CANBERRA/BEIJING, Dec. 17 (Xinhua) -- Chinese primary school student Guo Yuxin had never been to Australia, but she knew a lot about the country: its population, major cities and unique animals such as koala and cockatoo.
Guo, 12, is from the Labagoumen central primary school in Huairou District in Beijing. The school, about 144 km from the Tiananmen Square, is dubbed as the northmost primary school in the Chinese capital.
Her knowledge about Australia came from a book given to her by the Australia China Friendship Society, Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Branch, which has been providing financial support to the girl for two years.
She remembered these foreign visitors well. "They were kind and amiable," recalled the girl, who had been too shy to say "thank you" at that time. "I must learn English well, so that next time when they come, I will be able to chat with them in English."
CHANEGE STARTED FROM LANTERN SALES
Located in the mountains, Labagoumen Manchurian village, where the school is situated, was one of the most impoverished areas in Beijing two decades ago. According to Guo Luping, a teacher from the primary school, annual income of an ordinary household used to be only about 10,000 yuan (about 1,531 U.S. dollars).
"Some students even needed financial support from the school and teachers to buy stationary," said Liu Jiulei, principal of the school.
"The buildings were old. When winter came, we burned coal and the entire campus was teeming with black smoke," he said. "There were no toilets inside the dormitory building. Our students had to get out of the building in the freezing winter nights, run across the playground and use the public toilet."
Things began to change about 19 years ago, when a group of Australian visitors came to the school.
Sitting in her home in Australian capital Canberra about 9,000 km away, Carol Keil, president of the Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch thumbed through her diary to talk about how they managed to start the project in Labagoumen.
When they came up with the idea of sponsoring Chinese students, they visited several schools with a few failed attempts. Then they contacted the Beijing People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, which recommended the Labagoumen central primary school.
"In the first year we supported 21 students," said Keil. "Our idea is to find a child early on when they're about six, and then take them through to high school. The total number of students that we helped over the years was approximately 250, and we raised 36,000 (Australian) dollars (about 27,248 U.S. dollars) for those students."
They also donated English books and brought souvenirs for the Chinese children.
It is not easy for such a small society as the Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch.
"We do it mostly by selling paper lanterns at the Lantern Festival," Keil said. They did lantern making workshop, which was mostly where the funds came from. Occasionally they have donations from members.
According to Liu, the principal, the society is the only international sponsor for the school without interruption throughout the years, and also the one that supported the school for the longest period of time.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT TO CHILDREN, AND MORE THAN THAT
One of the recipients of the financial support was 16-year-old Lang Jinyuan. Her father died in 2012 and the entire family relied on the meager income of her mother toiling on the farmland.
On that year she received 400 yuan (61 U.S. dollars) from the Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch, which was about the cost of books and stationary of a primary school student then for half a year.
The financial support continued for six years.
"It helped me a lot in the most difficult time," she said. "Apart from buying books and stationary, I managed to save a bit to help with everyday cost of my family."
Now the teenager is in the Huairou No. 1 Middle School, which is the best middle school in the district.
"I couldn't tell how grateful I am to the kind-hearted foreign friends," she said. "If possible I would like to go to Australia one day to meet them. I also want to help other children after I grow up."
The funding for each student a year has risen to 1,000 yuan (153 U.S. dollars) in 2019.
Meanwhile, the Labagoumen central primary school, after media publicity of the event, gradually grabbed attention from other organizations as well.
The Chinese central government and various levels of local governments across China have been investing heavily in poverty alleviation over the years. More funding has brought forth tremendous changes to the school: its buildings were renovated, new gym was built and heating system was upgraded. "Now each dormitory was installed with a separate toilet," said Guo, the 12-year-old student.
Keil of the Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch who last visited China in 2019 witnessed the changes.
"When my predecessor first went there, the playground was dirt... and then when I went it had been turfed," she said. "The buildings looked very well-kept, and the canteen was really nice."
She was impressed by the experience of her latest visit to the school. "The kids seemed quite happy," she said, noting that now the school emphasized the importance of arts and culture as well as the main subjects. "The students did beautiful paper cuts," she added.
BETTER UNDERSTANDING AND CONTINUED FRIENDSHIP
Looking back, Keil said their efforts were rewarding.
"It's always good for children to be able to stay at school," she said. "If they can stay at school, that means they have opportunities to get a good job and possibly go to university."
To her, changes of the school and its students epitomized China's development in general. "The changes of the country have been enormous," she said.
Keil first visited China in 1982, when there were few private cars on the streets. "Old trucks were still being used (for transportation), and in the countryside there were so many walking tractors. Clothing was very dull," she said.
"Every time I go (to China after the first visit), I just think 'my goodness'," she continued. "There is less and less countryside. It's being developed all the time." She remembered seeing rice paddies while taking a train from Shanghai to Suzhou in east China two decades ago, many of which had been replaced by tall buildings now.
From the work of Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch, Chinese people could also understand Australia better, according to Yang Zhi, minister-counselor for culture at the Chinese Embassy in Australia.
"When relations between China and Australia are strained, there are also friendly people in Australia like Carol Keil and other members in the society, who would like to see better relationship between the two countries," he said.
"Exchanges with the Australian visitors broadened the horizon of our children in the mountains," said Liu, the Labagoumen central primary school principal. "They were not only able to continue their studies with the funding, but also felt the goodness coming from across the ocean. It is my wish that our friendship could be carried on by the children." Enditem