Life Inside the Caves of Northern China
Through Holt’s child sponsorship program, dedicated sponsors create pathways for orphaned and vulnerable children to escape poverty and chase their dreams — an especially rare opportunity for children living in caves in northern China.
Only the poorest families still live in caves.
Some families use the dusty, mountainside rooms as animal pens to protect their sheep or goats from the freezing winter cold. Others store grain or farm equipment in their cave, and live nearby in a more modern brick or concrete home.
Until she was 4 years old, Huan Yu Pei had never lived in a cave. She didn’t face the stigma cave families feel as the bottom of society. She never felt the draft from the makeshift door.
In the cave-dwelling community where she grew up in China’s Shaanxi province, Pei’s family was considered middle class.
Her father worked in a factory and her mother cared for the house. Pei’s grandfather spent his days harvesting their large plot of land, where they grow sweet apples. Their life was comfortable.
Then, in 2006, Pei’s father was in a motorcycle accident on his way to the printer manufacturing company where he worked as a machine operator. His leg was badly mangled and broken. In this rural, underdeveloped region of northwest China, there were few hospitals and none that Pei’s father could afford without health insurance. The injury never fully healed, and Pei’s father needed crutches to move. He lost his job, and the family fell into poverty and debt.
Soon after they moved into the cave where they still live today, Pei’s mother vanished.
The only income Pei’s family makes is from the apples they grow and sell. They also harvest a type of pepper that numbs your mouth. Their annual income is so little, they are classified as living in extreme poverty according to the World Bank, which gives the label to anyone who lives on less than $1.25 per day.
“You see the worst poverty when you visit the caves,” says Mr. Lee, the deputy director of programs for vulnerable children in 87 villages near Yuncheng, China. “People move into caves only because they lack other affordable housing options —and often, the caves are free.”
Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of China programs, says that illness, special needs and disabilities are among the leading causes of poverty in China. With limited health insurance options, healthcare costs are expensive for families who are already living in poverty. Families living in cities also have access to higher quality healthcare. And social welfare protections for China’s most vulnerable citizens, such as disability benefits, health insurance or food stamps, are also limited.
“In China, most people become poor because they get sick,” Jian says.
History of the Caves
Pei is now 15 years old. Her small village is in a mountainous region of Shaanxi province called Ruicheng, where ancient farmland has been tilled, planted and harvested for thousands of years, and now layers upon layers of terraced plots mark the hillsides and plateaus for hundreds of miles.
In January, the sun shimmers against the pale, blue sky, and reflects brightly off the sheets of foil that wrap between rows of leafless apple trees. In the spring, this foil will help ensure the sun reflects evenly across the crops, helping them grow. In the dead of winter, it looks like leftover Christmas décor, contrasting with the dead grass.
It’s 10 degrees in the sunshine, and the shade is unbearably cold.
The asphalt roads and highways that cut through Ruicheng are so new, they are a visible contrast to the hand-laid brick villages and traditional agricultural practices.
Today, in every ravine and bluff, square doors mark the entrance to a half-moon cave, each spread just a few meters from the next.
Once dug by hand, many caves have crumbled and collapsed into a heap of red clumps of clay and dust. Others are inaccessible because erosion has caused entire footpaths to drop hundreds of feet into the base of the ravine. But still, wisps of smoke escape like little clouds from the earth, sure evidence that a cave home is buried somewhere below.
Like the cave where Pei lives, some of the caves’ archways have been reinforced with bricks or given carved windows. To keep the inside cleaner, many families use newspaper to line the shallow, curved walls and ceilings of their home. While the dense insulation helps keep the caves warm in the winter and cool in the summer, the general lack of airflow means that soot from open-fire cooking stains the inside. Air quality can be dangerously poor.
Pei, bundled up in leggings and a long sweatshirt dress, boots and a puffy winter coat, is squatting in the back corner of her house, bent over a giant tub of water with apples floating on top. The space is tidy and sparsely decorated. She shares this cave with her dad. Her elderly grandfather sleeps in the cave next door.
“I have to wash them,” Pei says, splashing water onto a part of the walls where white paint has started to chip away in big chunks. She adds the clean apples to a tin bowl.
Pei dries her hands and points around her single-room house as though giving a tour. “I keep my clothes there,” Pei says, in the direction of a small wood wardrobe with mirrored doors. “My father sleeps here,” she says, motioning to the twin bed in the center of the room. “And I sleep there,” she says, pointing to a smaller day bed lining the wall closest to the door, covered with a flowery pink quilt and a small stack of thick blankets. Opposite her bed, a small series of chipped and scratched stands and shelves line the far wall. They hold assorted items, including a hairbrush, some bowls and cups, a small stack of ragged towels and their tiny T.V. set.
Life in Ruicheng
Village life is slow and quiet in the winter. From spring to fall, entire families work round-the-clock to care for their crops. But in the winter, there is little to do besides gathering and splitting firewood, tending to the public water pumps to ensure they don’t freeze entirely or inventorying stored harvest to continuously ration the remaining supplies long enough to last the frigid months. To escape the cold, people mostly stay inside.
Pei’s school is 20 minutes by foot. When she’s not at school, she likes to read. She doesn’t own too many books, so those she does have, she reads over and over until the pages are worn and ripped.
Using a small amount of charcoal, Pei cooks over a small stove in her house. Three times a day, she gathers buckets of water from a shared spigot nearby her home. Sometimes, she makes doughy, boiled dumplings, but usually her family eats apples from their small orchard and steamed buns or noodles using flour they grind themselves. She also sweeps and dusts every day, since the dirt roof and walls of her home are constantly dropping dirt on their beds, food and belongings. On the days she needs to bathe, it takes most of the day to heat enough water to fill the same bin that she uses to wash apples.
Pei’s father has a thin face and big, bright eyes. His hands are rough and weathered from years of living in such harsh winters. He is calm and gentle and dotes over Pei with obvious pride.
Their cave is decorated with the banners Pei has received for being a top-performing student in her school and in the region.
Pei’s father says he hopes Pei can stay in school, go to college and follow her passions. He worries that she spends too much time cooking and cleaning to help compensate for her mother’s absence. He worries how he will continue to guide his daughter as she grows into a woman.
Staying in School
Pei hasn’t seen her mother since she was 4 years old. Her mother’s family also lives on the outskirts of the village, but they refuse to see Pei. Her face drops when she talks about them.
“It’s sad,” Pei says, her gaze falling to her lap. “But there’s nothing I can do.”
Jian says that Pei’s test scores and academic performance are extremely high, especially for a child with Pei’s economic background.
“She works hard to prove the people who abandoned her wrong,” Jian says.
Pei’s education is not free. With fees, uniforms, books and other supplies, it’s nearly 1,000 rmb per quarter, or about $150 per term.
Class mobility here is virtually nonexistent. In general, children tend to inherit their family’s home and land, and for that reason, their occupation as well.
“If you’re born here, you’re stuck here,” Jian says. “Only a few young people make it out.”
But simply having the freedom to stay in school or migrate to a city could be life changing for students like Pei. They could find higher paying jobs and have the autonomy and self-determination to decide their futures.
That’s why Holt’s child sponsorship program in this region — as well as throughout China — is so critical. In many ways, China’s citizens experience one of two realities — one that is modern, well-developed and wealthy, and another that still faces extreme poverty, malnutrition, limited access to running water or electricity, as well as basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals. Students in Beijing or other urban areas receive some of the best education in the world, while students in rural regions, like Ruicheng, are unlikely to escape the chains of poverty without considerable support and assistance. This is especially true for students like Pei, whose family has been impacted greatly by her father’s disability.
Most of the families identified to be part of Holt’s family strengthening program in China are similar to Pei’s. One or both parents may be absent or deceased, and many children live with grandparents or extended family. In Pei’s village, most families used to be impacted by HIV, but today, thanks to improved awareness and access to medication through the government, only 10 children live in HIV-impacted families. However, most are still affected by illnesses, disabilities or other special needs. Not coincidentally, they are also the poorest in their villages.
As everywhere, our goal is to help at-risk families stay together and help children thrive in a loving, stable home environment.
“Some of these kids don’t have shoes when we meet them,” Mr. Lee says. “They are sharing one blanket. They need a lot of support, and they are so excited to learn that they will receive assistance.”
With the support of child sponsors, Pei and more than 588 additional children in Shaanxi province receive ongoing assistance with their school costs, including new uniforms and supplies every year. Sponsored children also receive free health insurance to ensure they can see a doctor for both preventative and emergency care. Their advocate — a teacher, social worker or local ministry official — helps write their progress reports and letters and regularly visits them at home to ensure their basic needs are being met. When necessary, advocates help sponsored families receive basic necessities that they can’t afford — things like coats, blankets, heating fuel, emergency food or coal. Additionally, sponsored children receive a few dollars in pocket money each month, which helps them purchase items like toothpaste and soaps, participate in school activities or field trips, or pick out special treats — like meat to supplement their meals.
“It’s a huge support,” Mr. Lee says. “Most of the kids buy stationary or books with their pocket money. When children receive pocket money, they also provide a self-report and that gives them the freedom to share different things with their advocate and sponsor. It might be that they did well on a test or that they feel sad about something. It gives their teacher a chance to talk with them about their life.”
Mr. Lee says that children get excited when they receive letters and photos from their sponsor, and they enjoy sharing about themselves.
“It’s quite a special relationship,” Jian says. “You can see how excited they are that a foreigner has shown interest in their lives. They think of their sponsor like a celebrity.”
Believing in Their Dreams
Sponsorship helps children like Pei stay in school and feel like their dreams are possible. Holt’s programs also support children who do so well on their national exams, they receive admission to colleges. So far, six students in Ruicheng have received college support, which will ultimately equip them with the most valuable asset they could possibly have to achieve real change in their lives and the lives of their families: a college degree.
Because Holt partners with local and regional government officials, who pay the salaries of advocates, program coordinators and teachers, overhead costs are low for the program and it maximizes the sponsor’s impact.
“We are so moved by sponsor support,” Mr. Lee says. “Here, we can’t always send our own money to help, so it is very meaningful that even from far away, even though you can’t see these kids, you support them. It makes them feel like the world hasn’t abandoned them. It gives them confidence. It keeps them warm in the cold winter. It gives them hope.”
Pei doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. But she does know that she loves her father, and wants to continue to make him proud.
“I’m happy that we will be together,” Pei says.
Billie Loewen | Creative Lead