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Home > About Us > Magazine > Mongolia: Upwardly Mobile

[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

Education lifts disadvantaged Mongolian children out of freezing streets, filthy tunnels, and dangerous jobs.

World Vision magazine, Autumn 2007

by James Addis, Photography by Justin Douglass

It’s 6 p.m. on Seoul Street in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and already the fading light and fierce chill is persuading commuters to hurry home. But for Boloztuya, it’s just the beginning of what promises to be a long night. The girl is 14, though her growth is so stunted she might easily be confused for a child of 8.

Boloztuya sells gum on the streets. Well-dressed women and foreigners are the best prospects.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]
Standing outside the California Restaurant, she tries to interest passersby to buy her few packets of chewing gum, which she proffers with hands covered in sores and warts. She has an expert eye for likely customers. Well-dressed, middle-aged women and foreigners are good prospects. After a few hours selling gum, she may switch to guarding cars in restaurant parking lots for well-to-do diners. Afterward she will go back to selling gum to patrons emerging from pubs and discothèques.

“Sometimes people just tell me to go away, but sometimes they are OK,” she says.

On a good night she will head home around 2 a.m.

She will return to a leaking, crudely constructed wooden hut, which she shares with her unemployed mother, younger brother, and older sister.

Boloztuya dares not go home if she hasn’t made much money. Her mother will scream at her. Sometimes she has beaten her with a belt and occasionally with an iron poker. The beatings are worse during holidays or festivals when her mother gets drunk. At those times, Boloztuya will spend the night alone on the street, hunkering down in shop doorways. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world. In the winter, temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Boloztuya's home -- a crude wooden hut.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

There are so many mind-numbing obstacles in Boloztuya’s life that at first sight it’s difficult to find any cause for encouragement. But recently she achieved something to be proud of: She learned to read and write — skills acquired at World Vision’s informal education program. Nowadays, Boloztuya delights in applying her newfound abilities to reading poetry, something that transports her to a happier world. Without hesitation she quotes Mongolia’s best-loved poet, D. Natsagdorj:

To the north mountains adorned with forest / Boundless, golden, shimmering blue priceless Gobi / Leading to the south oceans of shifting sand / This is my birthplace, /Mongolian beautiful country

Mongolia is beautiful, but as Boloztuya knows, there is also ugliness. Since the 1920s, the country leaned heavily on the Soviet Union, but the collapse of that power meant the abrupt end of support for the Mongolian economy, bringing unprecedented hardships. Unemployment and inflation soared. Families cracked under the strain. Parents found solace in vodka. Children were violently beaten and sexually abused; thousands fled their dysfunctional homes for life on the streets.

Boloztuya and friends at a World Vision center.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

To escape the freezing conditions, street children often seek refuge in foul-smelling underground tunnels, which carry the city’s hot-water pipes. The grandiose public utility is wasteful of power, but each night the warren provides comfort to hundreds of lonely children who huddle against the pipes for warmth.
In 1997, a New Zealand couple working for World Vision, Peter and Sue Bryan, began to address children’s grievous problems. At night they would befriend children living in the tunnels, and during the day they would clean out the basements of grim Soviet-style apartment blocks, removing rotting floorboards and fixing up leaking pipes. The basements were to become among the first centers for street children in Mongolia. They were dubbed “Lighthouses” by the children who came to live there—a reference to the radiance they found there in contrast to the darkness of street life.

Homeless children are assessed at the police's welfare center. They may then be reffered to World Vision for more permanent care.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

But it quickly became clear that the centers were only part of the solution. Oyunchimeg Duni, a child psychologist and coordinator of World Vision’s children’s programs in Mongolia, says it was apparent that children from troubled or nonexistent families were poorly served by the state education system.

Most teachers preferred better-dressed, better-performing students.
To counter this, World Vision worked with education authorities to begin informal education programs, providing special attention for children who may have missed years of schooling. Informal education is conducted at the day-care centers, but elsewhere World Vision built dedicated classrooms at state schools, paid for specialist teachers, and provided extra equipment. Last year almost 1,000 students benefited from the program.

Dancing at the Lighthouse -- a big contrast to the darkness of street life.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

Most classes are in Ulaanbaatar, though about 30 percent of students attend programs in rural areas, where their impoverished circumstances have forced them to leave school and take dangerous jobs such as gold mining.

Chat with children who attend classes, and their stories seem to echo a Charles Dickens novel.

The previous home of Munkerdene, 8, and his brother, Munkhsukh, 5, was a tent constructed of cardboard boxes. Their mother was a street cleaner until she got too sick to work. One day the boys watched in horror as their mother turned blue, hemorrhaged, and died.

Otgon writes in a script that originates from the time of Genghis Khan
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

Otgon, 15, fled an abusive stepfather when she was 12. Before she found a home at one of the Lighthouses, she lived in the basement of a partly completed building with about 30 other children and nine prostitutes. They slept on Styrofoam, salvaged from cardboard boxes, and followed the orders of a female pimp. Otgon was set to work recovering cans and bottles for recycling while other children stole wing mirrors from vehicles.

Otgon might have been being groomed for prostitution. “Only later did I realize what a danger I was in,” she says.

Attempting to educate children with such tormented backgrounds might seem like a teacher’s worst nightmare. But walk into an informal classroom today and it’s hard to believe that nearly all the students are former dropouts. In Dolgormaa Yumjav’s high school class, students quietly copy down a lesson in traditional Mongolian script. Peace reigns, until a visitor asks the class if their teacher is any good.

Teacher Dolgormaa in action.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

“Tlim!” (“yes”) everybody yells in unison, followed by squeals of laughter — all much to Dolgormaa’s embarrassment.

Dolgormaa says she opted to specialize in informal education because students estranged from their parents often interact with their teachers at a deeper level. “I have a much closer relationship with these students than I could in a normal classroom,” she says.

She adds that children feel more relaxed in an informal class. Class sizes are small and lessons are tailored to suit students’ ability, irrespective of their age. Students don’t sneer at an older peer working from an elementary textbook.
Dolgormaa says the students’ common experiences help, building a sense of camaraderie.

If Dolgormaa’s class is uninhibited, another informal class at the nearby elementary school is even more so. Batbaatar, 12, stands and sings a traditional folksong. Other children join in the chorus, though mostly he sings confidently, unaccompanied—a far cry from the frightened figure who turned up at a Lighthouse after fleeing regular thrashings from his drunken stepfather. A bright student, Batbaatar has already made up for his disrupted schooling and speaks confidently about resuming regular classes next year.

Batbaatar, a once-battered boy, sings.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

It would be foolhardy to think that helping children with troubled backgrounds is a piece of cake. Oyunchimeg Duni says children brought up on a diet of abuse don't turn into angels overnight. Some accepted into Lighthouse residential programs find it hard to adjust and drift back to the streets — occasionally returning drunk or with makeshift knives hidden under their coat sleeves.
On one occasion, a female houseparent was attacked with a chair and ended up in the hospital.

But Oyunchimeg says that over time, the vast majority of children — about 80 percent — respond to the atmosphere of acceptance the informal education programs and the Lighthouse centers foster — the antidote to the rejection they have experienced most of their lives.

“These children lack compassionate mothers and fathers — you have to become a mother, a father, a sister, and a brother to these children,” she says.

Zolzaya hopes to be an aircraft engineer.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

The other key to success, Oyunchimeg says, is to give children hope. Although government rules forbid overt evangelism, many Lighthouse children have become Christians through casual discussions with their houseparents. Ten girls currently living in one of the residences now regularly attend church.

Such care and kindness seem to work.

The boys benefiting from informal education do not exhibit any of the sullen hostility one might expect given their history. Instead, they are courteous and talkative. Engage them in a conversation about what makes a good parent, and everybody has something to say: “Parents should stay together. When they split up, it’s like removing the leg from a table — the whole family falls down.” … “If a child makes a mistake, learn to forgive. Don’t assume they will always make the same mistake.” … “If you use bad words all the time, your child will die.”

Returning to the classroom does more than help children find their emotional bearings. Students are at pains to point out that they take the same exams as those in mainstream classes — though they may take extra time to reach the same level.

A good example is Bolormaa, 19, who recently passed her eighth-grade exams after studying at the same day-care center as her sister, Boloztuya (the gum seller). The qualification helped Bolormaa secure a job at a video store.

Uranzaya, star soloist of the Children of the Blue Sky Choir.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

Children living in the residential Lighthouses have the opportunity to supplement their informal education with a variety of stimulating extra-curricular activities — a nice change from collecting cans or raiding trash bins for food. In particular, Lighthouses have sought to provide opportunities for tuition in traditional instruments, dance, and song — something that has proved popular as the children’s love for their culture is extraordinarily strong. Their enthusiasm led to the formation of the 36-strong Children of the Blue Sky Choir. The choir has toured in Korea and some of the standout singers have been invited to perform in India.

For older children, the choir has proved the springboard to greater heights.
Star soloist Uranzaya, 18, is one of several who now attend a cultural college. She hopes to make a career as a singer. Confident and fashionably dressed today, it’s hard to picture the scene seven years ago when the tearful girl was found on the streets of Ulaanbaatar with nowhere to go. “I think I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “I think God had his hand on me.”

Other young people are pursuing different directions. After a Lighthouse houseparent introduced the joy of aircraft modeling, he ignited a craze. Zolzaya, 17, entered one of his airplanes in the Mongolian Radio-Controlled Aircraft Association competition, which attracts the top modelers around the country. He won second place, inspiring him to start courses at a technical college.

Shinedarav wants to return to the simple, nomadic lifestyle she once knew.
[(c)2007 Justin Douglass/World Vision]

Shinedarav, 17, has transitioned from informal classes to World Vision’s Youth Farm Center. The farm, located an hour’s drive from the capital, teaches animal husbandry, vegetable growing, and traditional skills such as yogurt-making.

For Shinedarav, working the farm represents a return to her roots. She ended up in Ulaanbaatar after her rural family disintegrated when her father went to jail.

Now her dream is to go back to the simple, nomadic lifestyle she once knew. “Why would anybody want to live in Ulaanbaatar with its pollution, its smoke, and its drunks?” she says.

Watching her herding goats in the spring sunshine, the scene framed by lightly snow-clad mountains, one can see her point.

To see children educated, articulate, and fulfilling their dreams is a great source of joy to Oyunchimeg. She says she spent years delivering lectures on child development from a dry textbook; now she sees child transformation every day. “I believe God has called me to this work,” she says.

Reporter's Notebook

Reporter's Notebook

Watch this audio slideshow for a behind-the-scenes look at reporting for the story "Upwardly Mobile." Listen to the author's commentary, see more photos from Mongolia, and enjoy music by the Children of the Blue Sky Choir.

The informal education program she manages has achieved official recognition. The government uses it as a model for other agencies working with children in difficult circumstances.

Zolzaya, the airplane model whiz, can hardly believe how his education has broadened his horizons. He keenly remembers how people would look down on his dirty, disheveled appearance as a former street urchin. Today, he plans to go to university after finishing technical college, study aircraft engineering, and hopes to ultimately work for the national airline.

His thoughts on all this are quite simple. “Now I have hope,” he says.

Learn More

>>Go behind the scenes of this story. Listen to the author's commentary, see more photos from Mongolia, and enjoy music by the Children of the Blue Sky Choir.

>>Read The Price of Gold, the story of a child laborer in rural Mongolia.

>>Read Tunnel Vision, to learn more about life on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Get Involved

>> Pray for children in Mongolia. Pray that they would be granted opportunities to improve their lives through education.

>> Make a donation to help ensure every young student has the resources he or she needs to enroll in school and do their best.

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The feature above was published in
World Vision MagazineAutumn 2007 [pdf].

Also in this issue:

What Education Means to Me
A collection of quotes and photographs show childrens universal desire for schooling.

Accessing the magazine archives or an electronic version of this entire issue requires Adobe Acrobat reader. If you need a free copy of the reader software, click on this button:

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Reporter's Notebook

Watch this audio slideshow for a behind-the-scenes look at reporting for the story "Upwardly Mobile." Listen to the author's commentary, see more photos from Mongolia, and enjoy music by the Children of the Blue Sky Choir.


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