The Loveliest Place

At a special library and after-school program in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, children growing up in poverty discover a love of reading — and so much more. Read the poems that several children wrote in gratitude to sponsors and donors for their beloved library, full of dreams. 

Smiling shyly, 12-year-old Davaa brings her library book over to show me what she is reading. The title is in Mongolian Cyrillic, but the cover image seems familiar. It’s a group of Western-looking girls in Civil War-era dress, sitting around a table, eating pie.

“She is working on a book about little ladies,” explains our translator, May Gombo, a member of the Holt Mongolia staff.

Little ladies… Oh, it’s “Little Women!” I realize. Of course, Davaa is reading “Little Women” — the classic Louisa May Alcott story about the four March sisters, a story almost unavoidable if you’re a girl under 12 years old and growing up anywhere in the U.S. It’s perhaps surprising to see it here, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia — about as far as you could possibly get from the book’s setting in Concord, Massachusetts. But it’s not at all surprising that the book’s timeless and universal themes would resonate with a young woman like Davaa. “Little Women” is a story about the bonds of sisterhood, and about a family learning to live with less after the loss of status and wealth. It’s about growing up, and about learning what’s most meaningful in life. Continue reading “The Loveliest Place”

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”