Taipei, July 17 (CNA) Yang Chia-shan, who worked in Taiwan as a merchant mariner and captain before moving to the United States in the 1970s, has found a new devotion in his retirement years: building Christian schools in predominantly Muslim Kyrgyzstan.
Yang has raised donations and used his own savings to support the establishment of nine Christian schools in the Central Asian country over the past 12 years, and he and his wife, Tsui Yuan-chen, were in Taichung Monday to recognize the contributions of others to the cause.
The couple visited the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families in Taichung to thank Taiwanese contributors for sponsoring more than 430 children in the landlocked country since December last year.
The 85-year-old Yang said the unstable politics, ethnic tensions, and uneven economic development in the country have led to a high unemployment rate and social issues such as child abuse.
The average monthly income per household is lower than US$150, and nearly 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and is in need of international assistance.
Yang, a devoted Christian who grew up in Guangdong Province in China before moving to Taiwan after World War II, said he knew from his own life that only education could truly improve the lives of the Kyrgyz.
After Yang graduated from high school, his family could not financially support his education, so he enrolled in a newly founded public maritime college in Guangdong. With the experience he gained at the college, he was able to get a job as a crewman on a ship before becoming a captain 14 years later.
He worked in Taiwan for 20 years before being assigned to the U.S. to direct his company's branch there. He later founded his own marine transportation company and retired at the age of 60.
On a trip to Kyrgyzstan in 2000, Yang observed the country's widespread poverty first-hand and the difficulties faced by children growing up there, and he decided to act.
He founded Central Asia Sharing Aid in the U.S. a year later. But getting a license for Christian schools and foundations in Kyrgyzstan was not easy in a country where 75 percent of the people are Muslim and where official policy limits the growth of Christian beliefs.
Nongovernmental organizations and Christian groups had tried to use names for their missions that hid their real intent in an attempt to get government approval, but Yang tried a more direct approach.
In an interview posted on Youtube, Yang said he openly told the Kyrgyz minister of religion that his mission was to preach Christianity to the children there.
His honesty must have impressed the official so much, Yang said, that his first school in Tokmok became the first Christian school to receive a license from the government. The school opened with 120 underprivileged students in the first to fourth grades.
He set up Mercy Charitable Christian Foundation in 2002 to carry out philanthropic missions in Kyrgyzstan in cooperation with his U.S. charity foundation. It was also the first Christian organization approved by the Kyrgyz government.
Yang has since established nine schools and he was awarded honorary citizenship by the Kyrgyz government in 2004 for his contributions there -- the first foreigner to receive the honor in the Central Asian nation.
(By Hao Hsueh-chin and Jamie Wang)