Saturday, June 05, 2004 | 06/05/2004 | 'Aunt Hsia' eases plight of young detainees | 06/05/2004 | 'Aunt Hsia' eases plight of young detainees

'Aunt Hsia' eases plight of young detainees


Martha Hsia has heard the children cry while they whispered their stories of being hunted down for belonging to an obscure religious sect, of refusing to marry an ugly older man their parents were trying to force upon them, of being beaten by a drunk dad.

She can't turn her back on these Chinese youngsters -- some as young as 12 -- who fled to the United States, even though they have no paperwork to be here.

So Hsia -- whom the kids call ''Aunt Hsia'' -- helps them the best way she knows how. She translates their stories from Mandarin to English for their attorney, who will fight for them to stay in the country.

''I just feel so sorry for these kids,'' Hsia said. ``They're all alone and frightened. They are very scared about being sent back to mainland China.''

Last month, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center honored Hsia as an Angel of Justice for her volunteer translating for the past seven years. She first helped mostly Chinese women at Krome Detention Center and now interprets for the youngsters detained at Boystown, a children's home run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, one of nine sites where the feds send undocumented kids.

''She's wonderful,'' said Lisa Frydman, an attorney with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. ``She not only interprets but tries to bridge the cultural gap.''


Once, for example, a girl talked about being persecuted for her obscure religion -- and Hsia helped Frydman understand it. The faith grew out of a Robin Hood-type legend of a monk who protected the poor and the powerless. The Chinese government considers the sect subversive and illegal.

Another time, a Chinese teenager was perplexed at Frydman's question about who owned the land her parents farmed in rural China.

''Let me restate it,'' Hsai said.

It turned out the girl didn't understand the concept of land ownership: The Chinese government controls and allots the land to families.

As a Christian, Hsia said it is important for her to help the detained children. ''That's what we were taught by Jesus -- to love our neighbor as ourselves,'' she said.


She also volunteers to help Chinese Catholics in the archdiocese's Chinese Apostolate, a cultural group set up in the 1990s to reach out to South Florida's growing number of Chinese immigrants, many of whom didn't speak English.

Hsia's own parents fled to Taiwan after the Communists took over in the late 1940s: Her father was a four-star general who worked for the exiled Chiang Kai-shek.

Hsia came to the United States in 1951 to attend the Catholic-run College of St. Teresa in Minnesota, which is now closed. While studying for a master's in social work at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., she met her future husband, Sung Lan Hsia, a University of Miami School of Medicine dermatology professor who is still doing biochemistry research at age 84. They have four grown children and eight grandchildren.

Indeed, at an age when others are kicking back, Hsia has taken on more responsibilities -- from helping to host visiting Chinese Catholic priests to holding Bible studies at her Palmetto Bay home to translating for the undocumented Chinese children.

As many as five to eight of these undocumented Chinese children are being kept at Boystown while the federal government decides what to do with them, Hsia said.


She said most of them fled China because of religious persecution, economic hardship or to avoid a forced marriage arranged by their families. Some relatives help the girls escape from marrying much older men -- including one mother who got her daughter out.

Other times, the kids are fleeing domestic violence in poor rural homes.

''Sometimes the dads come home drunk -- and beat the children,'' Hsia said. ``Sometimes the mother gets drunk, too. The kids cannot survive. They run away.''

Some have help in buying a boat or plane ticket. A few end up in the unlikely place of Miami -- since, Hsia said, most who arrive in the United States are trying to get to relatives in New York.

But, regardless of where they come in, the government sends undocumented children to Boystown or to one of the other nine facilities around the country that are approved to hold the children pending their release to family members or sponsors or their return to the country they came from.

Attorney Frydman is grateful that Hsia is here in South Florida to translate -- frequently by phone.

The children are just as grateful. Some keep in touch with ''Aunt Hsia,'' even after their release.

At a recent visit to Boystown, two Chinese girls enveloped the tiny Hsia in bear hugs.

Said a beaming Hsia: ``They're lovely kids -- very, very sweet.''


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