Yuan Lihai

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Yuan Lihai and one of her adopted children.

Yuan Lihai (袁厉害) is a woman from Lankao County, Henan Province, and is well-known for taking in homeless children, including orphans and abandoned babies with birth defects, and raising the children at her own expense.

According to statistics from Lankao's Civil Affairs Bureau, Yuan was born in 1964 and is the second-eldest child of five. Her original given name was Fenying. Later her grandfather changed it to Lihai which means "sternly tough" in the hope that his granddaughter wouldn't be bullied by others.

Dropping out of school at age eight, Yuan began to sell tea with her grandfather near the Lankao County Hospital. Later she set up her own stalls selling homemade pancakes and other snacks. She also did odd jobs in the hospital. Yuan married a man from Hebei Province in 1985, and gave birth to two sons and a daughter over the following three years.

Yuan began taking in homeless children in the late 1980s. Over the past 20-odd years, she has adopted more than 100 homeless children and she is called "Foster Mother" by many people. Yuan raised the children with the money she earned by selling foods, and allowances granted by local government, and some donations from individuals.

On the morning of Jan. 4, 2013, a fire broke out in Yuan's two-storey home while she was taking some of the older children to school. Seven people, including six children aged 7 months to 5 years and one 20-year-old man, died in the fire. A 10-year-old boy narrowly survived with injuries to his respiratory system, and remains in intensive care at a hospital in Kaifeng, a city that administers Lankao County.

Yuan's actions have triggered a national debate. Many have said that Yuan helped orphans survive with her love and attention, and local government should take responsibility for the accident. Others disagree, saying that Yuan's actions were illegal since she hasn't gone through any formal adoption procedures. Online rumors have emerged that Yuan might be cheating the government out of subsistence allowance by raising orphans in her house. Some even accused her of unlawfully profiting from under-the-table adoption deals like selling babies, so she must be held criminally responsible. Yuan refuted this widespread speculation, saying, "Shoot me if you have evidence that I sold any children."

Yuan was detained by local police and was under investigation after the fire accident. On Jan. 6, Yuan, who has a history of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, was sent to the Lankao County Hospital after suffering a sudden heart attack. Reporters from more than 30 media organizations have gathered at the hospital to watch the "Foster Mother." Yuan's fate is being watched by the entire nation. On Jan. 7, she told the media that she will never adopt homeless children again.

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