Why Increasingly More Chinese Students are Volunteering Abroad

Photo Credit: Matt Dunham / AP Photo / 達志影像
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A generation of college-goers are training their sights on poverty relief in far-flung foreign countries.

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At the beginning of July, my friend Gong Shengping and I volunteered for two months in Fez, Morocco, for an educational project called “Youth Got Talent.” Run under the auspices of AIESEC, the world’s largest nonprofit youth-run organization, our mission was to teach French and Chinese to volunteers at a local NGO — the Association Jeunes de Lumière d’Avenir — as well as to conduct a survey on tobacco use among young people.

While we were reading about Morocco online in preparation for our trip, we came across some disconcerting advice for prospective Chinese tourists. Visitors to Morocco, it read, often encounter small children asking for money. In these circumstances, they should immediately turn around and walk away. We couldn’t help but feel somewhat vexed by these comments. People certainly aren’t obliged to help others, but they don’t need to advocate cold indifference, either.

The director of the association, Radi Yassine Mimme, informed us about the high percentage of children who drop out of school and took us to visit a slum in Fez’s old city. The children there either squatted in dilapidated buildings with no bed or roof, or were crammed into tiny round dwellings along with more than a dozen other people, where whole families shared a single room.

The parents of these families were often uneducated and couldn’t find stable employment — all they had to support themselves was the occasional odd job. Some of them were laid low with serious illnesses. Due to a lack of knowledge about contraception, families would often have several children whom they couldn’t afford to send to school. Although public schools in Morocco are free, some parents don’t have enough money to buy books and stationery. Some children were victims of child labor, and others roamed the streets selling tissues.

After we recovered from our initial shock, we resolved to do something to help pull these kids out of poverty. We launched a project called “1001 Stories of the Sahara,” through which we cooperated with local NGO members to record the stories of children living in Morocco’s slums. These stories were then posted on the project’s public account on social media app WeChat.

By exposing people to the difficult social realities facing the Moroccan poor, we hoped that more people would consider the causes of poverty when they came across small children asking for money and extend a little sympathy rather than following online advice and walking away from them.

With this mission in mind, we formed the “Cactus” team with two like-minded fellow university students, Lou Haocheng and Fan Yueying. Team members were charged with promoting our charity activities so that more Chinese people would pay attention to both Morocco and other African nations where poverty is a daily concern. We hoped this team would be as tenacious and resilient as desert cacti.

In addition to recording the stories of these impoverished children, we also decided to prepare a surprise for them at Eid al-Adha, a Muslim festival celebrated toward the end of August and start of September. Using WeChat’s Tencent Charity platform, we raised 8,000 yuan (US$1,200) to help support education for children who otherwise would have dropped out of school. This amount of money may not seem like very much, but it was enough to ensure half a term’s study for 40 children. On Sept. 9, Lou gave this gift to the children on behalf of Cactus.

Although the Chinese government provides aid to foreign nations, relatively few Chinese people pay attention to overseas poverty and refugees. Some people feel that we should first attend to problems in China before we begin to think about problems abroad. After all, China is still a developing nation where, by some estimates, over 50 million live in poverty. However, we feel that where global suffering is concerned, we shouldn’t make such simple distinctions between ourselves and other people.

Furthermore, as greater numbers of Chinese people have gone abroad in the last few years, a wave of stories about Chinese tourists getting mugged have flooded the media. As a result, many Chinese tourists become suspicious if a small child reaches out and asked them for money while they are traveling overseas. Additionally, the news stories that have emerged since the European migrant crisis have left some Chinese people with a poor impression of refugees. Ignorance about the circumstances of refugees, as well as people living in poverty, has caused some Chinese people to feel afraid.

However, there are signs that this perspective is changing, especially among young Chinese. Our teammate Fan once worked on a project called “Common Future” in which participants cooperated with local organizations in Germany, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to produce paintings of Syrian child refugees. Since 2016, these images have been shown in many Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. Through these vivid insights into the lives of child refugees, the project hopes to inform Chinese people of real-life issues elsewhere in the world and encourage them to extend a helping hand.

If, in the past, Chinese people had a passion for learning about developed Western nations, then they are now beginning to develop a more balanced understanding of other parts of the world. We not only need to learn from other countries’ success stories; we also need to understand the difficulties that less fortunate people face. Only with this understanding can we work together to create a better world.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

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