2014: Spring click to read or close >>
Obtaining and organizing the kids’ documents has always been a challenge. No one has ever taught them how integral documents are to one’s life. Thanks to Ayuraa’s help the kids got their first ID cards at the age of 16, until then they had been nameless kids who fell through the cracks. Without an ID card you can’t apply for other documents, go to the doctor, rent a room, or open a bank account. Without an ID card you are forced to live at the margins with no executive power. Mongolia had been under communist rule for 68 years, the level of bureaucracy is numbing at times, and not having an ID easily leads to Kafkaesque run-arounds.
Once we had their ID cards, we got their birth certificates, health insurance books, opened bank accounts and, if possible, their old school records.
In 2011, I made the mistake of giving Baaskaa his documents to keep. Due to his unstable living situation, he lost of all them and it took me months to have them reissued. Since then Selenge is the gatekeeper, or rather document-keeper. If they need a document, they have to check in with her; they pick it up and return it immediately, once they are done.
There was just one problem - all their ID cards listed Ayuraa’s care center as their permanent home address. Due to the social stigma attached to this address, they were always embarrassed to show their ID.
Baaskaa wanted to deal with this issue by himself, so I suggested he’s ask one of his friends if he could register at his home. Vanni and Nasa didn’t have such friends, so I asked Byambaa to register them at his address. Byambaa agreed, but when I went to the registration office, it became clear that Byambaa, instead of giving us his city address, gave his countryside address. The registration office for this district is located in some small village, far away from UB. As a consequence, we’d have to make a two hours’ drive, one way, every time we need to deal with anything official or medical concerns. Realizing who’d have to make this trip primarily, I went back to the drawing board.
Thank goodness, Khosoo’s wife Jenjeen agreed with me. She offered to register Vanni and Nasa at her home. I then learnt that water and electricity is paid according to the occupancy of the apartment - that’s why Byambaa didn’t want to register them in the city – so I offered to pay the difference, circa $2 per month, if their bill would be raised. But Jenjeen and Khosoo just waved it off, ensuring me that everything would be fine.
2014: New Year's click to read or close >>
My motivation for this trip was to make sure that Baani receives the right papers after completing his vocational school, finding a job for Nasa in the city and checking up on Baaskaa to see how his six-week stay in Bangladesh had influenced his life at home, if at all.
Because Baaskaa had told me about his loneliness during last year’s’ New Year celebration, I gave up my only tradition – spending New Years with a close circle of friends in upstate NY – and went to UB to spend New Years with the kids.
As usual, I called Selenge as soon as my plane touched ground, and she asked me to join her at some event. I was so jet lagged, I didn’t really understand what she was trying to tell me and the next thing I knew, I was a presenter for the award for Best for Cinematography at the Mongolian Emmy’s, despite my lack of an appropriate outfit. (At some point there was talk about sending someone out to buy me an outfit, which I gently declined….)
The whole event was in Mongolian, with no English translation, so I have no idea what was said. Once on stage, I was holding the award, while the other presenter spoke and eventually he nodded at me, which was my sign to hand over the award to my fellow cinematographer.
This event was broadcast many times, seemingly on all 58 channels – yes, Mongolia, a country of three million people, has 58 TV channels – multiple times. Everyone I know saw me on TV that week.
Afterwards, I was glad to be back in charge to plan my own party.
My regular apartment was not available, but I had found a studio apartment for us. The only draw back was the lack of a proper kitchen. We had no regular stove, but only a single burner camping cooker, powered by a tiny gas can. Not ideal, to say the least. I ended up making potato-, tuna- and cucumber salad, leaving the single burner for the mandatory meat dish.
At first, our party was a bit awkward. I had invited Tuvshin, Nasa’s teacher, but as usual, Baaskaa had not invited anyone, because he was unsure of what would happen. When he saw that this could be a ”real” party, he started to call people. Within an hour, Moogli, Toula and Davaa came. Davaa brought his girlfriend, the girlfriend’s girlfriend and his younger sister. At first, no one said a word and Davaa and his friends hovered over the computer, checking their FB page. Baaskaa and I tried to act as hosts, but somehow we didn’t get through. Baaskaa then brought out a deck of cards and luckily that broke the ice. At the end we had a lovely evening, with lots of laughter and excitement.
May 2013: 14th trip click to read or close >>
During this trip, my 14th, I wanted to expand my view of Ulaanabaatar. The city is changing so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. I have the tendency to
notice the negative things, the ever increasing gap between rich and poor, the sea of empty apartments in modern high risers that none I know can afford
and the increasing amount of garbage. Nike and NorthFace have replaced the traditional herder coat, called deel. Back then the large billboards displayed
the ideal Mongolian landscape, with roaming cows and herders in their best outfit – now a gigantic bottle of Minute Maid hovers in the sky.
The kids see the situation differently. One night, Baaskaa wanted to go to the Russian monument, which is a relic from Soviet times. It’s an enormous
monument, glorifying and celebrating the workforce, situated on the highest mountain, which offers an amazing 180 view of the city. You can see downtown,
the new skyscrapers as well as the sprawling yurt districts, which at this point spread over the mountains, into the neighboring valleys.
Baaskaa, his friends and I have been there many times, but never at night. I was surprised how crowded it was, on a Monday night, close to midnight.
Baaskaa explained that people love to stroll up at night and admire the view, a sea of light. They are proud and in awe how much their city has changed and
they feel UB has joined the international scene, equalizing their country.
Baaskaa’s friend Ghanaa, who is 21–years old, pointed at several spots now covered by glass towers and American styled apartment complexes,
remembering how barren they were not long ago. Even I know the city when there were no cars,
definitely no SUV’s and only three two–lane roads. It’s truly amazing.
On the flipside of this progress are the garbage dump and the illegal mines, all close to the city, because somehow people have to survive. While new malls
open up every other week, people get pushed out further and further. Byambaa, who lives 60 miles away from UB, had two, three neighbor between his farm and
the city. Now he has to build a fence, to keep people off his land. I am not against progress, or improving peoples lives, I am just worried that too many
people will be left behind, because they weren’t able to get the education that is required in order to compete with the modern life, (you won’t
get that education in Mongolia yet) because they are still rooted in the “old” Mongolian ways. I am afraid that the kids are part of that group, because
we are still building basic life skills, but I have become unsure for which life I should prepare them.
December 2012: 13th trip click to read or close >>
Mongolia had allotted a monthly payment to every citizen, minors included, from the mining revenues. I am not a big fan of these “donations”;
I wish they’d invest the money in their education system or infrastructure. Applying for this monthly support was an ongoing saga throughout the years,
but this time I was determined to get it all done, and I did.
Finally, after several visits to numerous offices, this time with Ayuraa, in uniform, to help, Vannie and Nasa were approved. Although the program had expired by the time of their approval, they received back payments. Sadly, Baaskaa never got his share, because his application was denied, due to lack of needed documents. I felt sorry for him, but I realized
that he never fully comprehended what could have been and what was lost.
While Vannie was in UB, I threw a Christmas party.
I knew from Baaskaa that he liked Christmas. I took a trip to IKEA and bought lots of decoration, including a small fake tree. Vannie and I decorated the entire room with ornaments and surrounded the tree with presents. It was a huge success. Baaskaa was in awe of the decorations; he told me that as a kid he used to look longingly into people’s homes, wishing, he could be part of their celebration. He says these things so randomly, without warning, which always makes it difficult for me to react appropriately. I have to acknowledge what he says without making a big fuss about it. It’s his reality, and that’s how
I have to treat it, but all I want to do is promise him things will be OK.
Fall 2012: 12th trip click to read or close >>
While in New York, I realized that everyone was tiptoeing around the upcoming reunion of Vannie and his mother. Steps were taken, but everyone seemed to stop short of committing to a tangible
plan with a specific date.
As I mentioned before, I had a similar experience when I was 26, so I had a vague idea of how Vannie must be feeling. Although I wasn’t planning on returning to Mongolia for the third time in seven months, I decided that uniting a 17-year-old with his mother whom he had not seen in fifteen years was a
pretty good reason to embark on another trip.
Summer 2012: 11th trip click to read or close >>
My friends Jeff Magum and Astra Taylor graciously added me as a beneficiary of Jeff ’s 2011/2012 concert tour, his first in many years. He has such an enormous fan base that most of his concerts were sold out within minutes, including three shows at BAM in Brooklyn, NY. By the end of May, the proceeds from the ticket sales started to come in.
I was still in shock about the fact that Baaskaa was essentially without a home to call his, therefore I decided to return to Mongolia at the end of June and use
the funds to deal with his living situation before winter
As usual, the trip turned out differently than anticipated and planned as my focus shifted to applying for government allowances for all three kids.
Mongolians consider their land to be the 'people’s property', and until recently it could not be divided and owned by individuals. When the government started to harvest its natural resources with the help of international corporations, every resident, including children, had the right to get a share of the revenues. This has been going on since 2008, properly even longer. The problem was that the kids didn’t know about these things, and if they had, they wouldn’t know how to apply for it.
Neither did I.
During the spring, I had found out we were confronted with a deadline. New elections were coming up and rumors had it that the program would be terminated and applications would only be accepted until
On my second-to-last day in March, I was determined to get all of the applications going, so I brought Vannie from Gobi and Nasa from the countryside to UB. Ayuraa, the police chief and director of the temporary childcare center, took it upon himself to
It was quite a Kafkaesque experience. We ran from one office to the next, led by Ayurra, followed by Vannie, who’d move slowly, not losing his cool, followed by Nasa, who wouldn’t let go of my hand, no matter how much it became an obstacle to be attached to each other. In every office we were confronted with large crowds, which would slightly part due to Ayuraa’s uniform, but then close right away as soon as he passed, causing the kids and me to get stuck until Ayuraa would call and create an opening, so we could slip through. In every office we had to go to multiple windows until we found the right one. There we’d wave our large pile of documents, hoping to have all the necessary papers and not to be sent home again for more or different ones. Then there was the step of paying for every stamp, copy and approval, which was always my task. I had to fight my way to yet another window, using sign language to explain what I needed and wait for the clerk to come up with a creative way of telling me how much money he or she
By the end of day one, we all were exhausted, yet, we were just at the beginning of a long, winding process.
Day two was a continuation of day one, except that the woman in charge for fingerprints pointed at Vannie’s name and said “I know his mother, we were classmates in elementary school. She recently moved to
That’s my recurring experience in Mongolia, and I hope I pass it on to the children. If they ask, if they go out and make themselves heard, unforeseen things will happen, which may propel then forward. We were asking for money, and we
found a mother.
Back then things seemed unsure, unreal really, and without confirmation, we decided not to tell Vannie any of our findings, until we were certain.
Since we didn’t know what would come of the story of Vannie’s mother, I didn’t include it in the update from the March trip. Subsequently, the story has unfolded and you can check Vannie’s update to read the rest.
During my June trip, I was determined to complete what I had started in March. Surprisingly, only Nasa’s application was successful. Baaskaa’s was incomplete and because he is legally an adult, we were unable to complete the paperwork for him during his absence. We also discovered that now Vannie’s mother would have to sign his application for him, since he is a minor and she was his known parent. But at this point, neither of them knew about each other.
Spring 2012: 10th trip click to read or close >>
Up to this point, my journeys had always been fairly predictable, as I knew I’d divide my time between the
country and city. Now, that the kids are all over the place, I spend a lot of time collecting them and bringing them from one place to another. It is important to me to
allow them to spent time together, so they have a sense of family.
Vannie and Nasa had been together for the previous three months after Vannie had come home for the semester break. But Baaskaa was on his own and had seen neither
After I arrived and met up with Baaskaa, I went to Byambaa’s farm to pick up Vannie. He needed to return to his school and I saw that as a good opportunity to unite the
two boys and spent some time with them in Gobi.
Baaskaa hadn’t seen Byambaa since last spring and wanted to join me. I think Baaskaa had hoped to reconcile with
his former foster dad, but because we only stayed
briefly, the two never had a private moment. I am still not sure what the issue is, as neither one of them wants to
fully disclose their grief.
After Baaskaa and I returned from Gobi, I went again to Byambaa, this time to pick up Nasa. I wanted to have some
girls–only time with her, as well as introduce the idea of home schooling. Nasa happily agreed, and the teacher pointed out that she needed to see Nasa in her
environment in order to fully be able to judge if Nasa could be taught at her home.
Back to the countryside for another afternoon.
With all my travels and the back and forth between the country side and UB, I had no time left to actually stay in the country and enjoy it. I love being out there, to get up with the roosters, go to bed under a sky illuminated by a sea of stars, learn about the different animals and milk products, wander off and climb the mountain (until I leaned
that mountains and women don’t go well together) and be part of the household.
My everyday life doesn’t allow me much stillness, which made me appreciate the silence in the country. I miss it, I feel like I lost a home.
September 2011: 9th trip click to read or close >>
This trip was very different from all the other trips, as all the children were in different locations and had different agendas. While I had very little
time, I needed to enroll Vannie into a school, check up on Nasa and try to fix what can be fixed (at least that’s what I thought!) and check up on Baaskaa,
with whom I had been out of touch since April.
During my last trip in the spring, things had changed drastically. Baaskaa wanted to be independent, so I helped him find a job. Nasa needed to go to school, so
we enrolled her and set her up with a new family, and Vannie had to stay behind, waiting for the new semester to start, so he finally could continue his
The biggest change for me was my awareness of how much harder it is to "take care" of them now that they are older. At a young age, shelter, food and
education were the most important things. Suddenly, we had to deal with the complications of adolescence. They develop dreams about their future, they recognize
the talents they posses and lack and they discover the other sex. Life stretches a bit more beyond today and tomorrow, as Baaskaa had mapped out his future and
became antsy about living on Byambaa’s farm, away from opportunities and incapable of working for his own gain. The adults around him had a difficult time
to understand him, as they thought he had everything he needed to be happy. Those opposing viewpoints seem to create an ongoing conflict between caregivers and
their recipients, which stretches across physical borders. I had asked my mother to let me live on my own when I was 14 years old, not understanding what the big
deal was. I finally lived by myself at the age of 16, thinking it was the most natural thing. Baaskaa’s current situation concerns me, because he burned a couple
bridges the way he left and that
makes me fear he’s still all by himself. I am sure at some point he’ll figure out how to make amends at some point.
I trust him to do the right thing as he’s resilient and inventive, when it comes to carving out a living situation for himself.
This trip also led me to reexamine if my actions truly propel the children’s circumstances. Watching Nasa go from one family to another makes we wonder if
she would have had a better chance if she had stayed in the care center, but that seems like an absurd thought, as most of Baaskaa’s friends from the care
center years are in jail now. The only ones who made it are the ones who have a family to fall back on, even if their family life is less than ideal. I have to
face the reality that their personality is ultimately what determines whether they will succeed. I am sure that Baaskaa will make it, because he is resourceful
and has a very strong will. Vannie has a good shot at making , if we can offer him a framework on which he can build. Nasa battles the disadvantage of being
illiterate and a girl. The continuous neglect that determined her upbringing formed her personality and not necessarily to her advantage, to put it mildly.
In addition, she is a girl in a man’s world, which makes it hard for her to advance. When she flirted with a middle–aged man, she was accused of
wrongdoing, when I would suggest that the more experienced adult should have known better. All she wants is to be seen and loved. I am unsure how she can be
helped, except for 24–hour professional care and supervision, which simply doesn’t exist. Ayuraa told me about a Russian study concerning neglected
children. They concluded that an abandoned child needs eight times the attention and care than a child growing up in a family setting. I have to say that after
my experiences this year, I agree with the study!
May 2010: 6th trip click to read or close >>
When I returned in May, it felt like I had just left. Ulaanbaatar is slowly becoming my second home. I have my regular guesthouse and a routine. I have witnessed all four seasons and I have seen UB develop from a forgotten city into a glitzy capital at a scary speed.
This trip was very short, with my main focus on Baaskaa’s graduation.
I was glad to see the kids again so soon and we discussed the pro and cons of the new visiting system that we had developed and implemented during the winter trip.
In January of this year I hired Sara, a wonderful woman, to bridge the communication gap between the kids and me. We developed a monthly visiting system that the children could rely on. Every first week of the month Sara visits all of them. Before she makes her rounds, she calls each of them to check if there are any immediate needs.
It was important to me to have an independent go-to person, as I wanted to give the children the opportunity to speak freely about their needs and emotions. Out of respect and because of their dependency, they would never complain, or express a lack of anything to their families or Ayurzana. Sara is a more neutral person, as she is mainly connected to me. But I also wanted to offer support to the foster families, as they are working hard and investing a lot to make the kids feel comfortable and at home. It’s not always easy for them either, therefore I wanted to give them the opportunity to share their experiences or let off steam without having to fear repercussions.
All in all the new visiting system seems to be successful. The kids really like Sara and look forward to her visits and the little surprises she brings. I witnessed one meeting between Sara, Baaskaa and Davaa in which they seemed very comfortable and it was hard to believe they have only known each other for two months. Davaa even called Sara once to request a meeting.
I also wanted to ease Ayurzana and Khosoo’s workload, since they both have families, full time jobs and their own NGOs.
Ayurzana is becoming very busy, as he is getting more and more recognized in his field. He has never received any training to tend to the needs of children and yet he is extremely successful. I doubt that the kids see him primarily as a police officer, more as a father figure who they trust. His childcare center is the only one they come to voluntarily. On the way back from Naleikh, we encountered a group of eight young children washing their clothes in a river. Ayurzana recognized the kids, and sent Baaskaa and Davaa to fetch them. They all came running, happy to see him. They had lived at Ayurzana’s center, but had exceeded the time allowed and therefore were transferred to another care center that they immediately ran away from. They informed Ayurzana about the bad conditions and how the older boys were abusing the younger ones. Because we didn’t have room in our passenger car, Ayurzana told them to come to the center on their own. Since they had been taken off the chart, they could come back to stay for another two months. They all happily agreed.
It comes as no surprise that Ayurzana was given an award for improving his center and the advancement of the children under his care. He was very moved, as he truly tries to make a difference in these children’s lives, no matter how many times he has to try.
I had planned to bring all our kids to Baaskaa’s graduation, but Baaskaa let me know that he wasn’t too eager. Obviously I wanted to bring them so they’d be inspired by Baaskaa’s success, but I sensed that this was his day. He wanted to be Baaskaa, the graduate, not one of the kids of our group. I understood and abandoned the idea. It is a very fine line and as much as it is positive to be a part of a group, sometimes it is important to let them be an individual, the main character of their own story. Baaskaa wanted his graduation to be an event for 18 year-old boys, his friends and fellow students. Well-meaning adults were tolerated, but that’s where he drew the line. Once we were at his school I also understood that very few children had their relatives attending, as most of the families live far away.
Since it is custom to follow a graduation with a trip, Baaskaa, Davaa and I went on a mini vacation. After all I had been in Mongolia six times and people kept asking me if I had done or seen this and that, all these wonderful tourist attractions. Needless to say I hadn’t seen any. We invited Khooso’s oldest son, Timmi, to come with us. Timmi had helped us on several occasion and the boys enjoyed each other’s company.
The weather was not on our side. After unusually hot days in the city, it was freezing cold, with strong winds and snow as soon as we hit the road. (Of course, once we returned to the city the sun came out and it was incredibly hot again!). But we were determined; we drove to Kharakhorum, Chinggis Khaan’s fabled city, which was the capital for 40 years during the 13th century, until Khubilai Khaan moved it to Beijing. The city doesn’t exist anymore, but it is fascinating to walk through this small Russian-styled town, imagining that this is where Chinggis ruled his empire. We also visited Erdene Zuu Khiid, the oldest surviving monastery in Mongolia, but unfortunately everything was closed.
We decided to stay overnight at a lovely yurt camp, situated at a beautiful lake. It turned out that neither Baaskaa nor Davaa had ever seen such a large body of water. They were fascinated by it and couldn’t stop throwing stones, competing with each other, who could throw further and farthest.
It is a secret dream of mine to bring the kids to the Atlantic to show them the beauty of the majestic ocean.
The unpleasant aspect of the trip was the amount of animal carcasses everywhere. I knew Mongolia had had a very bad winter, the worst in over 50 years, as it was all over the news and I had seen images. But nothing prepared me for the reality of it. Dead animals everywhere, sometimes in piles, most often alone, just where they dropped. It was a tough sight.
At some point I had asked Baaskaa if his herd expanded. It took him a long time to count. He came up with ten: four adults, two teenage goats and four baby goats. It surprised me that he had to think about how many animals he owned, he didn’t know? Later, when I was at Byambaa’s, I found out that Byambaa had lost 50 percent of his herd. That explained Baaskaa’s timid answer. I bet half of his goats died as well, he simply didn’t want to tell me. It might be our personal relationship, but it has also a cultural aspect – no one wants to be the bearer of bad news and disappoint me by informing me that our efforts had been cut in half.
But there was also some good news. One of Byambaa’s pigs had given birth to eight piglets, and to my total surprise, they had dug a well and now the farm has fresh drinking water! It is an unassuming pipe sticking out of the ground, which turns into a well, with the help of a battery-powered pump. No more schlepping water from the river, boiling it and picking out dirt and twigs. The entire family came to demonstrate the well. Everyone was so proud and the water was very clean and tasty.
Now, with water available, Byambaa is developing some further business ideas and dreams. He wants to build a shower house and a sauna! I can only imagine, making snow angels while looking at the Mongolian stars, after a round of hot sauna on a cold winter night. But not only that, Byambaa is planning on building a green house so he can grow – and sell – vegetables and fruit.
These are very exciting visions. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future, we’ll be able to buy asparagus from Mongolia!
February 2010: 5th Trip click to read or close >>
This was my fifth trip to Mongolia, and yet, if felt so different all over again. Every trip offers new insight and brings me closer to the people I work with and to the country as a whole.
I pretty much plan my trips according to the kids’ school schedule, so I went again in January. This year Mongolia had an extremely cold winter. After months of continuous snowfall and temperatures as low as minus -58 degrees, the government declared disaster status in more than half of Mongolia's 21 provinces, and more are set to follow. According to the local press, 2.3 million livestock have perished and an additional 3 million may die by spring. Mongolians use the term dzud for the combination of summer drought and severe winter that has hardened snow and ice into an impenetrable layer and makes it impossible for livestock to feed. The last dzud occurred in 2000 and 2001 and was the reason for the first big wave of homeless children. I hope this won’t happen again this time.
There is a saying: “When the Mongolians complain, you know it’s cold”.
That’s what I found when I arrived, low temperatures, panic-stricken people, and very skinny animals. Khosoo welcomed me at the airport with excitement, he’d just heard on the news that we’ll have a lovely warm day; it would only be -11 degrees, instead of the usual -18!
Immediately after my arrival Ayurzana, Khosoo, Selenge and I had a meeting. They filled me in with the latest news, and I told them about the developments on my end. We felt it was time to develop a specific long-term strategy based on our experience.
I had developed a few specific ideas to strengthen our relationships with the kids. After the incident with Nasa and Zola, I felt they might feel too isolated. They might not understand that they are not alone while having those tough times. But they also need to be taught certain basics, in order to understand themselves and the consequences of their actions.
We decided to spend a weekend at the summer camp, as we had done last year, to create a sort of mini group vacation for them. The idea was to create a forum where they could talk openly about their situation within their foster families, their school, and their dreams and plans for the future. I wanted them to listen and learn from each other and not only from us, the adults. Khosoo took off from work and accompanied me, so it was the two of us with Baaskaa, Nasa, Davaa, the two new kids, Enkhtsetseg and Batbileg and Ambush (when we picked the kids up from Byambaa, Ambush, Byambaa’s oldest son, declared he wanted to join us. He argued that even so he didn’t have a difficult past, that didn’t mean he was not interested in having fun – I couldn’t argue with that!).
Zola couldn’t come with us because he had planned to visit his mom, which he didn’t want to miss.
We had a lovely weekend, which was spent mostly inside, due to the cold and lack of sledges. We managed to take a long walk to a neighboring camp, which was very big and fancy. The yurts had heavy golden doors which displayed historic Mongolian battle scenes. Khosoo used the opportunity to educate the kids. He told them why the Mongolians had short arrows (so the Chinese and European couldn’t recycle them), that the size of the arrows enabled the warriors to turn their bodies fully around and shoot towards their approaching enemy (something you only see in animated actions movies!) and why the Mongolian sword is short and curved (that has to do with a special, very successful ‘stab and twist’ technique). After that mini lecture Baaskaa uttered in amazement ‘One door and so much knowledge!’.
Khosoo is a very good teacher. He tells stories animatedly and with excitement. Even though I didn’t understand a single word he said, I loved listening to him!
Watching the kids follow every word in total concentration reminded me that there is a total lack of teaching and adults passing on their knowledge and experience. It doesn’t occur to them that they could be interested in something and then follow up on it by asking questions and getting more information. Baaskaa is a bit different, he hung out in libraries and actually read books. He is in general interested in things he doesn’t know.
One night, while we cooked diner in the camp, the TV was on and suddenly Baaskaa called me. He saw a film that was related to a book that I read in the summer. I was amazed. The book was The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson. All Baaskaa saw at the time was the cover. The TV images were B/W and very grainy, yet he remembered and put the two things together. So the cooking came to a standstill and the kids ended up glued to the TV.
After the screening they were very quiet, so I asked them if they had questions. All of them did. They had barely seen or heard of autism, and if so, it had been in a hush hush way, so they were excited to ask, and recap what they had seen. They were happy for the boy to be healed and very understanding of his plight. And they had so many questions about shamans, which blew me away, because it’s their religion and practice. It just shows how hungry they are for new things and knowledge but they need to discover active curiosity, which is a muscle that needs to be trained.
At the end of the mini vacation Ayurzana and Khosoo organized a basketball workshop, which was helmed by Sharavjamts Tsedenjanhar. At seven feet tall, he is considered Mongolia’s tallest man and was discovered in 2001 by Dale Brown, for the NBA. Sharavjamts played for three years in Phoenix. He happily agreed to come in and shoot some hoops with the kids. We organized busses and got all of the childcare center kids to a gym that was managed by the Metropolitan Police. The kids were so excited to be coached by such a famous player. Basketball is very popular in Mongolia, the kids do the moves and wear the fashion. After the workshop we played a couple of games, which became very intense! I was amazed at how good some of the boys were. Eventually I realized that Nasa and Enkhtsetseg were the only girls. I asked where the care center girls were, and I got a weird look - they didn’t bring the girls, it’s sports! Next time I will have to be more specific.
The childcare center housed 54 boys and 6 girls at the time. They are supposed to house 38 kids total. The high number was a result of the fierce cold. I could see how boring it must have been for the kids, not being able to go outside. So I decided to organize another workshop. I already toyed with the idea in New York and through a friend I contacted the principal of the Waldorf School, who gave me very good advice on how to conduct the workshop.
The idea was to tell the kids a story about a quest and in response have them write or draw about their favorite character. Baaskaa volunteered to tell a Mongolian fairy tale about a dirty poor boy who became the hero of the kingdom.
The age range of the kids was wide, from three to 16 years old. After hearing the story, the kids were asked to write about or draw their favorite character. Surprisingly they all chose to draw, no one used words. It also surprised me that very few chose colored pencils, they preferred pencils and ballpoint pens. As a second task they were asked to write (again, no one) or draw a quest of their own, any quest, it could be a trip the main square, or the discovery of new information. Most of them drew an image of the perfect country life, a mountain, a yurt, animals, a sun and sometimes a family. One boy drew a car accident, which happened recently and the memory of it still horrified him.
Baaskaa and Davaa, as well as Khosoo’s son Timii, helped conduct the workshop. Baaskaa and Timii were available for questions and motivated the blocked kids, while Davaa was in charge of the supplies and sharpening pencils.
The results were quite remarkable. I promised the kids to create a booklet with some of their drawings and the photos I took and send it to them. I think it’s important to value their participation and work and give them something that they can touch and look at. This goes back to my early experience of seeing Baaskaa reacting to pictures and the way he treats his photo albums as his most precious possession. They are proof that he exists.
The last trip also posed the question of how many kids we can take on and still properly provide for them. How long can we operate on such a grassroots level and still fulfill our promise?
As part of the answer I hired a lovely woman, Sarangoo, who will visit the kids once a month. She will take care of their basic materialistic need (socks are always needed and in demand!), but more so, she will create a support system for the kids and the foster parents. Having heard stories of Baaskaa’s early difficulties and having watched Enkhtsetseg’s struggle, I realized that the foster parents are is need of support as much as the children. They need to know that we don’t just drop off the children and then they are left to fend for themselves.
The children need someone to talk to who they don’t depend on. They don’t dare to ‘complain’ about their foster families directly to the family. They also are reluctant to do so to Ayurzana, who is an even bigger authority figure.
Sarangoo will visit them regularly, the first week of every month. We are hoping that the kids will eventually open up and treat her as a family member and a confident. I introduced Sarangoo to the children, while we were all in UB, and they seem to like her. Nasa, who never talks to strangers, immediately told her about our trip to the movie theater (and proudly declared she slept through the film). That gives me hope that they will become close and we have created a wider, more stable support system.
August 2009: 4th Trip click to read or close >>
In August 2009, my friends Astra Taylor (director, Zizek, Examining Life) and her husband Jeff Magnum (musician, Neutral Milk Hotel) organized an art auction to support Children Of The Blue Sky. They contacted well-known indie bands, filmmakers, actors and other artist to donate their work. The funds will be used to support additional kids.
While the auction was going on, I decided very quickly to return to Mongolia, because I wanted to catch the children before they started to school.
Back in Ulaanbaatar, I was surprised by how green it was. Well, it was more a grayish green. It was clearly summer and very hot. Global warming has even reached such inaccessible countries like Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar changed tremendously. It now looks like a city that could be anywhere, the Russian charm is disappearing more and more. Modern, luxurious apartments blocks are built on every corner; most of them are empty. Advertisements are more and more in English, and more and more western products are sold. The traditional Mongolian coat, deel, has disappeared and has been replaced by Nike and Adidas outfits. – everything seems to be new and shine - until you go to the outskirts of UB, to yurt city, where the yurts are cramped into tight spaces and people still live without water and electricity. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is increasing, and with it, Mongolian tradition and values are disappearing. It is quit scary to see that kind of transformation within one year!
I was so happy to see my friends again and to spend two days in the city. I hung out at the childcare center for a day to talk business with Ayurzana and Khosoo and to discuss who could be the next kid. In the summer they have fewer children, because the children get short-term jobs with herders and it is easier for them to live outside.
Ayurzana pointed out a young boy, Zola, who is 16 years old, but looks like he is 11. He is slightly handicapped, as he has extreme o-shaped legs, which makes it hard for him to walk. I talked to him briefly; he is a very shy and lovely boy.
Unfortunately the kids don’t behave ‘naturally’ around me, because by now I have a reputation. I am ‘the one who helped Baaska’. We are trying to keep the other kids low-profile, but the Baaska story made some waves. As a result, the kids are getting all nervous and shy or very loud when I show up. It is an odd situation, as there is a lot of expectation and hope in the air, while on my end, I am nervous because of the responsibility I carry.
When we settled on trying to help Zola, Ayurzana went into his investigation mode, while I organized our next task. We wanted to go to the World Vision summer camp to visit Aigul and Davaasuren. The children live at the summer camp for three months, during the school break, to be in nature and have some vacation and fun.
Mongolians are very much connected to their land and the seasons. As herders, they move with the seasons. Every new season, they pack up their yurts and belongings and move to a new spot. City folks sort of kept the tradition; they live in the city and have summerhouses outside the city. So do childcare centers.
Davaasuren came running when he saw Ayurzana arrive. He only remembered me as the one who came in the winter to take pictures. He was playing soccer and seemed quite happy. Aigul on the other hand was a bit distant, she barely acknowledged or talked to me. Maybe, when she realizes I am come back regularly, she will open up again. Only time will tell.
Moogii Monkhbat, Nasa, Ayurzana Chogdov
Mogy, one of the directors of the Mongolian chapter of World Vision and a good friend of Ayurzana, was so impressed by our efforts that he created a ‘Give A Yurt’ program. If we pick a child and set him or her up with a family and livestock, Mogy will request a yurt for the child. I am so happy about this, because it makes our endeavor a true partnership with the Mongolians. We inspired the Mongolians to help themselves. But it also shows that you need a joint effort to truly get something done. On a personal level I have to say that watching Ayurzana and Mogy deal with these kids is so inspiring to me. They love these kids, no matter what their stories are, and they always try their best to help.
We also went to see Nasa, who has been living with a new family for a few months. She looked great, she’s grown in height and gained weight. She looked very much like a country girl!
Her new family lives with their extended family and a young woman and her son, who are live-in help. It turns out that the son had been one of Ayurzana’s kids, who had run away after being at the center for four months. Ayurzana and his men had searched the city, but never found him...until they visited this family to discuss Nasa’s stay. They learned that the boy reunited with his mother and together they took on the job as herders. They work for food and lodging, and Ayurzana is providing them with clothes and other necessities. Ayurzana asked me if I would consider donating a cow for them, so that they save a little bit of money and become independent, to build a future for themselves. I will consider it happily, once I raise the necessary funds. This is another case like Aigul’s; the difference is that here the solution seems to be more practical. They already work as herders, they are already placed at their location and they have the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed. What they lack is start-up money to build something that they can call their own and expand.
After all these mini trips, I packed up again and went to the countryside, to visit Byambaa and Baaska for a few days. Baaska had to start school on September 1st, so we agreed that I would spend some time on the farm and then drop him and Davaasuren at school.
The farm has expanded substantially! Byambaa built a winter house for the family and a new winter house for the animals. His two brothers Akhaa and Okhaa live with him and together they manage the ever-growing farm. The vegetable garden is enormous, bearing potatoes, onions, carrots cabbage and even tomatoes. Last summer they just loosened the soil and built the fence! Byambaa and his extended family are very hard working people and they were rewarded for it. When the recession hit Mongolia, they were independent and self-sufficient. Not only that, for the first time they were able to make a small profit by selling their meat and vegetables.
I finally met Byambaa’s wonderful wife Byaraa and their younger children, Inculai and Tolah. As usual, I had no translator, which seemed to make everyone nervous at first. Byambaa wanted to be a good host. He instructed Khosoo to call every three hours, to check in with me, if I needed something, what I wanted to eat, etc. Byambaa was particularly nervous about me being a vegetarian. Mongolians really have a hard time to understand that, it’s so against everything they know and believe in. I didn’t know about the whole phone business, and Khosoo, who was occupied somewhere in the Gobi dessert, got exhausted by the task and made a joke about my eating habits. He told them I only eat camel. Byambaa, the good man he is, called a friend in Ulaanbaatar and had camel meat delivered to the farm, which is roughly an hour and a half away! I was so touched, that I ate the camel – what could I do! Of course, camels happens to be my favorite animals, I find them to be incredibly beautiful and graceful, a wonder of evolution and nature’s wisdom. And here I am eating it, with browned onions and potatoes! It’s a lean meat, chewy, but lean, in case anyone wants to know.
I had a great time with Baaska. He clearly developed into a young man. He had plans and dreams, which he mapped out in detail. He calculated the funds he’ d need, calculated the time he would have to invest to get the funds. He broadened his dreams, as he decided that he wanted to live on a farm and built his own herd of French milk cows, with the knowledge he accumulated through Byambaa and his experience. Nevertheless he was excited about completing his education and working as an excavator driver, because this was the best way for him to save up and invest in his farm.
We hung out, joked around and went herding together. I promptly lost a sheep, which haunts me to this day. In the afternoon, when it was too hot to go out, (for Mongolians!) we did some English/Mongolian lessons. In the evenings I tried to help with chores in the house. Gradually, with the days passing, everyone would stopped working, which surprised me, but I thought it might be due to the temperature. Later I found out that they didn’t want me to help, I was supposed to relax and enjoy my time (they don’t know me that well!). Since I wouldn’t, they just pretended there was no work to be done to keep me from helping!
On the last day, Selenge came out to visit and finally we could talk! Byambaa and Byaraa opened up like floodgates, there was so much they wanted to say. I could sense that throughout my stay, but there was not much I could do.
They described how hard the first year was. Baaska was very inaccessible and extremely guarded. They realized that they had to teach him everything about living within a family. He was a hard worker from the beginning, but it was difficult to motivate him. He didn’t know to clean up after himself, he didn’t know to keep things in order and kept treating everything like it was his own. He would act as if he was not a part of the family, almost to make a point. When friends of Byambaa or Byaraa came, he would hide, out of fear the family would tease him, introduce him as street kid, as his ‘father’ had. And then there was of course the jealousy of Ambush, the oldest son.
But they also ensured me how wonderful it had been in the last six months. That Baaska really came around, he trusted them now and therefore it was so much easier to have him around. That he truly participated in the life and work in the country and was motivated to do things by himself, without having to be told. But I could hear the exhaustion in their voices and I could see how the memory was a painful one. They don’t regret a thing, they just wish, they would have had someone to talk to, someone who would have known, could have given them advice – We should have known that! We should have been prepared for that and offered an ear and someone with expertise to support these families. Baaska and I spent two weeks together last January, one of which was quite difficult and painful. I always understood what was going on; nevertheless, it was tough and painful. I wish someone would have given me some advice, and that was just one week!
Spending those six days in the country, it became very obvious to me that I am hooked. I truly love the country and the people, particular the ones I met. Byambaa and Byaraa are some of the finest people I have ever encountered, so brave, so strong and yet so gentle. Luckily they were the first ones we worked with, without their example we may have never made it past Baaska. But the same goes for Baaska. He is such a wonderful boy, and all the difficulties that occurred were to be expected, knowing his background. I am truly thankful that they stuck it out and never gave up!
After yet another tearful goodbye from Byambaa and his family, Baaska and I went back to UB and picked up Davaa (Davaasuren). They both stayed with me in a motel for two days, in preparation to go to school. It was fun to hang out with the two boys, who immediately bonded. They went shopping together, they cooked together, joked around and shared my ipod. I was glad to get to know Davaasuren, who seemed to accept me as a strange appearance from out of space.
Ayurzana picked us up to drive to Nalaikh, to drop them off at school and sort out the formalities and tuition.
Baaska was very excited about school and seeing his friends. Davaa was a bit timid, but Baaska took him on as a brother and helped him to navigate the first day. It made me very proud to see the two enter their respective classrooms, knowing, they would receive an education that will enable them to take care of themselves and their families. And it made me proud that Baaska showed me off a little to his friends.
As I said, it’s obvious that I am in it for the long haul – happily!
January 2009: 3rd Trip click to read or close >>
After a fundraising campaign in December, I arrived in early January with my pockets full of money. I had hoped to be able to help two children and thanks to my friends and colleagues - and their friends and colleagues - we achieved our goal.
Korean Air, one of the best airlines I’ve ever flown, came onboard as a sponsor.
After a 13-hour flight, which equals 6 on-board movies, a 7-hour lay over in Seoul and another 3-hour flight, I finally arrived, bleary-eyed, in Ulaanbaatar. It was my third time in Ulaanbaatar and I was excited to see it covered with snow.
I immediately went to Byambaa’s farm to pick up Baaska, who’d stay with me in the city. It was a big moment of reunion for Baaska, Byambaa and me.
Baaska was excited to spend time in the city and I was excited to let him be a ‘kid on vacation’. The first night we strolled to the main square downtown, featuring the oversized Genghis monument. They had erected a huge Christmas tree, and Baaska insisted to take a family portrait in front of it. I thought the setting was rather surreal, particularly since it is the place where he hung out most of the time as a street kid, but it made it him happy. We went to the movies, where we saw a 3D movie about some flies going to the moon, (how fitting, whatever you dream is possible.), we went ice skating, sledding, did some sightseeing, saw some traditional dance and music, and just hung out in the hostel, where we had a room with TV and kitchen access. During the last week Baaska started cooking for the two of us! We went to visit his school in the Nalaikh province, and I met his teachers, who sang his praises. I also introduced Baaska to the computer, showed him my neighborhood in New York with Google Earth. And we also watched many, many hip hop videos.
After a couple days of bliss with Baaska, I finally got to work.
Ayurzana, Khooso and a couple of like-minded friends and colleagues surprised me with a newly founded NGO, a Non Governmental Organization, called HUGJLIIN BAYANBURD, Development Oasis. Their goal is to build a tourist camp, as Mongolia is attracting more and more tourism over the last few years. The camp will offer traditional Mongolian accommodations, a restaurant, horseback riding, and adventure trips. Gradually, they will add a farm and livestock as part of the program, but also to become more self-sufficient. About twelve chosen homeless teenagers will live, learn and work there: they will learn how to build permanent yurts with bathrooms, which are very popular; they will get specific positions to help run the camp, from cooking to accounting, depending on their skills and wishes; and they will continue their general education, including languages.
The long-term goal is to equip these kids with various skills, so they can decide if they want to live and work in the city or return to the countryside and live a more traditional life as a herder.
After a 10-year exodus to the city, more and more Mongolians are returning to the country and herding due to the economic hardship. The life of a herder is incredible hard too, but it makes them more independent, than they were with their unskilled, low-paying jobs in the city. And it’s in their blood, Mongolians are nomads in their hearts!
We discussed how we could work towards combining our goals: the currently pressing goal, to get kids of the street, and the long-term goal of creating an environment that is tailored for their future. We decided to expand the approach we had applied to Baaska. I learnt that Baaska moved from the yurt I bought him into Byambaa’s yurt, as heating a yurt cost quiet a bit of wood and wood is rare these days. Mongolians tend to live together, so we figured, the same would happen with our new families. It is also impossible to set up a yurt during the winter, as the ground is frozen. These are things I simply don’t know and as a city dweller.
So I developed a new strategy. Ayurzana and Khosoo thought it over and agreed that it was a good plan. Instead of buying a yurt, we’d invest all the money in livestock.
I would buy goats and sheep, which would be co-owned by the kid and foster family. Throughout time the herd would grow. The kid and the family would share the profit. Ayurzana would set up a bank account through the NGO, and collect the kid’s share on a monthly basis and deposit it. If one of the parties would fail the other, the share of the failed party would become property of the NGO, who would re-direct the animals to other families.
The idea is to instill a sense of ownership, but also mutual dependency. I think it’s important for the kids to know they have something equal to the family and are not just dependent on their good will and grace. And it’s a good way of keeping an eye on the family too. Livestock is the greatest asset in Mongolia, and the families won’t want to lose their animals!
Luckily, we came at a time when the animals where pregnant, which means that in a few months, they will have likely increased their shares by 50%.
We set out to Nalaikh, a province close to Ulaanbaatar, to visit two families with our proposition to become foster families. Ayurzana was the police chief there for many years, which is why he knows the province and its people so well and is very respected. Nalaikh is known for its beautiful landscape and mining. The trip is roughly 2 ½ hours, uphill, on very icy mountains. The second time, we pushed our minibus more than we drove it!
Mr. Dashnayngarag and Ms. Ikhbayar, a couple in their forties, lived in a valley and were known for their beautiful strong sheep. They were excited about the idea of having a girl live with them, as Mr. Dashnayngarag is out all day herding the animals, while Ms. Ikhbayar is home alone.
The second possible family, Mr. Lumbengarav and Ms. Narantsesteg, is also known as the ‘show family’. When he was police chief in Nalaikh, Ayurzana was asked if he knew an exceptional herder family, as the Polish Prime Minister decided he wanted to meet one during his visit in Mongolia in the 90’s. Ayurzana suggested Mr. Lumbengarav and Ms. Narantsesteg and so they became the show family and have met a lot of officials since then. They were excited to have a ‘new kid’ living with them, as all their children were out of the house and they missed have young ones around. They live in the mountains and have the best goats in the province.
After the families were settled and I knew what I could offer the children, I spent an evening in the childcare center, which broke my heart all over again. The center was stretched beyond its capacity, with about twenty more children living there than ‘recommended’. I met four children who always huddled together. Turned out they were a family who kept ending up on the street because their mother was too overwhelmed to care for them. Since they insist on staying together, there is no solution for them, so they are peddled back and forth between a broken home and the childcare center.
And there is a lot of hip hop going on, which is hilarious, since hip hid op was born in the Bronx, and here I am, with all these kids in gansta poses.
We started looking for two kids who were interested in living in the country and learning how to tend to the animals. Prior to my arrival, I had expressed that I was determined to find girls, which scared them a bit, because it is hard to keep an eye on a girl out in the steppe, particularly the older and therefore attractive ones – which is precisely my point! If it’s hard in the country, I can only imagine what it means to live on the street as a teenaged girl!
Ayurzana had ‘investigated’ a couple of girls, who were without family and possible suited for a life in the country. Most of them had a hard time envisioning themselves as herders...
...except for Nasa.
Nasa is a very quiet girl. She lived in the childcare center more than 6 months. When I was introduced to her, I instantly liked her. She is very quiet and shy, but she told me that she had heard about me, that I helped Baaska, so of course she must have been nervous and felt this was an ‘interview’. Which it was.
The hard part is not selecting a child, that’s easy; the hard part is knowing that there are so many to choose from. And of course Ayurzana is selecting them carefully, making sure that they are interested in living the life we can offer.
Nasa doesn’t say much, so Ayurzana tried to match her with a family who is also on the quiet side.
Nasa was excited about the potential to live in the country and care for animals, so we decided that Mr. Dashnayngarag and Ms. Ikhbayar were the best match for her.
After a three-day trial period, both Nasa and her new foster parents declared that they were a family, and we sealed the deal.
We drove back to Ulaanbaatar to go shopping with Nasa. I had to go through the whole ‘Black Market’ experience again. After we went shopping for Baaska, I beat myself up for not having taken pictures, so I really wanted to take pictures this time. It’s impossible. You are so busy picking and storing the goods, looking for the next item, counting money, trying to make it a good experience for her, answering the vendors questions about this odd scenario, all in high speed – it’s a very strange experience. And somewhat painful too, because it’s a constant reminder what it really means to have nothing. The only moment of comic relief was provided by Nasa, who insisted on having everything in pink. If it wasn’t pink, she didn’t want it. And I finally bought her a watch.
Ayurzana and I discussed who the second kid could be, as I had my eye on a boy. Ayurzana agreed with my choice, but wanted to wait until he completed his ‘investigation’, as he put it with a giggle. After all he is a police chief! Ayurzana has a great sense humor. He constantly cracks jokes, and makes everyone around him feel comfortable. But when he deals with the kids, he is extremely tender and careful. Kids trust him, as they understand he will not judge them, just listen.
I decided to leave the money for goats, sheep and for outfitting the boy with Ayurzana, so he could spring into action, once he completed his investigation.
During the period when we met a lot of children and families, I was also introduced to Aigul.
Aigul is of Kazakh origin. I think this is mainly why she was introduced to me. As a Kazakh girl, she is considered an outsider. People perceive her to be a Muslim, a religious minority. Aigul is confused by that perception, as she has no connection to Islam and considers herself Christian.
Since 2005, she’s been part of a Children Custodianship Program run by World Vision, an international Christian faith-based organization, which does a lot of good in Mongolia. World Vision houses and feeds them, and enrolls them in public schools. They also organize a lot of artistic activities for the children like singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. When Selenge and I visited Aigul in her dormitory, we got a presentation of songs in 5 different languages.
Aigul lives with 16 other girls in a one-bedroom apartment, which is under constant supervision. All this will come to an abrupt end when she turns 18, in March 2010. Once the children turn 18, they are no longer eligible for the World Vision program, and they will be on their own. For children who don’t have a family, this is often disastrous Their lives at World Vision are good, but there is nothing set for the future, no money saved or any kind of security net.
I was not prepared for a ‘case’ like that. I knew about the problematic situation of older teenagers, but I was unaware of the danger of losing it all for those who are already in the social network, once they become adults. Suddenly I was faced with a whole new concept of loss and fear.
After hearing about Aigul’s situation, my friend Selenge and I racked our brains for how we could help her. We had an idea. If Aigul could find a job once or twice a week, Ayurzana would open a bank account for her, and whatever earnings she would deposit, we would double. The pledge idea. Aigul was all excited, but everyone else thought it was a weird idea, because part time jobs are not common in Mongolia, but slowly they warmed up to it. We are still looking for a job for Aigul, but she is very proactive: every contact she has, she pursues weekly. She’s not an easy one to get rid of!
The last day before I returned to New York, Ayurzana surprised me with a trip to a tourist camp in the mountains. The whole bunch was coming, Ayurzana, Selenge, Baaska, Nasa, Aigul and Khooso with his wife and two boys. We spent a lovely afternoon sledding, playing ping-pong and singing karaoke. Yes, in Mongolian!
It was amazing to watch the kids being kids. They had fun, they laughed, they were careless. They were wide-eyed, most of the time. None of them had ever seen a supersized yurt with an attached bathroom or had been to an expensive restaurant.
Aigul was the coolest of them, acting like the big sister. She taught Nasa to read time on her new pink watch. It took 20 minutes and Nasa got it. She will have to practice, but she got it. It killed me. All it takes is someone taking 20 minutes to teach the girl something. Apparently, as she is illiterate, no one’s ever invested those 20 minutes.
At night the adults had caviar and vodka, while the kids played with Khooso’s computer. A real family vacation and a beautiful ending for an amazing trip.
The next day Baaska and I went back to the hotel, packed, and waited in uncomfortable silence until Ayurzana picked us up. We had a last lunch, everyone attending again. Byambaa came from the country, to see me off to the airport and to take Baaska home. Baaska told Byambaa everything he had done and seen in detail. He said he had seen "the secrets of life." They presented me with a good-bye present, a horse string instrument, similar to a guitar, but with one string only. I have been practicing since my return!
Back in New York, I am homesick for Mongolia. I know the kids are doing fine, but I miss being able to communicate with them. Thanks to technology, I can send Baaska text messages. That will have to do until the summer.
May 2008: 1st & 2nd Trips
click to read or close >>
In March 2008 I was hired by the UN to document the lives of Mongolian street children, a phenomena starting in the 90’s, when Mongolia collapsed economically, as a result of the sudden withdrawal by the Russians.
I fell immediately in love with the country and it’s people. It’s harsh and cold - Ulaanbaatar is known as the coldest capital in the world - but it’s also breathtakingly beautiful. You can find everything, waste steppe, dry dessert, green mountains and one of the biggest lakes. It is 4x the size of Germany, with almost 3 million people, 1.2 million of them are living in the capital. (comparatively, Germany has 82 million people). Mongolians are herders and nomads at heart, traveling with the seasons, and they love their country as much as they fear it, because of its harshness.
During the shoot I was introduced to Ayurzana Chogdov, the police chief of a government run childcare center that functions as a temporary collecting place for street children. We accompanied the police on a raid, where they get children off the street to find possible relatives or a more permanent solution.
That’s how I met Baaska. He and a smaller boy agreed to be interviewed. They took me underground, into a ‘man hole’, where they and other children used to live during the winter to stay warm. Baaska did the talking for both. I liked him; there was something so sincere and innocent about him. I liked how he treated his friend, took care of him. I liked how he addressed me, he was very direct.
It’s pretty much the classical story of poverty and bad luck. Baaska is unsure who his parents are. He has no recollection of his mother, and the man he believed to be his father, might just be someone who picked up Baaska from the street – at least that’s what the man claims. He is drunk and violent most of the time, definitely not behaving like a father.
So Baaska, at the age of 8, ran away and lived on the street ever since, which is now 8 years.
When we were done with the interview, the boys went back into the police van and we went out for dinner! I couldn’t stop thinking about this kid.
It was heartbreaking to watch him and listen to him, as I am sure would be with any child that I encountered later in the care facility. But there was something special about him. He was so frank, he had no shame, he told the story as is, showed his distress, but he also had a plan. He wanted to work in construction for the summer season, as he had done before and save enough money for a yurt, so that he and the smaller boy, with whom he was together since 4 years and acknowledged as a brother, could have a home.
I was impressed that he had a plan and an idea how to execute it. It sounded logical to me. It’s seamed so easy, so doable. It almost seamed absurd that this kid was living on the street, when all he needed was a little bit of support. Of course there was more to it, but still, it sounded doable to me.
So I started to talk to the people I knew. How much is a yurt, how do I get a plot in the city to set up the yurt. Could we find a family that would allow him to set up his yurt in their plot, etc. The Mongolians I talked to, did not take me serious at first, they had heard this a 100 times before, well meaning visiting foreigners, who made plans to help, left and were never heard from again. But I kept asking questions.
Two days later I had to leave.
I kept asking questions via email, until I finally told Selenge, the wonderful woman who was our translator and Ayurzana, the chief police in charge for the child care center, that I wanted to help Baaska. Because of my persistence, they slowly came up with answers. After two weeks of emailing back and forth, it became obvious, I had to go back if I really wanted something to happen. Someone had to streamline all these ideas, and of course, we needed the money to set things in motion.
In May 2008, 4 weeks after my return from Mongolia, I was in a plane back to Ulaanbaatar.
Ayurzana found a family that was willing to take Baaska in, if he’d work with them on their farm. At the beginning I was a bit skeptical, because I thought the main point was to set him up with a home and send him to back to school. But I wanted to meet the family. First morning in Ulaanbaatar, Ayurzana and I went to visit them. The family turned out to be fantastic. Byambaa, the man of the household, was a former army man, who just recently moved to the countryside to start the farm and experimented with various animals that are considered unusual in Mongolia, like pigs and chicken. He was very friendly, interested and I could tell had a huge heart. And there were 3 children, slightly younger then Baaska. Byambaa promised me to treat Baaska as one of his own.
Same day I had a meeting with a couple UNICEFF people, who I befriended during the first trip and who were also more then willing to help, but we realized that it will take some time to get Baaska’s situation and papers sorted out, which would allow him to go to school. Through the time spend in Ayurzana’s facility, we knew that Baaska could read and write, that he even could write Mongolian scrip, which is highly unusual.
So I felt that it would be more important for him to be with a family and get his feet back on the ground, rather then trying to force the idea of education and school at this early stage.
After these meetings I finally met with Baaska. Up to this point he knew nothing. I didn’t want to tell him anything, because I was afraid that I couldn’t keep my promise and would just disappoint him. The only thing he knew that I was on my way to Ulaanbaatar to try to help him.
It turned out that the little boy, who lived with Baaska the last 4 years, was returned to his parents. Ayurzana and his men checked up on him twice since then, and he seamed to do fine.
It was important for me that Baaska and Byambaa are making an educated decision, so I insisted that Baaska and I would stay with the family for 3 days, so they get to know each other a little and know what to expect. At the beginning everyone thought I am slightly crazy, particular because I insisted that we’d go without translator. I didn’t want this trip to be about me, but about Baaska.
We had a great time, Baaska helped Byambaa on the farm and played with the kids. At the end of the three days everyone agreed to do it.
I wanted Baaska to have a certain amount of independency within the family, so we went back to the city, and with the help of Ayurzana, bought a yurt, and some other things he needed. He had nothing, but what he wore on his body and a photo album, that Ayurzana’s staff gave him. It had a group photo of the children currently in the center, and Baaska had the same photo 8 times, neatly sorted into the sleeves of the album. He showed me one after the other. That was the first time I cried. The only proof of his existence, a group photo of abandoned children, multiplied by 8, and every photo was treated with equal importance.
We went back to the childcare center to trial-set-up the yurt in their yard. I felt horrible, every child was lined up at the window, watching us. Every adult came out to help. Mongols are very group and effort oriented. If something has to be done, everyone chips in. It starts with the family, but also goes for neighbors and communities. Every yurt in the steppe is open and always has some milk and food laid out, in case a hungry herder comes buy and needs a brake.
I was nervous about all the children watching, but Ayurzana thought that it was good for them to see, it would give them hope.
We packed up again, got a second car for all the people who had agreed to come out with us to help and finally moved back to the countryside. Just when night fell, we put the final touches on the yurt. Everyone blessed Baaska’s new home, piled back into the car and left.
I stayed with him, because I wanted to share the first night with him, with was also my last night in Mongolia.
When it was time to leave, Baaska approached me to shake my hand to say good-bye. It hurt me, but I understood that he’s a kid who got burnt, who had to protect himself, besides there were 20 people around us. So I shook his hand.
Once I turned to leave I heard everyone cry out, ‘Baaska is crying’ and of course I lost it too. How could I not? He is a wonderful boy, full of surprises, an adult and a small child at the same time. I cannot imagine what it must have been like, what it means for a child to be on the street for 8 years. He’s 16 years old, half of his life he has been on his own, with no support. When we were driving through the city, he told me he likes to read novels, which made me feel like a fool, because I bought him a comic. He told me he often hang out in the library. One day he started ‘to read’ an English dictionary. He went in order and made it to the letter C.
There is no guarantee that this will work out, but he deserves that someone tries. I don’t believe there is ever a guarantee a kid ‘works out’ the way we want it to. On some point it will sink in and it will become difficult for him to apprehend what just happened. I hope I can be around when that point comes. But I absolutely trust him and everyone involved that he’ll try as good as he can. That’s all I can ask for at this point.