was an unexpected and unplanned day, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable and best days of my stay in Mongolia. While saying good-bye to a friend the day before my departure, she mentioned her plans for the following day. Nasa, a fellow journalist, said she was going with her English class to visit an orphanage in the countryside. This piqued my interest and without hesitation, I agreed to come along, despite the seven o’clock meeting time on a Saturday morning. It was a chilly day, but the sun was out in all of its glory. I woke up a quarter before seven and creeped out my host family’s house. Everyone was still snoozing, and a tinge of guilt for not spending my last day with them came over me, but my attraction to visit a Mongolian orphanage overcame my sensibilities and I hailed a taxi. It always seems to surprise me that a bustling city can be so dead during dawn hours.
From New York to Ulaanbaatar where the cities are hubs of culture and society for the respective nations, they are both very quite and mundane when you venture onto the streets at six a.m. on a Saturday. The usually crowded streets were pedestrian-less and the cars held no traffic. I made it to the meeting point in record speed. The only movement I saw were the mangy dogs that roam the streets all hours in search of food and the other simple pleasures of life when one doesn’t have a home or an owner.
Nasa’s English class ranged from a young 12-year-old boy to the young ladies in their early twenties. We took a city bus out into the countryside and they dropped us off at the gates of Verbist Orphanage.
A few days prior to this trip, I had met some foreign volunteers that had come to work in Mongolia’s public service sector of women shelters and orphanages. Their comments surprised me. Most of the volunteers agreed that the children in the orphanages were very happy. If you subtract the essential parental units from the family equation, an orphanage is the next best alternative to living on the streets.
By and large, the orphanages in Mongolia are well-funded from NGOs and INGOs. This is how Verbist receives its funding to take care of about 50 orphans from babies to teenagers. They have an office in Ulaanbaatar where they keep the children during the winter, but during the summer, they go to a camp in the countryside.
When we first arrive, I see ten year old boys chopping wood for fire by the entrance. The children laugh and play, but it’s not until you start asking about their stories that the walls of heart begin to melt. I was surprised that some of the children could speak English. I later found out that many of these kids had gone to school and were taught English before they ended up in the orphanage. In addition, Verbist had two interns from Belgium who were teaching the children English while observing the orphanage for a month as they work an a research paper about their experience.
A 12-year-old girl started following me around, this is her story: Her mom has a brain tumor and her dad is an alcoholic. To save her daughter from any abuse by the girl’s father, her mom took her to the orphanage because she no longer could care for her. Staff members say that sometimes her mom comes to visit her, but not very often.
In many ways, this story touched me as I remember my father coming to visit my sisters and I at the orphanage, after he gave us to the nuns at Dong Nai Orphanage.
Every child had a different story, I only wish I could speak Mongolian to hear all of them. Another boy said he had come from a different orphanage but it had closed so he came to Verbist. He’s been in an orphanage most of his life. Others had siblings in different orphanages. These stories help me to appreciate the amazing grace that saved my sisters and I from a life in an orphanage. We were lucky enough to have stayed together and leaving the orphanage only a few years after entering the system. Some children remain in the system until they become adults.
As I played basketball and Bob-for-Apples with the children, my heart is lighter knowing that they are not among the abundant number of homeless children and bums in UB.
Homelessness exists everywhere in the world. It exists in America, but I have been a sheltered child, living in the suburbs of a nice Southern community. Coming to Asia, I have been exposed to more poverty than I have ever encountered before. I’ve visited slums in the cities of North America, but the slums in Asia are even more shocking. Seeing a limbless man bowing in the subway, begging for money breaks my heart. Asians are very hard workers, but they need the opportunity to succeed, which doesn’t always exist in a one-city nation like Mongolia.
We left the children as they started getting ready for nap time after lunch. We trekked several kilometers into the countryside to reach the Tuul River where we rested before making it back to the bus stop. Is it my own orphan-Annie story or something else in my personality that always draws me towards Orphans? I hope one day I can give back to an orphan like my parents have given to my sisters and I.