When a team of Holt donors travels to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to build homes for four of the most vulnerable families in the poorest district of the city, something so unexpected happens — so stunning and so moving — they decide on the spot to build one more.
A couple miles from Amin-Erdene’s ger — down a hill, past a gulley, right of a small store and up another hill — sits the school where Amin-Erdene and her 10-year-old brother walk every day. There are no street signs in the ger district, and Gantuul expertly navigates the rough terrain by memory — taking shortcuts to families she has visited countless times.
The school is an informal, one-room schoolhouse for kids who have dropped out — or never attended — public school. Many of their families make a living from scavenging recyclables from the trash dump that sits atop the hill, overlooking the city. Some are homeless, or near homeless, living in makeshift shelters built of scraps found in the dump. For these kids, this school is more than just a school. It provides the things a home should provide — hot cooked meals, often their only one each day, water and soap to clean up with, freshly laundered clothes, and a warm, bright place to study next to an electric radiator.
About 30 kids attend this school, called the “Red Stone School,” in two shifts each day. They know each other well, and they understand each other. Here, no one is bullied for smelling bad or having filthy clothes or having parents who dig through trash to survive. Here, they belong.
But as in any social group, there are differences. Some kids have more than others. Some kids have parents who struggle with alcoholism. Or they feel embarrassed or jealous or sad when they see where other kids live, and how it compares to where they live.
For some kids, living in a ger would be like living in a palace.
On the afternoon of the “ger dedication ceremony,” the families to receive gers gather together outside a community center in the Songino Khairkhan district. They came to meet our donor team, and participate in a formal ceremony with government officials. Paul and Skip deliver speeches, and everyone gets a bit emotional as the donors meet the families, and the families meet the people who are helping them start a new life for their children.
But one person in the crowd is feeling a different emotion at the sight of this event. One boy, about 12 years old, stands at the gate, yelling and crying. He is a boy who lives in the district, who is a classmate of Amin-Erdene and her brother at the Red Stone School. He wants to know why his family isn’t receiving a ger. He doesn’t understand. His family has lived here longer, he says.
Later, our Mongolia staff explains why they chose the four families that would receive gers — and why this boy’s family wasn’t one of them.
We don’t have the resources to build a home for every family that needs one. It’s a tough decision. But wherever Holt works, our goal is to empower families to lift themselves out of poverty. Sponsors and donors provide the tools and resources, but families have to provide the drive and hard work. A ger is an investment that they can use to build a more stable future for their children.
“When you have so many families in need, deciding who receives aid is a difficult and often heartbreaking decision that we have to make,” says Paul. “There are an estimated 65,000 families living in poverty in this district alone. We have a responsibility to our donors to be good stewards of their gifts.”
But as our staff explains, this boy’s parents — like so many of the parents who live and work in the dump and surrounding area — were known alcoholics. While donors provide hot meals, clothes and an education for this boy and his younger brother through the Red Stone School, our staff worried that their parents would squander on alcohol any financial help they directly received for their children — and that with the gift of a ger, other families would work harder to build on the donors’ investment in their future.
“For some of the families living here, alcoholism has greatly compounded their already difficult life. What is so especially cruel about this,” Paul says, “is that historically, the year-round consumption of alcoholic drinks was not a part of Mongolian culture. Traditionally men here would not be permitted to drink until after age 30, and even then it was a mildly fermented mare’s milk, available only seasonally.”
But after Mongolia and the Soviet Union began forging close relations in the 1920s, everything changed. “With the Soviets came urbanization, industrialization and,” Paul says, “vodka.”
On the following afternoon, after visiting the Red Stone School, our team decides to hike up the hill to meet a few of the families who live in the surrounding area. An ice-cold wind blows against us as we walk, but it’s a clear sunny day and the sun glints off the plastic bags that have blown down from the garbage dump and scattered over the hillsides, becoming a permanent part of the landscape. We climb down through a ravine littered with bottles and boxes and plastic bags everywhere, careful to avoid the wild dog that’s eyeing us from a few yards distance, to a couple gers that are the only homes on this particular hillside. No fence marks the property lines, and very likely these families have migrated here from the countryside in search of work and are living on this land without the required registration documents.
Across the way, we see a young boy and his father hiking up the hill. The father has a limp, and is holding his son’s hand. Under his other arm, he carries a pair of work boots. The boy carries a plastic bag full of bor tsog, the fried bread that is a staple of the Mongolian diet. He is wearing a gray sweatshirt, mismatched shoes, one black and one white, and pressed navy blue pants that are clearly part of a school uniform. This is a boy we know — a boy we just met at the Red Stone School.
Up the hill a ways at the edge of the ravine is a small shack lined with mud and cardboard. This is their home.
As our staff shares that this is the younger brother of the boy who stood at the fence yesterday at the ceremony, screaming and crying, as we look at their home and connect the dots in our minds, a stunned silence takes hold. Several members of our team walk away in tears.
In this moment, Kim and Skip decide to give this family a ger, too.
“Sometimes God puts people in your path,” says Skip, after our staff calls the father and son over to share this news with them. The wind whips at Kim and Skip as they stand arm in arm before the family’s shack — soon to be their old home — in the background. “Sometimes you’ve just got to touch people’s lives and hope that they make the best of it and it helps them in their lives.”
“And it’s no fault of the children,” Kim adds, wiping tears from her eyes.
“It just touches us. And having kids of our own…,” she says, pausing as though finishing a thought that she doesn’t wish to say aloud. “Every child should have a nice warm home to go to every day.”
Later we learn more about this family. We learn that the boys’ mom attended cooking school, but she struggled to find a job as the country transitioned to a free market economy in the early 90s. We learn that like so many families at that time, they migrated from the country in search of work in Ulaanbaatar. We learn that the boys’ father found a job in construction, and he provided well for his family. They had their own ger, and they lived a relatively good life. But then their father suffered a stroke and could no longer work. The family sold everything they owned to cover his medical bills, and they still struggle to afford his medicines. We learn that like Amin-Erdene’s mom, these boys’ mom worked as a maid in an apartment building — and they spent the past winter living in a small space under the stairs.
“My biggest concern is not having a place to live,” the boys’ mom shares with us. “When we had a place to live, the kids were calmer, but now I see behavioral changes happening.”
We ask the older brother, Tugs-Erdene, why he was so upset at the ceremony.
“Before, we had our own ger and my mom worked and earned money to feed us,” he says. “We never felt hungry or thirsty when my mom and dad worked. But then my dad had a stroke.”
In the communities, there’s a noticeable difference in attitude and awareness between the older and the younger kids. Right around 10 years old seems to be when they start realizing that their lives are harder than other kids’ lives. And although just a year older, Tugs-Erdene seems more far more serious than his younger brother — who smiles and fidgets and tells us that when he grows up he wants to be a famous boxer and raise the status of Mongolia in the world.
Tugs-Erdene’s mom cries as we talk to her about how a ger will change her family’s life. She is embarrassed, she says, that people think they are alcoholics, and she promises to make better decisions for her children.
“That day was the most incredible and happiest of our life,” she says of the day that Skip and Kim decided to give their family a ger. “The four of us could not even sleep that night and all night we talked about our new ger.”
We ask Tugs-Erdene what he would like to say to the people — as our translator says, to the “brothers and sisters” — who donated a new ger to his family. He sits politely, his hands crossed in his lap, biting a lower lip that seems to tremble a bit as he talks.
“I will become a good and strong man like these people,” he says, “and in the future I will help others who need support. And we will take good care of our mom and dad. We will make them happier.”
About three weeks later, we receive photos of the boys standing in front of the latticework frame that will become their new home. Tugs-Erdene stands alongside his younger brother, his parents and the Holt Mongolia social worker who works with the kids at the Red Stone School. The sky is lit up behind them in a rose-colored sunset, and Tugs-Erdene stands proudly, his head held high.
And for the first time since we met him, we see his smile.
Robin Munro | Managing Editor
Photos & Video by Daniel Hespen