It’s Safe Here

While domestic violence has become a growing issue in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, only one shelter remains open for the dozens of women and children who seek refuge here every year. Earlier this year, with a loss in government funding, the shelter nearly closed it doors. 

Och* leans into her mom – making herself as physically close to her as possible.

Och is 4 years old, with shiny black, braided hair, a red striped dress and knee-high boots. She is shy of strangers, and whispers into her mom’s ear as she eats the sugar cube that came with her mom’s tea. Her mom, Bayarmaa*, is 29 and has the same dark shiny hair as her youngest daughter. It’s late morning on a Tuesday in May, and Och’s older sister — a third grader — is currently away at school.

But neither of Bayarmaa’s daughters like being away from their mom for long. And they never, ever want to be left alone.

Bayarmaa sits with her hands tucked between her knees, and her shoulders curved protectively inward.

“How are you feeling now?” we ask her.

Tears start forming in the corners of her eyes.

“The most important mission in my life,” she says, “is to raise my children safe, and to give them all the education they can get. I will support them in every way.” Continue reading “It’s Safe Here”

July Under the Eternal Blue Sky

Holt adoptive mom Karen Myers shares about Holt’s first Mongolia Heritage Tour and her 15-year-old son Zack’s experience visiting his birth country for the first time since he came home to his family.

Karen and Zack attend the festivities for Mongolia’s annual Naadam holiday celebration.

In July 2017, my son and I had the opportunity to join five other families from across the U.S. on Holt International’s inaugural Mongolia Heritage Tour. I adopted Zack in September 2003 when he was a year and a half, and this trip would be our first time back in Ulaanbaatar — UB. So many questions flooded my brain as I packed for the trip. How would my Mongolia-born, all-American-boy respond to the unanswerable and confusing questions that the trip would inevitably bring up? And most of all, would he want me to come with him? Continue reading “July Under the Eternal Blue Sky”

Thank You For Seeing My Life

Before leaving on Holt’s inaugural Mongolia Heritage Tour this past summer, John Clark and his family donated the funds to build a new ger — a new home — for a vulnerable family living beside a garbage dump in Ulaanbaatar. Below, John shares what inspired his family to give, followed by a radio interview with the family who received a new ger. 

Standing in front of the brand new ger they built, the Clark family poses for a photo with the family who received this new ger. From left: Ariana Clark, Carver Clark, Enkhjargal, her husband and three children, and John and Janette Clark.

The most memorable time for me on the Mongolian tour was being able to help a family in need of permanent housing in Ulaanbaatar.

Before we left for our tour, I was moved by the Holt video showing how others had donated funds to help build gers for needy families. I didn’t consider the expense. I felt we should do this. Continue reading “Thank You For Seeing My Life”

Never Their Fault: Part One

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.

Amin-Erdene zips up her cousin’s vest on a 30-degree day in Ulaanbaatar. They live next door to each other in the ger district of Mongolia.

Amin-Erdene kneels down to zip up her little cousin’s vest — a shiny, hot pink, sleeveless thing that looks far too flimsy for the weather, which has dropped 40 degrees since yesterday. It’s early spring in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a high desert region where the temperature can swing dramatically from both season to season and day to day. Yesterday, it reached the high 70s. Today, it’s in the low 30s, but feels even colder — a face-numbing, paralyzing cold that makes you want to curl into yourself like a potato bug.

But 7-year-old Amin-Erdene and her cousins seem unfazed.

In a country where in the depths of winter the temperature can drop 40 degrees below zero, this is nothing. Amin-Erdene blankets a heavy coat over her little cousin, who sits in an old car seat outside the crowded ger where they’ve been living. Her feet poke out of the coat, in socks and white-heeled dress shoes that make me think of something our local partner said — how parents will often keep their kids home from school in winter because they’re worried about frostbite, and they can’t afford warm shoes. Amin-Erdene’s older brother picks up another little cousin and snuggles her close to him, kissing her on the cheek. Continue reading “Never Their Fault: Part One”

Never Their Fault: Part Two

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. 

Read part one of this story!

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.

For many children in this community, lunch at the Red Stone School is the only hot meal, and sometimes the only meal, they receive each day.

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. Continue reading “Never Their Fault: Part Two”

Never Their Fault

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.

Amin-Erdene kneels down to zip up her little cousin’s vest — a shiny, hot pink, sleeveless thing that looks far too flimsy for the weather, which has dropped 40 degrees since yesterday. It’s early spring in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a high desert region where the temperature can swing dramatically from both season to season and day to day. Yesterday, it reached the high 70s. Today, it’s in the low 30s, but feels even colder — a face-numbing, paralyzing cold that makes you want to curl into yourself like a potato bug.

Amin-Erdene zips up her cousin's vest on a 30-degree day in Ulaanbaatar.
Amin-Erdene zips up her cousin’s vest on a 30-degree day in Ulaanbaatar. They live next door to each other in the ger district of Mongolia.

But 7-year-old Amin-Erdene and her cousins seem unfazed.

In a country where in the depths of winter the temperature can drop 40 degrees below zero, this is nothing. Amin-Erdene blankets a heavy coat over her little cousin, who sits in an old car seat outside the crowded ger where they’ve been living. Her feet poke out of the coat, in socks and white-heeled dress shoes that make me think of something our local partner said — how parents will often keep their kids home from school in winter because they’re worried about frostbite, and they can’t afford warm shoes. Amin-Erdene’s older brother picks up another little cousin and snuggles her close to him, kissing her on the cheek. Continue reading “Never Their Fault”

Because Every Child Deserves Somebody

Around the world, most children come into care not because their families don’t love them, but because they can’t care for them. And far too often, the reason they can’t care for them is because their children have special medical or developmental needs. But through the innovative programs of one longstanding partner in Mongolia, Holt supporters are working to help children thrive — and keep them in the loving care of their families. 

Typically, if a family intends to take their child home — like this little one abandoned in a taxi — they will be back within a month. If their somebodies don’t come back, they become “social orphans.”

This one was left in a taxi, May says, motioning to a months-old baby girl gumming her fingers from inside her crib. Her father told the driver he would be right back. He just needed to get some cash to pay his fare. He never returned.

May Gombo is the adoption/social service program coordinator for Holt Mongolia. She comes here often, and knows each child’s story.

This girl was found in an open market area, she says of a crusty-nosed little cutie with wispy black hair pulled into a pointy topknot. Her parents are homeless and both are alcoholics — “and they live,” May says, “in a hole.” Like so many of the city’s homeless, this girl and her family are part of the subterranean civilization that seeks heat underground during Ulaanbaatar’s frigid winter months, when temperatures can drop below 40. Continue reading “Because Every Child Deserves Somebody”

They Had Little. They Gave to Those With Less.

When children at an orphanage in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia learned about other children growing up in the city’s largest garbage dump, they felt more than compassion. They felt moved to act. 

Parents, you’ve probably been there.

You enter your child’s room and look down at what was once only carpet. Now, piled before you, are action figures, Barbie dolls, pieces from five different board games, dress-up clothes and school clothes, and about a million Legos.

After trying to decipher which toy piece goes with which toy, and inevitably stepping on a Lego or two in the process (ouch!), you decide that it’s time for some major spring-cleaning.

And, hopefully, a lesson in generosity to go with it.

You bring your preschooler into his or her room, and gently tell them that it’s time to pick out some toys and clothes to donate, maybe to a daycare, or a secondhand store, or a homeless shelter — for kids and families who need a little extra help.

Now, the question to your child: “What would you like to give away?”

The answer: Give away? Nothing … these are my toys and clothes.

Suddenly, that toy that hasn’t been played with in almost a year is now your child’s favorite toy, and he just can’t bring himself to part with that two-sizes-too-small T-shirt. This might be a tough process, but, hopefully, if it becomes a common practice, your youngster will begin to understand the significance of giving back, of not living in excess, and of how it feels to make someone’s day — and possibly life — a little brighter.

Still, it can be a hard sell asking a 3-year-old to give up his toys for the first time in his life. Generosity doesn’t always come easily.

But for a group of children at the Big Family Institute in Mongolia, it does come easily. Perhaps because life hasn’t. Continue reading “They Had Little. They Gave to Those With Less.”

A Place Where No Child Should Ever Be

Amid the desolate hillsides outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is a place no one should call home. It is the city’s largest garbage dump, where hundreds of families reside, making a living from the refuse. Until recently, the children of this impoverished community mostly avoided school — fearing bullying and discrimination. But now, for the first time, they have a safe space to learn, where they are loved and embraced by everyone.

Hop in the car. We have somewhere to take you.

You’re in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia — an arid tundra and bustling city, home to the largest concentrated group of people in this historically nomadic country. It’s icy cold outside. But now, you’re fastening your seatbelt in the backseat of an SUV and driving up into the crisp air of the hillsides just outside the city.

As deep ruts turn the car nearly 45 degrees, you hold onto the door to try and keep yourself upright. Dust billows outside your window where you begin to see plastic bags spotting the scraggily roadside — more and more of them the farther you drive.

The car summits one last hill and you see your destination — a concrete and wire fence enclosing a space of several square kilometers, every foot of it overflowing with trash.

You are at Ulaanbaatar’s largest garbage dump. But to the families and children you are coming here to visit, this place is home.

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Spotted throughout the garbage dump, shelters like this one — built around the second post from the left — are home to an estimated 100 children and their families.

 

“It’s brutally magnificent in its desolation,” says Paul Kim, Holt’s director of Mongolia and Korea programs. “It takes your breath away, but in a really sad kind of way.”

Continue reading “A Place Where No Child Should Ever Be”