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
Spring 2012: 10th Trip
Fall 2011: 9th Trip
Spring 2010: 6th Trip
Winter 2010: 5th Trip
Summer 2009: 4th Trip
Winter 2009: 3rd Trip
Spring 2008: 1st & 2nd Trips
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.
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 came.
As usual, the trip turned out differently than anticipated and planned as my focus shifted to applying for government allowances for all three kids.
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 August.
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 accompany us.
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 Gobi.”
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.
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 one.
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.
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 was very short, with my main focus on Baaskaa’s graduation.
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.
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.
These are very exciting visions. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future, we’ll be able to buy asparagus from Mongolia!
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.