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Finding Hope on the Side of the Road

China, February 6, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

One day as 40-year-old Guo Peiling was rummaging around the neighborhood for his recycling business, he found a school for his youngest daughter.

"I saw this big white building behind a wall with a gate. I must have passed by it a hundred times before, but something told me to find out more about it that day," he remembered. "So I asked the guard, 'what is this place?' He told me that it was the Dandelion School, a place for the children of migrant workers."

And that was the best news that the father of migrant family from Hunan Province had heard in a long time.

Guo, his wife, two daughters and young son have lived in Daxing District, a gritty neighborhood on Beijing's southern outskirts, for more than ten years. This area, on the periphery of China's capital city, is clogged with factories — many shuttered — and home to more than 650,000 people. By some estimates, migrant families account for more than 75 percent of the district's population.

Most of Daxing's residents have similar stories to Guo: they moved to Beijing in search of job opportunities, because they could no longer make ends meet from subsistence agriculture in their own rural villages. But when they got to the big city, they found thousands of people with the same idea, all competing for jobs.

So Guo, who had been a farmer all of his life, decided to live off the land as best he knew how in his new surroundings. He bought a small motorbike and an attachable cart with the money he'd made from temporary warehouse work, and began collecting recyclable materials that homes, stores and factories left on the side of the road or in dumpsters. He sells what he finds to local recyclers or craftsmen who re-process the materials.

It's an uncertain business: how much he makes in a given day depends on what he finds, which could be next to nothing. Paper, cardboard and plastic don't pay much. Occasionally, Guo will hit the jackpot and discover a treasure trove of electrical wires or iron bars. For these higher-end recyclables, he might profit 70 RMB (US $10) for a day's work. But those are rare finds. Some days, he comes home empty-handed despite searching all day.

And for a family already struggling to put food on the table, that means that some heartfelt wishes go unaddressed: like sending children to school. Guo's oldest daughter was unable to continue school after they moved to Beijing, and is now working full-time in a pickle factory across the city. She works long hours and sometimes sleeps at the factory; they rarely see her these days.

Guo wanted a different outcome for his younger daughter, 16-year-old Guo Yan; he was saddened by the family's inability to send his older daughter to school, and constantly mindful of his own illiteracy. His serendipitous notice of the Dandelion School — supported by Mercy Corps — gave both of them the opportunity for a happier ending.

"After I talked to the guard, told them about Guo Yan and explained where we lived," Guo said, "we had a teacher from the Dandelion School sitting in our house, talking to us, the very next day."

The teacher assessed the family’s finances and living conditions, took time to discuss the school with everyone and then immediately offered a full scholarship to Guo Yan — which includes a place to stay in the school’s dormitories and all meals.

"Neither my wife nor I were even able to attend primary school," Guo explained, "so we're excited and thankful for this opportunity. We want Guo Yan to learn as much as possible, and will continue to support her however we can.

"In Chinese, 'Guo Yan signifies a kind of goose, a migratory bird. We want her to fly, to go far and make something good of her life."

Guo Yan is well on the way to fulfilling her parents' fondest wishes. Now several months into her studies, she's reading Russian literature in her spare time. She wants to go to university after graduating, and study psychology.

"I feel like I'm a very perceptive person, and want to learn more about understanding people," she said.

At Dandelion School her favorite subject is English, a course taught by a fellow migrant from Hunan Province. Guo Yan's favorite English word is "beautiful" — a perfect way to describe the circumstances that finally brought her here.