All
The new school year has started, also in China, and we have sorted out the bursaries, for the children who were already receiving help last year as well as for the new ones chosen on the occasion of our trip out there last July with Michèle Fitoussi. We have already received letters thanking us from several families, among them one very touching one from a father, which we provide in translation below. In total, 28 children are now benefiting from bursaries, to whose number, of course, is added Ma Yan, whose bursary will in the future be drawn from the sum already paid by the publisher of the book shortly to come out.
The children can be divided up into the following groups : one in vocational training, 15 (among them Ma Yan) in Middle School at Yuwang, and 13 at primary school in Zhang Jia Shu. And with two exceptions, they are all girls.
This help amounts to nearly 1500 Euros, a net increase from the sum previously paid out in the form of bursaries, due to the increase in the number of Middle School, students (we pay 500 Yuan per middle school student, and 200 Yuan per primary school student per semester) and the payment of 2000 Yuan which we are providing to the student in vocational training, Wei Yong’e, a sick girl whose letters had moved us and whom we had visited together with Michèle Fitoussi. This very courageous girl from an extremely poor family was admitted to a specialised school at Urumqi, capital of the neigbouring Xinjiang province, even though her state of health remains precarious.
After paying out the bursaries, we still have a little more than 1500 Euros in the bank, enough to ensure without problems the payment for the second semester for the same students. But it appears wiser to us, at the present stage, not to take on new bursary recipients despite the pressing entreaties we continue to receive from Ningxia. We will perhaps be able to revise this policy once The Diary of Ma Yan [in French] have come out. These publications might stir up more people willing to contribute.
The book should come out on 4 October, with the publisher Ramsay. I will be in Paris at this time, and we could organise a constitutive General Assembly of the Association for the Children of Ningxia [Association « Enfants du Ningxia »] whose statutes were filed [with the state registry] this summer. I suggest Saturday 6 October around lunchtime or early afternoon. I hope that you will be able to attend in large numbers, so we can get to know each other (I already met some of you in June) , and have some discussions about our initiative, which is still conducted on a trial-and-error-principle and is going quite well. Would this date be convenient for you, and what time do you suggest ?
Among the events surrounding the publication of the book I would like to point out the publication of a report by Michèle Fitoussi in the (french edition of) Elle magazine of 29 September, a report from the village of Ma Yan by Philippe Rochot in the TV news programme of France 2 in the first week of September, and a conference which I will be holding at the Maison de la Chine, place St Sulpice, Paris, on 4 October at 6:30 pm.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski Beijing, 16 September 2002
Letter from Ma Zhiji, father of Ma Xiaomei and Ma Guorong, first year students at High School
‘I thank you for your help given so that my two children can return to school. You have taken a lot of trouble, you have traversed mountains and rivers to come to our arid region, to resolve our difficulties, to lighten our burden. “Man only has one life to live, as the grass only has one spring.” We will never forget the benevolence you have shown us. Without your help my children would be like me ; they could never leave the countryside and realise their dreams.
On 9 July, it was just the peak of the summer harvest. There was a lot of work in the fields and we missed the opportunity of meeting you. In the evening I learned that you had already left again, and the two children did not want to peak or eat anything. Seeing them in this state I, their father, so ill : I could not help the tears in my eyes. I cannot accept that my children must be like myself and do not get any schooling. I was therefore determined to find you, even if I had to go to Beijing to obtain a satisfactory response from you. That evening I left my son Ma Guorong at home because he could not walk, and accompanied Ma Xiaomei to Yuwang, where we finally found you at the Hotel of the Yellow River. When you offered to help us, my entire family cried with happiness.
Your one thousand Yuan allowing my two children to go to school next year have safely arrived. I thank you in the name of the entire family. And we hope to continue receiving you help in the future.
I wish you health and success. "



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7 juillet 2002 7 07 /07 /juillet /2002 00:00
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Letter 9 - Summer 2002

Hello everyone - or everyone not on holiday -
Some information on our initiative :
Firstly, news about Ma Yan and other children we are helping : I have just returned from a trip to Ningxia accompanied by Michèle Fitoussi, a journalist working for Elle, who has been with us on this initiative from the start. She will provide her own account separately, but here are a few remarks from me.
We have met with Ma Yan who is very well, having come in second in her class this year (‘after a student who was repeating the year,’ she is anxious to point out !). We found her mother suffering, and took both of them to a hospital in Yinchuan, the provincial capital, so she could consult a doctor at the hospital ; for the medical facilities available locally are very limited. Ma Yan’s mother has been suffering from a stomach ulcer for years, it seems, as well as from other complications. We ensured that she got treatment. Incidentally, this was their first visit to a large city, and they were ‘discovering’...the hot water coming from a tap, the soap, the lifts, the big shops, the traffic jams...they opened their eyes wide and Ma Yan told us this was an unforgettable experience for her.
We also met some of the twenty children we helped during the second semester. This was very gratifying, for they all had attended classes through to the end, and apparently had earned good results. We will continue supporting them next September, along with with ten more children whom we chose during this last visit, our finances allowing us to do so. So there will be thirty bursary recipients in all next year, 28 girls and two boys.
Importantly, we met Wei Yong’e, a young girl from a very poor family (her father is a migrant worker, a miner working in a different province ; the older brother went to look for work elsewhere and disappeared without a trace a year ago, and her mother now finds herself alone with three daughters in a lost village on the top of a mountain). This girl had been sending us magnificent letters during the past months, believing that she was suffering from a terminal illness. We helped her, too, to get medical treatment, and the matter does not seem to be all too serious. She will enroll in High School in September, and she appears very determined to us.
There was no shortage of difficulties, of course, for the help we are providing to this very poor region obviously leads to many frustrations : why these thirty children, when they are all in difficulties ? This frustration experienced by ‘the others’ is difficult to handle in a region where, as an official told us, ‘people are prepared to kill each other for 50 Yuan’, that is less than ten Euros. We have begun to think about a collective project for the entire village, a project that would benefit everyone and not just a few families :
Since the procurement of water is one of the biggest problems (it is a two hours’ walk both ways to go to the only well, which does not even have drinking water), why not help with the construction of a well in the village, if conditions are favourable, by finding a sponsor or several sponsors, for instance, among the French companies with a presence in China (I thought of Vivendi Environnement, which has just gained important contracts for water supply in China, and perhaps stand in need of polishing its image) ? More on this later.
There are also some difficulties with some authorities irritated by our presence, since we are ‘free electrons’ in a country which doesn’t like this too much. We have already been favoured with a visit from the police, who descended upon our hotel, but this had no further consequences. The local authorities (the district and village party secretary, the village head and the Imam, as well as the school director of Yuwang High School, where Ma Yan is a student) reassured us of their confidence in us and encouraged us to go on.
So this is some news from the ‘frontline’, good news when one considers the children delighted to have bursaries and be able to continue school, though the picture is more complicated once one takes into account the general situation, as our initiative has had the effect of disturbing an established order, in itself miserable, but with its own logic.
During my brief stay in Paris, last month, I had the pleasure of meeting some of you, and we decided to found a [charitable] Association under the 1901 [Association] Law for fiscal reasons (a lawyer having pointed out to me that it was illegal for me to receive donations made to my personal bank account, or that in any case, I ought to pay taxes on these sums...). So we had to legalise all this without becoming overly formal, and without becoming an international NGO... An ‘Association for the Children of Ningxia’ (a name preferred to exaggerated personalisation around Ma Yan) will therefore be created, with a provisory office. A General Constitutive Assembly will be organised next time I come to Paris. I hope that you will be able to attend in great numbers, at a date yet to be determined.
Last point : Ma Yan’s diary will come out in book form at the beginning of October, with the publishing house Ramsay, and this publication will generate a copyright vesting with Ma Yan’s family. It seemed legitimate to me, given that Ma Yan will in the future have an income from this copyright which will secure her education for the next few years, that the money from the donations be henceforth used to help other children. When we announced this step - which to us seemed a positive one, since it spelled greater autonomy for them - to Ma Yan and her mother, the latter reacted very badly, not understanding why the Association was going to ‘drop her’. It was very difficult for us to make her understand in what way this change was positive for her, because she was going to have a small capital at her immediate disposal, which would allow her to improve her living conditions (by buying some livestock or land), while her daughter’s education remained secured by a monthly payment coming from her own money, and guaranteed for the next seven years ! We assured her, too, that Ma Yan was clearly going to remain the ‘mascot’ of the Association, that we would continue to take an interest in her life, and that Michèle and I were personally pledging to help Ma Yan, should her own money turn out to be insufficient. I hope that you are in agreement with this step we took.
This is it for the moment. All this is a delicate matter, and we do truly intervene here in a context of extreme poverty, and quite unprepared for all these challenges. But at the same time the satisfaction experienced by the children, some of whom are among the best in their class, and who without bursaries would be condemned to discontinue their school education, is worth, in my eyes, the fight to overcome all these difficulties. Best wishes to you, and have a good holiday


Pierre Haski.
Beijing, 18 July 2002




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7 juin 2002 5 07 /06 /juin /2002 00:00
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Letter 8 - June 2002

Dear All
The school year is coming to an end in China, too, and this is a good moment for a brief stock-taking on our Ningxia project which, it will be remembered, has only been in existence for a couple of months.
During the second semester of this school year, we helped 20 children from the South of Ningxia to return to school, either primary or middle school. All twenty (nineteen girls and one boy) have written to us, some of them several times, since the beginning of this action : this was the precondition we had imposed for continuing with the bursaries, so that we would be sure that the money was put to its intended use of paying for the school fees. Touching letters, containing details about their results at school, and all of them showing that the children are well back on track at school. Among them, of course, Ma Yan, who was at the outset of this initiative of solidarity, and who is writing and calling us regularly, giving us encouraging news on all counts. These are the first, positive results we have had.
We also received letters from 19 children who, having heard of what we were doing, asked us to help them. My assistant He Yanping answered each of them individually and promised to meet with them next time we were visiting in the region. All these letters draw accounts of dramatic situations in their families, for whom it is impossible to pay the school fees which in some cases surpass the household’s total annual income. A widely common situation in China for the poorest of the peasants, as I have only just seen confirmed in another province, Sichuan.
We now have more than 2.500 Euros in the bank, with our account being fed into by your regular donations, coming for the major part from France, to about a third from Italy and in two cases from Belgium and the UK. This may appear a small sum, but given the total absence of administrative costs, it will allow us to plan for a certain extension of our initiative in the coming school year. I think that without taking any risks, we can both continue to help the twenty current bursary recipients, increase the number of bursaries, and also give some teaching materials to Ma Yan’s high school and to the primary school of her village, neither of which have no such things at all. This would allow our initiative to reach all the children and avoid criticism which one can already sense coming, from those currently excluded, directed at those ‘privileged’ to receive help from us. The general deprivation is such that this is a very real problem.
I expect to go into Ningxia province at the beginning of July, which will allow us to decide about new bursaries and continue the old ones from September, and thus to to show that our engagement is not just of a transitory nature. As I did for my previous trip, I will send you an account of this coming one.
Some further news : the book should come out in September, published by the publishing house Ramsay. It will contain the entirety of Ma Yan’s diary as well as an accompanying text by myself, which tells the story of the diary, as well as all that followed once it was discovered, and moreover gives some socio-economic background about this part of China. It will also contain photos by Wang Zheng, the photographer who accompanied us from the start.
An article on Ma Yan’s entire history was also published in the Wenhui Bao, the big Shanghai daily newspaper, written by this paper’s correspondent in France who had heard people there talk about the project. It is a very positive article on our initiative, which ensures a certain degree of official protection for us - potentially useful in case of difficulties with the local authorities, something never to be excluded in China...
Finally, I will be in Paris between 22 June and the end of the month, and I will be delighted to meet all those who can and/or wish so. I have contacted a lawyer friend who works between France and China about the legal forms necessary for our organisation, to avoid continuing the current situation, in which we have to transfer money through my personal bank account. I will know more about this next week, and we will be able to talk about it in person I hope.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski


PS : I am attaching a very kitschy photo which Ma Yan sent us. I hope you can open the attachment.

 

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7 avril 2002 7 07 /04 /avril /2002 00:00
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Lettre 7 - April 2002

Dear All,
It is some time now that you haven’t received any update on our initiative , so here is one at last. Firstly, we have received letters from all the children to whom we gave bursaries when we went to the village last month. As I had already indicated, this is the one requirement we had imposed on them as a precondition for continuing the bursaries in the following semester : they are required to write to us after a certain time at school, to confirm that they are going to classes properly. They have all of them done this, warmly thanking us.
We have also received a very moving letter from Ma Yan’s mother, written by one of her sons because she herself is illiterate. The letter is addressed to my assistant and to myself (‘elder sister and elder brother’) and indirectly, through us, to all of you who are helping her daughter. Here is an excerpt from it :
"How often I think of you, of the evening we spent together. You are like my elder sister ; I told you all my worries, and am very glad that I did. It is as though I had only dreamt about it. Elder Brother and Sister, I entrust Ma Yan to you. I am her mother, but I could only give her life ; I could not give her a great ideal. You have given her everything, Elder Brother and Sister. Ma Yan is my daughter, but she is also your daughter. I beg you to raise her so that she becomes a useful person. Elder Sister, you said that Ma Yan could perhaps study in France ; if there is any such opportunity then she must go, to have a good education. We will be very happy with such a development.
"After your departure, that day, Ma Yan was quite petulant and kept asking me why you did not stay one day longer. I told her that Uncle and Aunt had a lot of work to do. She said, “Yes, they work hard. That evening while you were talking, I could not sleep. I lay on the bed thinking about so many things. I can see this time that they have lost weight, and this makes me feel ill myself. They are worrying about me.” I understand Ma Yan’s feelings, I know to what point you are important to her.’
Ma Yan’s younger brother added a few words from himself at the end : ‘Dear Uncle and Aunt, that day when you came to the school I was very happy. You asked my sister to call me so you could take a picture, and we could return to the village together. Uncle and Aunt, I will certainly study well : when I am grown up, I will make a contribution to my country. My studies are not going as well as those of my sister. My mother has not learned to write well so I am writing for her. My sister says I don’t write well ; what do you think of my writing ? If you encourage me, I’ll be very happy.
Ma Yi Chao, 31 March 2002
Some news, by the way, on the publishing front, for the entirety of Ma Yan’s diary, with a text presenting the diary by myself, will be published by Ramsay publishers in France next September. This is good news for her family, who will be duly remunerated, and have a real prospect now of substantively changing their lives. So the Ma Yan’s ‘fairytale’ is being continued...
We have also received a number of letters from children or their parents in the district, asking for help. We decided to send money to a schoolmate of Ma Yan’s at High School, who is in quite a serious situation, financially and healthwise, as was confirmed by the High School’s director. Here is an excerpt from her second letter, in answer to a first letter from us.
‘On 8 April I got your letter. It was a Monday. In the first afternoon class, the teacher brought me your letter. When I saw the address on the envelope, I knew that you had received my letter and that you had answered it. You can imagine what my joy and my emotions were at that moment. The tears streamed down my face all by themselves. I do not know with what words I can thank you. What I can do is to throw myself into studying despite everything, with great determination, in order to thank you with good results ; to become a new person qualifying for the 21st century ; to master the knowledge of modern science ; to keep step with our time ; to fight for my ideal. Every day that I live in this world, I must use my intelligence for realising the Four Modernisations. I would like to be someone like you, to help the children who cannot go to school, to show them my loving heart and let them go back to school ; to save my comrades. I thank you for the attention you have shown myself and my family ; I take a bow before you.
I remain the same as usual, I have to vomit once or twice a week, I suppress it and hide it ; I don’t know for how long it will be like this. But I continue. As the saying goes, perseverance is victory. I live with a mask, bitter in my heart, but with a smile on my lips when I face any of my teachers and schoolmates, so that they do not notice anything. Uncle and Aunt, do not worry yourselves. I will persevere to the end.’ We also decided to help two children whose case we were informed about, which will put the number of children receiving bursaries thanks to you - including Ma Yan - at twenty. The money intake to be expected in the future should make such a commitment possible, and it should be possible even to widen our commitments by next September.
A financial account : the donations received up until now from France, Italy, Belgium and Great Britain amount to about 3.000 Euros, of which around 1.000 Euros have been spent already (we have kept receipts of each centime spent, and these receipts can be inspected by anyone who wishes to do so). We have been progressing with prudence so far as expenses are concerned, in order to be able to ensure that the initiative could be carried through for however long it took, and to learn to discriminate between those who have sent a one-off sum, those who envisage sending donations each month, or every three months or six months. In any case we certainly have enough to continue, in the foreseeable future, with this initiative. Though modest, it does have a real impact on this particularly poor Chinese district. The letters we are receiving testify to this.
I will be at your disposal in case you have any enquiries to supplement the information I have provided here. Thanks to those who have offered to help : for the time being, there is nothing much that could be done from a great distance.
Best wishes to all of you
Pierre Haski
Beijing, 17 April 2002



PS : I am attaching a very kitschy photo which Ma Yan sent us. I hope you can open the attachment.

 

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7 mars 2002 4 07 /03 /mars /2002 00:00
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Letter 6 - 11 March 2002

Hello
We have just returned from Ningxia, and I will give you some news about our initiative, as promised. We have now reached the stage of concrete realisation of our project : from this week, sixteen Ningxia children - besides Ma Yan herself- will be going to school, or returning to school, thanks to your donations. But let me first give you some news about Ma Yan.
Our visit at her school took her by surprise. She was not aware that we were coming, and when we walked into her classroom she literally jumped from her seat ! She is radiant, as you can see from one of the photos attached to this letter, which was taken last Thursday. The support she receives from Europe has had an effect like a drug on her : she has formidable self-confidence now, and at the same time shows herself deeply grateful to all those who are helping her. All this despite truly challenging conditions, of which we could get an impression for ourselves : 60 students in a class without teaching aids, and dormitory rooms of three by four metres for fifteen students apiece...
After meeting up with Ma Yan we met the director of this rural Middle School. He mentioned a shocking figure : there has been a drop from 994 to 912 students from the first to the second term, due to financial difficulties experienced by the peasant families, which in turn are due to the droughts of the previous years. The children have to pay not only school fees of around 200 Yuan per semester, but also and above all, those who are from the surrounding villages and therefore are boarding students (that is, two thirds of the students) have to contribute sacks of grain for their own meals, and to bring a little ready money to buy vegetables to have with their rice (there is never any meat). In villages where the average income per inhabitant has fallen to 300 or 400 Yuan RMB a year, this means a considerable burden, which numerous families are no longer able to sustain.
The school director presented six young girls to us, who are among those excluded from school this semester, and whom we have decided to help by paying their school inscription fees, and giving them some money so they can buy themselves food (we are giving Ma Yan, thanks to whom this entire project took off, a more substantial sum of 500 Yuan RMB per month). Another photo shows Ma Yan with six bursary recipients, among whom one, sitting in the first row, is among the best students of the School, despite a physical handicap.
We then took Ma Yan back to her village Zhang Jia Shu in our car, taking the same sunken-in road which it takes her three or four hours every week-end to walk home on. The welcome her mother gave us was again very moving. This definitely very courageous woman finds it still difficult to believe that what has happened is true, and that her daughter is now guaranteed a degree of security which she has never known before, is true. In conversation with her, we also discussed the possibility that Ma Yan would transfer to a better school in the capital of the district at the beginning of the new school year - one where she would have better chances of making it to Senior High School and - why not - to university, whereas her rural High School is something of an academic dead end lane.
Ma Yan’s family home quickly became the centre of the village, showing how much attention our presence in the village generated. We already have the names of a number of children whom we want to help, among them a young girl mentioned in my article written in January, who had suffered the same fate as Ma Yan and was still being deprived of school education. For four additional children, we have asked the authorities in the village, the Imam and the Communist Party chief..., to make some suggestions. This led to long consultations held squatting in a field, at the end of which we were presented with a list that was clearly a wise compromise. We met with each child and their family, and whatever the considerations relating to them may have been, they are most assuredly in need.
It was clear that we could not satisfy all expectations, and our presence created as much frustration as it created satisfaction. Thus when we left the house of one of the families receiving aid, our car had to stop in the middle of the night to avoid running over a woman kneeling in the middle of the road. She had heard the car engine and knew who we were, and felt herself unjustly overlooked. We could do nothing for her, since yielding to her plea would have made the entire village make more pleas, when we had already fixed a limit. We were feeling really uneasy...
Principles of this kind are easier to define than to respect, though, for the next day when we stayed in a small hotel in the neighbouring community we found two families waiting on our doorstep, who had got up at four in the morning to make the three hours’ walk, with their children, to be there when we woke up. The children were freezing, and we could not do other than ‘adopt’ them as bursary holders... The same afternoon, when we visited another very poor family we came upon another family in quite desperate circumstances, whose children, clothed in rags, had scarcely known school at all (see attached photo). We added them to our list...
Results : Sixteen girls and one boy, of whom seven, like Ma Yan, are at Middle School while the others are at primary school. We asked the children that they write to us during the course of the coming semester to tell us about their progress at school and their lives. We will make this kind of correspondence a precondition of the continuation of the bursary, as this is the only way of achieving a minimum reassurance that the money is being used for its intended purpose. We chose to limit the number of children supported at this initial stage, although doubtless the sums we received would allow us to go a bit further. But we considered that we had better first allow our system to take roots, in the hope that we will be able to do more and do better come next September.
We were supported in the field by the photographer Wang Zheng, who had accompanied us and is 100% with us, as well as by various local authorities, who are thrilled at this initiative even though, evidently, they would like to be more in charge themselves...We have, I think, so far avoided being taken over in any way, and our gesture has, it seems, been well received and understood by everyone.
I think that we have for the present found a way of intervening in a smooth and, I hope, effective way. An initiative certainly limited compared to the district’s needs, even only considering these needs. But just seeing that Ma Yan and the other students had found back their smiles, made it worth the effort, I think. I will shortly send you a first statement of the donations received and the expenditures made. I will also communicate to you such new information as we have received ourselves, especially regarding these letters which we have asked the bursary holders to write, and which I hope they will deliver.
I hope that you will regard these first actions we have taken as being in the true spirit of this adventure. And that we may proceed with it for long enough to make a difference in the lives of a few disadvantaged Chinese children.
With best wishes
Pierre Haski,


Beijing, March 2002

 

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Letter 5 - 26 February 2002

Hello,
Some news ! On Monday we received a letter from Ma Yan. She has received our first payment, and she thanks all those who decided to help her. This is her letter :
« Dear Uncles and Aunts :
How are you ? [in English, though the rest of her letter is in Chinese]. I received your letter on 17 February 2002. That day my father had gone to town for the market and he found the letter at the post office. He opened it right away, but there were a few characters he couldn’t recognise. Back at home he asked me to read it. When I had finished the reading, I don’t know why, but I broke out in a sweat, as if all my strength had gone...Maybe it was because I was just too moved, too, too happy.
Father said, when he had finished reading the letter, that he no longer knew if he was walking on earth or in the sky, because he felt as if his body was floating. Mother added, ‘Finally, the heavens have opened their eyes. I didn’t cry for no reason while I was up in the mountains. My tears, then, were the result of pain and sadness. Now, they come from joy. I wish you a very good year and convey all my gratitude.’
After reading your letter, I really understood what joy means, and what friendship and the meaning of life are in this world. I thank all the people who have set out to help me. I am thrilled that young French people want to be my friends. I would like to write to them, phone them immediately, but I have neither their address nor phone numbers. Then, too, they don’t speak Chinese. I hope that you’ll give them my address : I would like to be their friend, their best friend. I say ‘Thank You’ [in English] to all of them.
You said that you could help other children from families in need. I’m so very, very pleased at that. For me, my problems are now behind me. Let them, too, complete their schooling and fulfill their dreams. All my thanks.
Soon I’m going back to school. I shall work very hard not to disappoint all your expectations. (The money you sent me has safely arrived.)
I wish you great success in this year of the horse.
Ma Yan, 19 February 2002 »


And moreover, my report on Ma Yan was published in the Italian magazine « Internazionale », and I have already received four emails from Italians who also want to show solidarity with Ma Yan and children of her village who can’t go to school. Two more French people have also written to me wanting to become part of our initiative. As I told you, I will make a trip to the village shortly - from 8 to 12 March - to make support available to more children in the village, and I will inform you about this when I am back.
Finally, a Parisian publisher has contacted me, who would like to publish the entire diary and my accompanying report. We are still in discussions about this, but if it works out, then it would doubtless give Ma Yan’s family a real chance to escape from their present misery forever.
So, we have had some good news. But even so, we are still at the beginning...
Best wishes
Pierre Haski


Beijing, feb. 26, 2002

 

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Letter 4 - 7 February 2002

Dear All
An update on our project, before the [Chinese] New Year, which this time falls onto 12 February.
Our bank account was opened only ten days ago, but it has already received nearly 1.000 Euro in donations, from ten out of the twenty-five people who came forth after the publication of the report on Ma Yan and said they wanted to help her. Some people have made a one-off donation, some have made a donation for this year, and some have put their names down for monthly donations. Among the latest arrivals in our ‘club’ are two High School classes, whose students decided to express solidarity with Ma Yan.
We have made a first transfer of 500 Yuan to Ma Yan, to let her know that we mean to help her, and do so before the Chinese New Year which is China’s biggest holiday. We have written to her to tell her that the article has already been published and that several people wanted to help her to continue her studies, and that it was therefore important that she study really hard... A letter from her crossed with ours. In her letter, she gives us some news about school (as I had told you, my assistant and I had already paid her school fees for the term that has just ended). She is also sending us a picture of herself wearing the shirt which she has been able to buy for herself with some of the money she got [from us].
There is also a very moving letter from her mother, thanking us, and speaking of the ‘personal sacrifice’ we must have made to send her the money. This gives us a measure of how poor they are. The mother’s letter was written by Ma Yan, because her mother cannot write. We have also had the village head on the phone - quite an adventure ! We are informing him of our initiative, for reasons to do with local diplomacy, and will also let him know when we go to the village again. He was very positive about it, and was looking forward to welcoming us on our next visit.
We are still expecting to return to the village at the end of the month, to see what Ma Yan’s needs are for continuing her education in decent living conditions, and whether perhaps she could transfer to another, better school in a neighbouring village ; for education in rural China is very poor. We also want to see how to go about helping some more children to return to school. The second term will be starting just then and so it will be a good time to enroll a couple more children, as the money we have received or have been promised will allow us to do.
Incidentally, I have had a telephone conversation with a French woman based in Guangxi Province in the South of China, who has created an organisation called Colours of China [Couleurs de Chine]. Just like us, they are trying to support school education for children from ethnic minorities, of which this province has many. She is helping 1300 children through a system of individual sponsorships arranged with people in France ! Unfortunately, she has no plans of widening the scope of her work to other provinces, but she has explained to me how she is operating : she pays money directly to the school in question, which she supplies with a list of the children being sponsored. She says that this is the only way of ensuring that it is really the children who benefit from the donations. I am planning to adopt the same system for helping other children from Ma Yan’s village.
So this is my update. I think we have now taken a number of decisive steps, and within a short time, a symbolic sum should have been received by Ma Yan, in just a few days (it takes eight days for money to be transferred from Beijing to Ningxia, whereas it was so simple to open an account in Paris via the internet, from here). We have also translated and sent off [your] letters addressed to Ma Yan ; but again, the lengthy process of postal delivery and the impending New Year holiday means there won’t be a quick answer. The second step, to be taken after the holiday, will be to go to the village. From now on I will not be in Beijing, where everything will come to a halt for eight days, but I will still be on email.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski.

 

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Letter 3 - 29 January 2002

Hello,

Thanks for all your messages and for the concrete commitments you have made in them. The sums you have promised will allow us to do, without further hesitation, what we have been talking about for two weeks now : to help Ma Yan to realise her dream of education by concrete measures, and to help a few more children to find their way back to school education - for their own sakes, but perhaps also to avoid jealousies and rancours arising around Ma Yan about this money so suddenly come from outside.
The opening of a bank account for collecting your donations has not been so easy, given that we are not a [charitable] association in the legal sense (the future will show if it becomes necessary to create one), but I have been able to open a bank account under a special name with my BNP bank branch.
My idea is that we should try and send her a first sum by postal order before the Chinese New Year on 12 February - the principal holiday in China, like our New Year and Christmas together. I will then travel there in person, together with my assistant, toward the end of February (it is impossible to go any earlier, partly because of the holidays, and even more compellingly for work reasons - Bush will be in Beijing on 21 and 22 February...). Once there, we will be able to determine how much money Ma Yan really needs, and ascertain if it is possible to set up some modest scheme for bursaries to be granted to some children in her district, with the help of contact persons there.
I will report to you about each step I take in this process, and I will also keep regular account of the sums collected and the use to which they have been put. I will also pass on to you letters from Ma Yan - which we will be asking for, to keep track of her progress in school and her life in general. And I’ll give you an ‘exclusive’ report about my trip to the village, pictures included by email attachment...
I hope that this action plan will be approved by you, and that you find it true to the spirit of our common effort. Please do not hesitate to make comments or suggestions. I have already received some in your previous letters, especially some information on organisations sponsoring children - though alas, none of these has a presence in this entirely forgotten region.
With best wishes
Pierre Haski


P.S. Some more people have joined us since this correspondence began.

 

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Letter 2 - 21 January 2002


Dear All
I have received largely favourable responses to my proposal about helping Ma Yan ; only one response expressed some reservations. My assistant has already written to Ma Yan this week, to tell her that the article about her came out, that it drew a very nice reaction from the readership, and that it is important that she keep on doing well at school, now that one is prepared to help her. So perhaps we should get going now without waiting any further, and start by helping Ma Yan first, as planned. This part of the project is not too difficult to realise.
I am trying to open a bank account in Paris, the details of which I shall pass on to you as soon as I have them. Can you please let me know what sum of money you would like to put your names down for, and whether you intend to make a regular or a one-off contribution, and in the former case, for how long you think you can commit yourselves. This is not about creating any legal obligation but simply so that we have a rough idea of the size of the contributions and the scale on which we can plan.
Before the end of January we should be able to send Ma Yan a first payment through Wang Zheng, the photographer living in Ningxia, as our middleman. We should also be able to continue sending her money - a sum yet to be determined - at regular intervals, so that she can not only pay her school fees but also have enough for food and clothes ; in short, enough to ensure conditions in which she can study better, and which will one day allow her to escape her present condition. We will ask Ma Yan to let us know by return of post that she has received the money, and to tell us a little about her life as it is now.
This letter as well as any that follow will be passed on to you in translation, with each transfer. This will be a first way of ascertaining that the money has arrived safely and is in her hands. I expect to be able to go to Ma Yan’s village as soon as possible, accompanied by my assistant (and at my own expense : the money donated will exclusively serve to help the children) in order to see if it is possible to put some kind of mechanism in place whereby bursaries, corresponding to the sums we have collected, can be granted to other children, a plan you appear to have accepted, with only a few reservations. I will keep you informed about each further step taken, hoping that the entire project will remain simple and direct, and that it will have a positive impact on the life of Ma Yan and her village in Ningxia.
As the person who started all that is happening now, by publishing my report in Libération, and as I am also based in China at the moment, I find myself organising a charity action, doing something that is neither my proper job, nor even something I’d ever thought of doing until as shortly as a week ago ! It goes without saying that if any other format can be found for this project, especially if it is possible to entrust a creditable existing organisation with the running of this initiative, I’ll gladly hand over.
But while we try to find such an organisation - and this may take some time - it seems preferable to me that we get something started on the basis of what has united us for these past days. All this rests on the trust you can put in me without knowing me, and I hope to show myself worthy of this trust, while of course also giving you as much security and transparency as possible. This includes my assistant He Yanping who is as much involved in this matter as I am. I sincerely hope that we can make part of this journey together, in the interest of Ma Yan.
Cordially
Pierre Haski


 

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Letter 1 - 17 January 2002


Dear All
As a consequence of the report published in Libération, there are now about twenty of you, based in France, Belgium and Britain, who have shown your willingness to help Ma Yan to continue her school education. Although the individual contributions made are modest, you can imagine that the sum total still represents a lot of money in a province as poor as Ningxia.
But as I told you in my previous message - and there is a paradox in this - sudden influx of money may actually destabilise a community like this, and end up doing more harm than good. This would especially be the case if just one child were to benefit from an extraordinary bounty, while all the others remained plunged in obscurity and misery. Therefore, let me put the following suggestions to you. They are obviously subject to changes and to your feedback, to which I am looking forward.
OUR AIM : Our idea is that we will create a fund, for the main purpose - of course - of helping Ma Yan, whose personal initiative started our movement of solidarity. We want to help her to take her education as far as possible. But it seems quite clear to us (‘us’ meaning my assistant He Yanping, who was also moved by this young girl’s story and by her personality, and who is determined to help her so she can continue her studies) that if we helped only Ma Yan, we would risk generating envy in her environment, which could turn against her.
Moreover, the donations that have been offered mean that even when she is assured of regular and long-term help, there will still be enough left to let some other young girls also go back to school, and break out of the vicious circle in which they are now entrapped in. The alternative to creating a fund of the kind I propose would be that every one of you sent Ma Yan a donation. This would have the advantage of simplicity, but carry the risk of throwing this village, already in crisis, completely out of balance.
OUR METHOD : There is no thought here of creating yet another NGO. But there is also no reliable organisation already in existence and operating in Ningxia, which could be entrusted with this project. Therefore, we have to work out a mechanism that runs as smoothly as possible and at the same time allows us to be transparent and efficient. Efficient, because we want every penny to reach its intended destination ; and transparent, because everyone amongst us has a right to ascertain that their donation is used in a proper way.
As for helping Ma Yan herself, this is not too complicated. We have already sent a first sum of money to her by postal order, to cover the current school term, and we know that she has received the money. We have asked her to write to us regularly, so we keep informed about the progress of her studies, and she is doing this. Her letters will be translated, and they shall be passed on to you in due course. We are perfectly able to continue with this commitment and to fix a certain monthly sum to be paid out to her as a bursary, which will allow her to pay her school fees as well as to improve her living conditions and thus allow her to study better.
The easiest way would doubtless be to open a bank account for Ma Yan in France, which would allow us to pool the donations, and then make transfers of larger sums of money from this account : this will minimise bank charges and help to avoid errors or mistakes upon arrival of the money.
It is more complicated to work out how to help other girls deprived of school education with further bursaries, if our funds permit it. How to select them ? How to get the bursaries paid out to them ? And how to follow up on further developments ? The easiest would be, it seems, to go through the Education Bureau which the article mentioned. This Bureau has all the files on local families who are in difficulties and unable to pay their children’s school fees. Then the required fees could be paid directly to the respective school, in such and such a child’s name, so as to avoid the payment of intermediaries. In this case, just as in Ma Yan’s, the children would be required to write regularly to let us know how they were doing. And it would also be necessary actually to go there at regular intervals, once a term perhaps, to make sure that all was well...
The photographer Wang Zheng, who was our guide when we first came to Ningxia last spring, and who is himself from the ‘triangle of thirst’ in the south of the province, though he now lives in the provincial capital Yinchuan, has agreed to help us with this project. He would be an indispensable contact in the province.
Together with him, my assistant and I myself would be at the heart of the project, establishing and maintaining contact between you and Ma Yan as well as other future beneficiaries of the project, and following up on the developments in the village to ensure that the entire mechanism was working properly.
It might be a good idea to enlist the help of a representative from a humanitarian organisation such as MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) or the Save the Children Fund, or, as one of you suggested, the Alliance Française, which also has an educational mission, on this project. Such a person could help us to avoid mistakes and ensure the transparency of our project which, modest as it is, does involve some financial transactions.
Sorry to have written such a long letter, but I think it is better to tackle all the questions that will inevitably arise, before we actually start. I am looking forward to having your views : Do you agree to set up a fund as suggested, or would you prefer to address yourselves directly to Ma Yan ? Do you agree on the proposal to help other young girls, once Ma Yan’s own needs are taken care of ? Do you agree on the mechanism I have suggested ?
Cordially
Pierre Haski


Beijing, 17 January 2002

 

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