Seeking Shelter, Safety in Mongolia

Through one of our newest partnerships in Mongolia, Holt — and Holt supporters — are helping to bring shelter, stability and safety to 54 children, and their mothers, who are living in Ulaanbaatar’s largest domestic violence shelter. 

It’s late afternoon, her children just came home from school, and Sarnai* knows this is her chance. She only has a small window of time before he comes home. She’s tried to leave before, but each time the threats and fear held her back. But it is also fear that tells her she has to leave. Last night he nearly turned his rage on the children, and that’s when she knew what she must do.

She slings a hastily packed bag around her shoulder, reaches for the hands of her 5-year-old and 3-year-old, and walks them quickly, quietly out the door. The sun is setting as they walk inconspicuously through the streets of Ulaanbaatar. Adrenaline courses through her and she tries to keep from looking over her shoulder with each step, making sure they aren’t being followed. She prays they reach their destination before he finds them, and the below-freezing temperatures grow too unbearable… But she has hope. She’s heard there is a place she and her children can be safe.

“To be frank, they’re in hiding,” says Paul Kim, Holt’s director of the Korea and Mongolia programs, of the 54 children who are the newest addition to Holt’s child sponsorship program in Mongolia. Each one of these children and their mothers has experienced domestic violence, and is seeking refuge in the largest women and children’s shelter in the capital city of Mongolia.

In October, Holt began partnering with Mongolia’s National Center Against Violence, a shelter that annually serves between 200-300 women and their children. The shelter houses and supports each woman and helps her rebuild her life, giving her shelter until she can find a way to safely live on her own. And when women come to the shelter, they often have small children in tow — children who are equally scared and unsure about what their future holds.

We are dedicated to bringing stability and hope to these mothers and children.

While their stories are compelling, heartfelt and inspiring, the necessity for us to maintain the highest level of confidentiality and safety keeps us from sharing their personal names and stories. But Sarnai and her children could represent any of them. They are all coming from places of violence, intimidation, fear and hopelessness. And they all come to the shelter in critical need of food and a warm place to hide. Through sponsorship, we strive to offer these children, and their mothers, much more.

With Holt’s support, these 54 children will have not only a safe place to live, but also the nutrition, continued education and ongoing support they need.

When women and their children first come to this shelter in Ulaanbaatar, they face so many unknowns. While they’ve already taken the most difficult and brave step — mustering the courage to leave — they don’t know what to do next. Most haven’t thought beyond that first step. When they arrive at the shelter, they’ve left — and lost — everything they’ve ever known.

“They’ve moved away from their own neighborhoods, the children can’t go back to school where people know them,” Paul says. “They have left everything at home. The children don’t have adequate supplies, they don’t have books, they don’t have uniforms, they don’t have anything like that.”

But in the midst of such fear and chaos, we strive to bring stability and familiarity to these children. And one way we can do this is through education.

“One of the things that they do at the shelter program is provide educational continuity [for the children],” says Paul. While children attend a new school in a new part of town — where they are safe — we provide them with the school uniforms, school supplies, school lunches and everything else they need to thrive.

In addition to the opportunity to continue their education, we know that keeping children in the loving care of their mothers is what will help them thrive most of all.

“In situations of domestic violence, if they’re not able to come into shelter, there’s a good chance the family will separate,” says Paul. When a mother flees, children are often uprooted and sent to live with extended family, or even placed in care centers. “Not only are we providing a safe and caring environment for the family to stay,” Paul says, “we’re also helping to ensure that the integrity of the family stays intact.”

With this vision and dedication for women and children in Ulaanbaatar, we are honored to be part of a movement that is happening across the country.

Around the world, domestic violence is one of the biggest threats to women and children — Mongolia is no different. In fact, some statistics show that one in five women in Mongolia has experienced domestic violence. While it is known to be a widespread issue, for years it happened without challenge. The roots of this problem are complex. In traditional nomadic Mongolian society, villagers looked out for one another, and would protect their own against threats both internal and external. “But what has happened with urbanization is that they’re losing community,” says Paul. “Losing their support system. Unemployment is high and alcoholism has become a big problem.” All are factors that contribute to high rates of domestic violence.

But there’s a huge shift occurring in Mongolia. Just this fall, a project called “Combating Gender-Based Violence in Mongolia” was formalized by the Mongolian government, the UNFPA and other nonprofit organizations as an initiative to crack down on domestic violence. One component of this movement is the official and legal criminalization of the perpetrators of domestic violence — a much-needed security that now gives the victims of domestic violence the justice and safety they deserve. While the implications of this initiative will change thoughts and culture over time, we are dedicated to supporting the children and mothers who need our help now.

When mothers and children, like Sarnai and her children, come to the shelter, they’ve given up everything. But our goal is to give them everything they need to succeed — safety, nutrition, education and hope.

“Our hope is to make previously overlooked children in Mongolia visible,” says Paul, “to keep their families together and give them hope for a better future.”

Megan Herriott | Staff Writer 

*To protect the safety of the women and children in the shelter, we have created a fictional character whose circumstances are typical of the women who experience domestic violence in Mongolia.

Learn about how Holt sponsors and donors are supporting children living in Ulaanbaatar’s largest garbage dump. 


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