BY WENDY HUNG
On my 28th birthday, I invited a few friends in Taipei to visit a local HIV/AIDS shelter in a country where such conversations were still kept in shameful discretion. This was 2008, one of my friends asked apprehensively, “Is that okay?” What she meant was, “Will we contract the virus and die the next day?” This wasn’t the ‘80s, we were way past the millennium. But in Taiwan, this was still the conversation.
I came to know Harmony Home from a neighbor in Taipei, who is involved with quite a few charities in the country. If I were to envision an angel in human form, it couldn’t be too far off from Nicole Yang. In 1986, she was a newly divorced single mother living in an art studio in Taipei. She had a part-time employee, who was gay and was later in military service (a national requirement for all young men in Taiwan). While in service, he had recurrent diarrhea which led to the military discovering that he, in fact, had AIDS. Taiwanese media sensationalized the story, which led to his inability to find jobs or continue school.
“If I didn’t help him at the time, he wouldn’t have had anywhere else to go.” Nicole remembers her very first case of providing shelter for an AIDS patient. “It also wouldn’t speak very highly of my integrity as a human being.”
By helping, Nicole accepted him, gave him a home, and also gave herself an education about the virus. She realized that AIDS wasn’t scary at all. She couldn’t be transmitted except from: sexual contact, blood transfusion or exchanges of open wounds. The more she learned about it, the more eager she wanted patients to receive more rights. She wanted to help them fight.
Through her part-time employee, Nicole was introduced to other AIDS patients, who were also abandoned by their families and couldn’t afford to live on their own.This was the beginning of Harmony Home. For the next seventeen years, she would provide work for AIDS patients, care for them either in the hospital or in her private home. She supported the organization with her own wholesale business or miscellaneous random jobs. In 1996, she even had her own flower shop to make ends meet. A shop where patients lived in rooms behind closed doors.
Courageous and relentless, Nicole firmly believes this is her destiny. She says candidly, “I don’t belong to any religious sects, but I pray during difficult times. I believe there’s a God. If he didn’t tell me this is what I’m meant to do, I wouldn’t still be fighting this battle today. I just have a feeling that this is my mission in life.”
“I remember when I had my first patient, I constantly wanted to give up. I was under so much pressure, having to financially support my own family and the patients. But my compassion and empathy took over during desperate times.” She recalled. Today, her daughters, who began as volunteers, also work in the charity shop in Taipei.
What caught my attention during my visit to Harmony Home back in 2008 were the children. Innocent and precious kids. Some were HIV-positive from their mothers, some didn’t have the virus but were orphaned by mothers who died from AIDS. “In the start, there weren’t any children.” Nicole explained, “Only adult patients. Then, heroin addicts passed on their viruses to their children during pregnancy, I decided to open another shelter solely for the kids.”
The number of children in Harmony Home were shooting upward, so Nicole had to open additional facilities to house all the children who had nowhere else to go. She notes, “The younger ones don’t understand, they think it’s something to show off about. They go to school and shout, ‘I have AIDS!’ Like, ‘Look at my new backpack!’ Then suddenly they’re being excluded from classes.” So Nicole and her staff made a decision that children prior to junior high, even if they take cocktail medicines everyday, are not told that they have AIDS until they finish 6th grade.
Due to hormones and possibilities of sexual intercourse, Harmony Home teenagers who move onto 7th grade (and above,) know that they have the virus but Nicole emphasizes they know it’s not their fault, and life is simply unfair.
With 200 public speaking engagements per year, Nicole sees herself as an educator as well. “We need to educate the public in Taiwan. Almost everyday, I visit schools to spread the knowledge. The older generation already has a tainted impression of the disease, and you can’t change them. So we start from our youth, with education on how to accept AIDS patients, how to care for them, how to show compassion.
Even so, HIV and AIDS are still considered as fearful taboos in Taiwan. Harmony Home’s children still experience being socially excluded in schools. Neighbors surrounding Harmony Home residences have repetitively protested against Nicole, forcing her to consider moving out of various locations.
Nonetheless, Nicole always marches forward. In 2002, she visited China and discovered massive volumes of AIDS patients who transmitted the virus from selling blood. At the time, China provided zero cocktails, zero care for such victims, local grandmothers kneeled down on their knees, begged Nicole to help because their sons and daughters had died from AIDS, leaving them with grandchildren who also transmitted the virus from mothers’ wombs.
In the following year, Nicole started a Harmony Home branch in China, orphanages for children who had AIDS or whose parents died from AIDS. Each branch began with 60 children. A tremendous number for simple countryside villages.
“When you and I are sick, you can share it with other people.” Nicole sits next to me. With a smile on her face, it’s difficult to imagine one woman fighting for so many lives. “But with AIDS, victims have to keep it a secret, so some patients commit suicide. Every year, it happens in our shelter. So I can’t give up on them. No one else in the society will help them.”
“Most people still don’t understand AIDS, they’re scared. So if I give up, they have nobody.” Spoken by a true angel.
Find out ways to donate here. The easiest way to help is to sponsor a child in China for $20/month. Send an email to: [email protected] My family and I also like to send diapers, milk powders and clothes for the children. If you’re not physically in Taiwan or China, email HH for details. They would love to hear from you!