By Cora Niver
“Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again, and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.” ~ Anais Nin
A long-time Brevard resident, Yang Li firmly believes this philosophy by the legendary French-Cuban author who began writing journals at the age of 11 and didn’t stop until just before her death in 1977.
The quote actually describes the 69-year-old Yang herself, as she doggedly puts into action her dreams for all children—that they be given the chance to read and write well enough to thrive in their environment, despite the struggles and roadblocks that might otherwise keep them ignorant.
In doing so, Yang is keeping a promise she made to herself—to make the best use of her profound love of teaching while demonstrating compassion for the underprivileged. Now retired from education, she seizes every opportunity to substitute in local schools and also teaches Chinese cuisine in Brevard and Hendersonville. She also journeys to some other part of the country or across the ocean, teaching children forgotten by the rest of the world. Presently in Mauritius, for a fourmonth teaching stint which began in early November, Yang is laying the groundwork for a “sustainable” literacy program that she hopes will ultimately help hundreds of the impoverished Chagossian children.
A little history lesson is in order: The Chagos Archipelago is a group of islands, located off the southeast coast of Africa and east of Madagascar, where natives speak English, French, Creole and Asian languages. Mauritius is one of those islands, Diego Garcia is another. Yang, a native of Mauritius, was born to immigrant Chinese parents and was raised there along with her nine siblings. Between 1965 and 1973 the British forcibly removed over 2000 natives of Diego Garcia from their homeland, often through brutal techniques, to make way for a large U.S. military base. They were deposited on the island of Mauritius with no shelter, food, hospitalization, or schools.
Although numerous efforts have been made over the decades to force Britain and the U.S. to either properly compensate or allow these displaced Chagossians to return to their homeland, the children and grandchildren of these refugees suffer the results of maltreatment. Many of the Chagossians are unable to read or write in French or English. Yang also points out that the teaching approaches and curricula used in the public schools are not geared to address the cultural differences of the Chagossian students.
“The children speak Creole and cannot even write their names,” she said. The Chagossians “have a great desire to learn the languages but do not have opportunities to learn them.”
Upon her recent return to Mauritius, Yang was overwhelmed to find that many of the Chagossian families were living in squalid environment, without even the basics.
“Many of the children cannot even afford shoes. There is a 74-year-old grandmother, Suzanne, who is raising her seven grandchildren by herself. The children are ages 7 to about 14, very undernourished, so thin,” Yang explained. The family lives in a shack with earth fl oor and no appliances, not even a refrigerator.
The grandmother, who appears eager to have her grandchildren included in the literacy program, subsists on a very small pension from her deceased husband, the equivalent of $110 USD per month; she does not qualify for other benefits and has no marketable skills.
Because Yang can’t bear to see them go hungry, she is supplying some groceries, amounting to $40 to $50 USD per week and has conceived of a plan to help them earn an income. Of course it’s through education. She is teaching the family to create greeting cards, using their newly learned ability to write and draw. Yang intends to market these cards at spring Garden Art Show fundraiser at her home and to send the proceeds to Suzanne.
Teaching the children to create their own art is a readily-used teaching tool for Yang. Next month, she plans says, “It’s really a micro-business course to help them understand the basic concepts of economy.”
Thus, Yang’s dream for the literacy program—meeting with the children on Saturdays, and with several parents on other days, to supplement their education—is coming to fruition.
“I tell them that the more languages they learn, the more intelligent they will become to enable them to overcome barriers,” Yang explains. To make her lessons relevant, she asks the students to tell their stories through drawings and words that pertain to their own experiences. Yang’s teaching methods strongly rely on the use of student’s art and music incorporated with oral and written language. There are no computers or other equipment in the make-shift classroom, only art supplies and pencils and papers.
Yang hopes the new literacy program will become a not-for-profit program by linking it with another organization called the St. Malo Training and Yachting Association, presently under the direction of her brother-in-law, Will Wong. The boat building and sailing school opened in 2010 to provide opportunities for underprivileged teenagers who obviously needed purpose and direction in their lives. The courses provide ways to teach them skills, including sailing, calculation, and socialization.
Yang has been quick to involve the parents in their children’s learning, and within a few weeks organized a visitation day for the Chagossian families who want to be involved in the new literacy program.
“No matter how poor the people are, they still want the best for their children,” Yang notes.
In addition, Yang plans to visit the local primary school. “I am going to meet the principal to offer him my services. I heard that the school has many children whose parents are from Diego Garcia.”
Yang is currently working with three Mauritian women to head up a support group there to keep the program sustainable. “Yesterday, I had our first DreamKeepers (Yang’s name for her supporters) meeting with three women volunteers: Gaetane, a mother of six grown children, my sister, Mimou, and Florence, a young mother of a 7-year old who came to summer camp (a week-long session coordinated by Yang in mid-December). Florence is fluent in English and is looking forward to teaching with me. She may be the teacher we are looking for to replace me,” Yang said in a recent email message to Brevard friends and supporters.
“Teaching a multi-aged group of students has always been a dream of mine,” Yang noted. “The camp was the perfect setting for learning in real life, integrating literacy and numeracy in our perennial rock garden project that provides thematic units for our writing workshop. We are divided into fi ve teams and each team chooses a leader. Children at different levels of maturity and skills help each other while the leaders in each team liberate me to differentiate my instruction to the needs of the individual students.”
Yang is accustomed to taking on challenges. About six years ago, she became one of the first to teach at the newly founded Global Village School in Atlanta, Georgia, established to meet the special needs of teenage survivors of wars. She is portrayed in the video, along with other teachers and the teenagers themselves, posted on the school’s web site: www.globalvillageproject.org.
Her compassion has also taken her to China three times, where her grandparents and father were born and where she expects to find herself guiding a classroom of students this fall.
Yang first came to America in 1967 as a young woman, when her husband, now deceased, was a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. From there, the couple moved east, settling in Brevard where they opened and ran a restaurant in the 1980’s called Restaurant Peking, now the site of Bracken Mountain Bakery on South Broad Street, and there they raised three sons. She obtained her teaching degrees from the University of Mauritius and the University of France. In her younger years, she taught in Gates County and Morganton, North Carolina, and New York City. She was the first teacher in Gates County to become a member of the National Board of Certified Teachers.
“I wanted to prove that hard work could do this,” she exclaimed with a measure of pride.
Since Yang’s first language is French, several local residents enjoy the opportunity to practice speaking that language at her informal conversational gatherings, known as The French Club.
A documentary video called Stealing A Nation, about the plight of the Chagossian people, can be viewed here. Further information can be read at here and a very recent article entitled “How the Chagossians could go home” discusses efforts to free the Chagossian people.
Mrs. Niver, a reporter for 20 years for the daily Olean Times Herald, in Olean, NY, has recently retired to Brevard with her husband, Lewis. She can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 585-808-4017.
A short-term support group, comprised of Yang’s many friends in Brevard, Hendersonville and beyond organized in September to help Yang reach her goals. Funds raised through donations are earmarked for providing a salary (about $3,000 USD for the first year) for a replacement for Yang when she returns to Brevard in March. A lesser portion is also budgeted to help the grandmother and her seven charges.
Donations to the literacy program are welcome. Checks can be written to Yang Li and mailed to Cora Niver, 28 Camaro Drive, Brevard, NC 28712.