Living in China in the 1950’s, a boy named Zhiying and his siblings were forced to raise themselves after Mao Zedong sentenced their parents to a forced labor camp. Zhiying recalls being 5 or 6 years old at the time and struggling to figure out how to survive with no one to manage the household. Hearing his story reminds me of so many of our scholars who are orphaned, growing up in communities where the average life expectancy is 35.

Like our scholars who have shined shoes, cleaned homes, or scavenged for recyclables in dumpsites as young as age five, Zhiying found work in the informal economy, carrying luggage for passengers at the train station to earn tips so that he could eat. One day, one of those travelers stopped and spoke with Zhiying, and then offered him something he had never experienced before: a candy bar. Zhiying was blown away. He had never tasted anything so good. After learning the stranger was from Hong Kong, he became determined to go there, concluding, “Hong Kong must be heaven.”

At the age of 12, Zhiying stowed away on a boat and made it safely to Hong Kong. He found work in a factory and rose up the ranks to manage a factory, using his bonus one year to buy some stocks that grew and ultimately enabled him to buy a factory himself. He went on to build one of the most successful clothing brands in Hong Kong. After the protests at Tiananmen Square, he launched his own media company to ensure freedom of the press when China took the government of Hong Kong over from Britain in 1999.  

Jimmy Lai, as he is known in the West, has been imprisoned since 2020 for his efforts. He owns homes in various nations and could have simply left Hong Kong to avoid his fate, but he stayed to stand up for freedom by surrendering his own. 

Jimmy became a successful businessman and an inspirational leader. What’s striking, to me, is that it was the kindness of a stranger that altered the course of his life.

I’m struck by the kindness of so many people, like you, who stopped last year to support children you may not meet until Heaven. Some gifts covered a meal, and one gift was actually made to start a small factory in one of our communities! You can’t always see the impact of your kindness. But know this: each of our scholars’ lives was changed dramatically for the better because of you, and they, in turn, are going to make our world better.

My sources for this story come from this essay by Jimmy Lai’s Godfather, this documentary, and, of course, Wikipedia.

Samaritan Stories header

New Year’s Resolution: Our 900 scholars have such poignant and powerful stories of their journey out of poverty, I often feel like I am not doing a good enough job sharing their challenges and victories with you. Starting next week, we are going to begin sending you one email in the middle of each month highlighting some of their stories. We’re calling it Samaritan Stories. You can hit “reply” with any questions or thoughts, or simply hit “unsubscribe” at the bottom of the email if you’d prefer not to receive it. You will continue to receive Weekend Reflections (unless of course you “unsubscribe” to that too).

Mike Tenbusch, IntSam President

Mike joined International Samaritan in 2018 after two decades of leading social change in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. He’s a University of Michigan Law grad and author of The Jonathan Effect: Helping Kids and Schools Win the Battle Against Poverty. He and his wife, Maritza, have three children who keep them young.

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