The Secret of Their Lives

Most of the children here don’t know they are HIV+. It’s too risky.

Their teachers don’t know. Their neighbors definitely don’t know because if they did, all 28 children would have to move again.

They’ve moved eight times in ten years. If their teachers knew, they would be kicked out of the pricey private school they attend because they don’t have to inform the principal of their disease — a disease that killed many of their parents, robbed them of their life in their villages and that most likely passed to them at birth.

“The kids are happy now,” Mr. Huang says, his worn, tired face and spiky, graying hair hinting at his age. When children pass through the room, they stop and his eyes soften, greeting them lovingly. “They are too young,” Mr. Huang says. “They don’t understand their fate. As they get older, they will learn. The discrimination will start. They will always have to keep their secret.”

It’s fear and misunderstanding that land children here, an HIV group home run by Mr. Huang and supported almost entirely by Holt donors. In China, few people understand that it’s extremely difficult to contract HIV, and that it’s entirely manageable with medication — so the disease carries a heavy stigma.

For these children, leaving China is truly their best hope of leading a full, normal and open life. Mr. Huang hopes that every child in his care will one day join a loving family in the United States.

It’s a warm, fun day right before New Year’s celebrations begin, and the kids are giggling and laughing like the most normal, healthy kids in the world. Holding a barbecue this evening in one of the apartment’s garages, the kids have opened the door and blasted Chinese pop music on a cell phone. They sit on little step stools around three charcoal grills, eyeing the hot dogs and kabobs waiting to be grilled.

The kids seem happy. Four of them — two pre-teen girls, a teenage boy and a toddler-aged boy — are preparing to join their families in the United States in the coming months and that is also cause for great excitement.

In the garage that’s been converted into a big study room, two young girls in pink are giggling and whispering to each other as they build an intricate toothpick house to send to a former housemate who lives in the U.S. now. Another teenaged girl is working through her math homework, but pauses to laugh at the younger girls. Upstairs, in their bedroom, three boys are laying on one bunk bed, their feet hanging over the edge, flipping through a magazine together and laughing at the pictures. On the stairs, a 5-year-old girl is sitting on one step and her 7-year-old housemate is helping her tie her shoes.

An 11-year-old girl rides the bike given to her by a donor.

 

Outside, another 11-year-old girl is riding a bike as fast as she can through the alley between the two apartments, while her 8-year-old friend with long, straight black hair and a big dimpled smile chases after her, smiling ear to ear.

The kids are not as shy as many children who live in orphanages. They are bouncy and full of laughter and silliness. It’s easy to picture them with families.

Until 2015, few children with HIV joined families through international adoption. But, since 2015, more than seven families have adopted children with HIV through Holt.

In 2015, a special group of doctors, social workers and trained advocates traveled to China to meet a group of about 12 children with HIV, spend time getting to know them and, once home in the U.S., share with potential families what makes each child special and wonderful. Through their efforts, every child in that program has since been matched with a family.

Today, children waiting for families live in one of two six-story apartments located across a courtyard from each other. One living room features a wall covered in photos of children with their American families. The other wall features kids who are still waiting.

Of the 28 children living here, there are eight children waiting now — children who are young enough to be matched with an American family and very nearly cleared for adoption. They range in age from 4-10. At another, similar group home in a different province, HIV+ kids as old as 13 are waiting for families.

“The sooner and younger we can find these kids a home, the better,” Mr. Huang says. “There is no life for them in China. It will be a life of pain. They will never have a family here.”

Here, children with HIV receive adoring care. Caregivers are hard to find. They come to the group home by word of mouth. Some have HIV themselves, but nobody talks about who does and doesn’t have the disease. However, the secret they keep together seems to bring them all closer.

Every child here has already experienced loss and pain. They’ve already lost their family — sometimes because they died, sometimes because of stigma.

For one 7-year-old girl, that loss is still fairly new.

She’s been here less than a year. While some of the girls she shares a bedroom with know why they live here, she doesn’t. Most of the kids she lives with don’t.

Mr. Huang examines a child’s cut on her leg. Her face is blurred to protect her identity.

 

When they turn 12 years old, if they haven’t been matched with a family, Mr. Huang talks to them about their disease. Mr. Huang wishes that his neighbors and the children’s teachers could know what he knows — that when taken properly and regularly, antiretroviral drugs make it nearly impossible to spread the disease. He wishes they’d know that the disease can’t be spread by physical touch, saliva or through the air.

In the United States, most families who adopt children with HIV follow universal precautions for handling blood and fluids and ensure their children take their medication every day. When properly followed, these guidelines significantly reduce the risk of spreading the disease. In fact, in many ways, HIV is no longer the dire diagnosis that it once was. When managed well, HIV has little to no impact on a child’s ability to lead a normal, meaningful life — from marriage, to having children of their own someday.

But in China, these kids will face discrimination in every aspect of their lives — from the schools they are able to attend to the jobs they can hold. People will literally avoid sharing their air out of fear.

At least for now, one young male caregiver tells us, there is no future in China for these kids.

“China is no place to have HIV,” he says. “Maybe one day that will change, but until it does, life here will be hard.”

Billie Loewen • Creative Lead

If you are interested in learning more about adopting or advocating for a child who is HIV+, we would love to hear from you! Email Jessica Zeeb at jessicaz@holtinternational.org

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