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A Picture That Was 30 Years Ago

Updated on September 17, 2013

All About Mary

October 16, 2004

In a barn, near where I live, there are a number of abandoned cats, cared for each day by a kind lady named Mary. Last week Mary asked if our family would feed the cats for a few months while she was away in China. I suppose her flight is somewhere between Alaska and Siberia as I write this introduction. As she came by to leave bags and bags of cat food yesterday she handed us a brown envelope, with a remarkable story.

I can only imagine the adventures that await her, and the remarkable difference she will make in the lives of the strangers who have become her family.

The Search for Ircken

September, 2005

It has almost been one year since Mary left upon the amazing journey which would forever change the lives of some of China's most impoverished children. This is a true story about how one person can make a difference. This is Mary's story.

In September of 2002 Mary left her home in Vancouver, Canada aboard a flight which would take her across the Pacific Ocean to the city of Beijing. From Beijing Mary continued with a 4-hour connecting flight to Urumqi, and then a third flight to Kashi in western China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. After three days of travel this was not Mary's final destination. Now she would board a bus and travel for another 10 hours across the Desert to Hotan. This is where she would begin her search for Ircken, the small boy who touched her heart some some 30 years before.

A Faded Photograph

A Faded Photograph

Mary's story begins in 1972 during a visit to Beijing Ditan Park with her six-year-old daughter, Weining He. This is where the mother and daughter met four-year-old Uygur boy Ircken. The small boy was not healthy and he was unable to talk because of a benign tumor in his throat. Ircken and his father were in Beijing so that the boy could attend the Beijing Union Hospital for an operation. The little boy had to have a tracheotomy, a hole cut into his throat to help him breath. Before Mary and Weining He left the park. Ircken's father took a small black-and-white photo of the children with Mary and gave it to her as a keepsake. Mary and her daughter frequently returned to the park hoping to meet little Ircken again. They never did.

Eight years passed and Mary and her family had moved to Canada. Mary still kept the photo and never stopped wondering what had happened to the young boy. Weining He remembered the boy as she studied hard in school and in 2000 graduated from the University of British Columbia as a medical doctor. Now perhaps she could do something to help Ircken. She made a plan with her mother to find Ircken.

They enlarged the photo and mailed it to an address in Hotan that Ircken's father had given Mary so many years ago. There was no reponse. Mary wrote to the local government to see if they could offer clues as to where the boy and father may be living. There had been a lot of change to this area of China in thirty years, it would be impossible to locate a person with just a single photograph sent in the mail from Canada. Mary refused to give up hope. She was determined to find out what had happened to the Uygur boy.

To the Far Side of the World

In September of 2002 Mary decided she would go to China and find Ircken herself. After the long and tiring journey she found herself in Hotan. It was a difficult situation as Mary could not understand the local language. She went from person to person through the town showing the photograph again and again. Finally she was directed to the local elementary school. Would she find Ircken here?

Mary arrives at the school. She sees six teachers chatting together. She approaches them, holding out the photograph. One young teacher steps forward slowly, to take a closer look at the photo. Is it Ircken?

Right. It's him. Mary asks, "Are you Ircken?" "Yes." "You know the boy in this photo?" "It's me!" They hug each other for joy. Mary is so happy to have found him alive and well. She says "I have been looking for you for 30 years, and finally I have found you." Then Mary tells him about his 'sister' (her daughter) who is now a medical doctor in Canada. Ircken's eyes fill with tears. "I have a mother, now I have another mother, come from Beijing, from Canada!"

Mary and Ircken talked for hours. Finally Mary was able to answers the questions which had troubled her for so many years. Within two years of their meeting in the park Ircken had undergone fourteen operations on his throat. He and his father had to live in Beijing, away from the rest of the family, throughout the whole period.

The family had to sell their house and cows, and he had to borrow 10,000 Chinese Yuan from the government to pay for the surgeries. Finally, after the 14th operation by a visiting specialist from Shanghai, Ircken woke up and said his first word, "Papa". His father fell down on his knees and cried. "The little Ircken will survive!" said the doctors and nurses. One day on that same ward 12 children had died from cancer. Ircken's father had tried to imagine what would happen if his son had died too. He did not know how he could return to their village far, far away with Ircken dead in his arms. After the final surgery the specialist advised Ircken's father to take him further south where the warmer weather could help his throat.

So for another year father and son waited in various southern provinces. When they finally returned to the specialist, it was good news. The throat had healed and it was safe to go home to their small village. However, 30 years ago 10,000 Yuan was a lot of money to repay. Ircken's father worked as the village teacher and the government stopped his salary for five years. He had to do other, dirty jobs, and his wife also had to go out to earn money. It was difficult for the family. But now all the children are educated. And now Ircken educates the children of his village as a Chinese language teacher in the poverty-stricken school of his village in Bageqi County.

The School Children

The School Children

It is lunchtime. The children come out of their classrooms to gaze at Mary shyly. Quickly, she take out her camera. Some girls are in colorful dresses and beautiful headscarves, but they have no shoes. Their little feet are bare, and it is already autumn. When Mary sees their bare feet she feels sad, but then she looks at their smiling faces and she feels in her heart how lovely they are.

One little boy comes to have his photo taken with Mary. He has one shoe, the other foot is bare. Mary gently touches his head-cap and thinks that it is at least warmer to have one shod foot, than to have two bare ones.

The day that Mary arrived at the school happened to be the day that tuition was collected from the children. The tuition was just 6 yuan (about one American dollar) for half a year. This does not seem like much but for a poor village such as Hotan many families could not afford this. Some children have no money and bring a few eggs, or a walnut or two, paying off the debt bit by bit. Although the teachers receive little pay themselves, they often help out paying off some of the fees themselves. Mary knows how important an education is for all children and she immediately donates as much money as she can afford and promises to send more when she returns to Canada. At first she is refused, but then Mary says that "the teachers have their own children and aging parents to care for..." Finally, the money is accepted. Mary says she will send enough money to make sure that these children will finish high school. This county is the poorest in the country, with an education for the children there is a better chance for them all to have a better life.

Mary knows that if she can help some of these children to finish school, attend university, and then return home where they will be able to make some positive changes for the village. In this part of China people pick cotton and sell it for money to buy food. Mary tries to imagine these children 30 years from now when they are leaders, workers, managers, or scientists. When they look back and see themselves with little bare feet, their feelings will be very complicated. And so that they can look back Mary takes photographs of the children in all seven classrooms.

Mary doesn't understand the local language but when she enters the classroom all the children stand up and give her a salute. Mary tries to mime for them that she wants them to sit down, and then she smiles and laughs. They understand and right away break into a laugh. Mary's camera quickly flashes. Their lovely faces are captured in a photograph. The next day Mary shows them the pictures. "Look it's you, it's me!" They are so happy. Most of them have never seen a picture of themselves. Mary wants them each to have a photo so they can remember themselves as children in this village. So she has 300 photos enlarged to 5x7 size: a photo for each of the 250 students there that day, plus extra copies for the other 30 students who have had to miss school and work in the fields.

Lunch Time - Dinner Time

One day at lunchtime Mary notices what some of the children are eating. They wet a hard, dry piece of pastry so it softens and then they eat it. When she is invited into their homes for an evening meal there is no meat, no milk, and no vegetables. Some families have tea. She shares their food and they share her sweetened breads. They are all happy together, but underneath Mary's heart is sad. She thinks of how often the children of rich families can eat foods like chocolate, and so the next day she brings 300 big bars. Let the poor peasants' children taste what it is like to taste chocolate! Each child, and all the teachers, receive a bar. Mary tells the children, "It is better that you don't eat this now. Save it and share a little with your brothers and sisters after school." The children nod, but when the bell rings they all run outside, quickly peel off the wrappers, and laughingly eat.

Another day the principal tells Mary that the school has no money for simple equipment like balls and basket ball hoops. So she asks the department of education if they can send the school the appropriate funds. She gets her answer. No. They have no money, and if they did have money it would be spent on necessities like repairing holes in the classroom walls! Mary decides that she will send money from Canada so that the children can enjoy playing games and with balls like children should.

When it is time for Mary to return to Canada the weather is getting colder. She worries about the children who have no warm clothes to wear. She sends the school enough money to buy clothing. The principal tells his students, "Mary has sent you money to buy wadded clothes, wadded pants, and shoes." The children start to cry and then the principal is also moved to tears. Right away the teachers measure each child for new clothes and when the clothes are finished the children again begin to cry. When Mary hears this she feels very sad. She thinks about how they feel to be cold, shaking with cold and suffering. Now they can understand in their hearts that people love them and never forget them.

One Person Makes A Difference

In April, 2003 Mary wrote Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing and told him about her experiences in Xinjiang. The following September she received the news that Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region would give 190 billion yuan to the region's two million poor students, and that all of the children of the herding and farming families would receive a free education. This will make such a difference to the children of Hotan and their families!

While sitting in on Irken's class, Mary noticed that his voice was becoming very hoarse. Sometimes he would need to shout just to be heard. Mary went to the county leader and asked if Ircken could change jobs to save his injured throat. The leader, Mr. Tourgoun accepted her suggestion and Ircken was given a job at the local education bureau. Sadly, in October 2003, Mr. Tourgoun and his family died in an automobile accident. The only surviving member of the family was the teenage son. Mary was sad when learning the news. She remembered the kindness of the county leader and arranged for his son to come to Canada to receive his education. When the boy has finished university, he will go back to Xinjiang province to make it more beautiful and make a better living for the poor village's people. He will finish his father's job.

It all began with a tattered black-and-white picture and a journey to find a little missing part of her heart. Mary has found her Ircken and in doing so has become the Canadian mother to hundreds of children a world away. This would be a very happy ending, except the story isn't over yet.

The Pupils of Tarwakule

During her first visit to Hotan Mary had discovered that the Yukerbageqi Primary School where she had found Ircken was not the poorest school in Xinjiang. In Tarwakule, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) away from Hotan County was much poorer.

Mary embarked on the three day long journey from Vancouver, Canada to Hotan, China. She had to travel through the desert where dust and sand was so thick in the air that it blotted out the sun. Mary dreaded what she may find in such a place. What she found was children, many orphans, and most so poor that they did not even have the most basic of clothing. Mary passed out candy and bread she had brought from Canada.

On the National Day Eve, the pupils and their parents received some silk clothes along with bread and candy that Mary brought from Canada. She also gave every one of the family ten yuan which would enable those farmers living on corn all year round to buy some meat for National Day. Mary spent four days in a poverty-stricken home of a teacher where she ate, lived and labored with their family.

As it turned cold, in Center Primary School of Tawakule Village, Yingbage Primary School and one school in Bageqi Town there were more than 100 orphans and poor pupils who still didn't have cotton clothes for the winter, so Mary went to the market herself to buy some cotton clothes for those children. Then she measured all of the kids in the school so that she could have a garment factory in Urumqi make clothes and shoes in all of their sizes.

The day that the clothes arrived the headmaster made a short speech of thanks, "Though Mary left our homeland many years ago, she retains a deep love for our country. This she showed us by coming to Hotan and to Tawakule to help our children. To repay her kindness, we should get the best education we can. She is living proof that the Han and the Uygur people are part of the same family."

Mary remarked, "I consider all the poor Uygur students and orphans as my own children. Though I live in Canada, my heart is in this desert. This is my second hometown. I will always be thinking of you."

During the second trip to Xinjiang, Mary visited many families, leaving money and clothing with those who were in need. As she was leaving an old farmer asked her to not forget them. Mary says she will never forget because we are all brothers and sisters.

Sometimes when you learn about people and events they seem far too big for any one person to make a difference. Mary is proof that when you never give up and follow your heart amazing things do happen. Whether it be poor village schools in China, hunger and disease in Africa, or loss due to natural disasters in America or the Indian Ocean we can all do something to help to make a difference.

Hotan, China

Mary found the boy and continued to help the poor children of Hotan, China.

A markerMary searches for the boy in the photographs. -
Hotan, China
get directions

Books About The Uygur Region of China

Learn more about the remote Uygur Region, where Mary went on her quest to find the boy.

DVDs at Amazon

A selection of DVD videos about Uygur and China.

The Boy with One Shoe
The Boy with One Shoe

Story and Photos Courtesy of Mary W.

Mary is a wonderful woman who wishes that only her first name is credited. When I remind Mary what a wonderful heart she has she always remarks that what she did was nothing special, it is something anybody would do. What a wonderful world we would live in if this was true!

Story written as Mary told her story to me. Mary wants to world to hear her story so that others may help children and their families most in need, no matter how far the journey to do so will take them. All photos are courtesy of Mary.

Photo - The boy with one show.

What do you think about Mary and her journey to China?

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    • GO Cybernaut profile image
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      Gayle B Olson 3 years ago from Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

      Mary passed away suddenly on December 14, shortly after caring for her barn cats. Some people make your life better just for being a part of it.