In Mongolia, an abrupt shift from rural to urban life has fractured both families and communities, leaving thousands of children homeless and vulnerable. In Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, Holt is working to keep families together, children safe and nurtured, and homes stable and warm.
In mid-winter Mongolia, the air often gets so cold that when you walk outside, all the hairs in your nose instantly freeze. So says Paul Kim, Holt’s director of programs for this ancient country in the East, also known as “the country of blue sky” for its uncommon number of clear, cloudless days. A Mongolian winter lasts from November to April, and temperatures often drop below -22°F.
To escape the cold, street children often head underground, seeking warmth in the steam heat that flows through the city’s sewer system. In recent years, the number of children living on the streets in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, has grown to an estimated 3,000 to 4,000. So many live underground, they have acquired a nickname: “manhole children.”
“I’ve seen a child pop their head out of a manhole,” says Paul, who recently returned from a visit to Holt’s programs in the region – in early November, just as winter began to set in.
Although the Mongolian people have learned to endure their native climate, for those without enough resources, harsh winters are not only a matter a comfort – they’re a matter of survival.
For a little over ten years, Holt has provided needed resources and services for at-risk children and families in Mongolia. In that time, Holt staff has developed partnerships with two government-run care centers in Ulaanbaatar – the Infant Sanitorium and No. 58 Kindergarten. Working with the Infant Sanitorium, we developed the Rainbow Special Baby Care Unit, where ailing and malnourished infants and toddlers can receive the proper nutrition, medical care and nurture they need to recover and thrive. Many children later reunite with their birth families, once healthy. Others join families through adoption. At both care centers, we continue to provide nutritional support and funding for medical supplies, clothes, toys and more modern equipment for the children in care.
“It’s like night and day,” Paul says of the changes to the care centers since Holt began providing support. “Before, the kids were well fed and cared for, but they had no balanced nutrition. They had limited medical supplies. Their clothes were old and worn out.” Caregivers would prop bottles for babies to drink, a practice linked to slow development and poor nutritional intake. Holt staff traveled to train the caregivers and staff in better practices, including holding babies while they bottle-feed.
The care centers have also painted bright, stimulating colors over the drab grays and browns of the old Soviet style. “They’ve made tremendous improvements to the facilities,” says Paul.
The changes at the care centers reflect broader changes in the culture of Mongolia over the past two decades. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Mongolia immediately transitioned to a market economy. Authoritarian attitudes gave way to a more free-thinking, democratic society, and the country began to modernize. This abrupt shift also caused many unintended consequences. As schools, factories and communal farms privatized or closed in the 1990s, many people ended up unemployed. The poverty gap deepened, and the number of people living in poverty swelled to a third of the population – a rate that has remained mostly unchanged over the last ten years. As rural industry collapsed, many families migrated to the city, setting up traditional Mongolian tents, or gher, in unplanned, unsanitary shantytowns.
“A family of six lives in a room smaller than this,” Paul, gesturing to his small office, says of one family living in an Ulaanbaatar shantytown. In 2010, Holt began a program to help low-income families like this one achieve greater stability. By providing economic support to the most destitute families – primarily households headed by single mothers – Holt helps parents to care for their children while they find the means to support their family independently. In this way, Holt is helping to prevent child abandonment, and keep kids off the streets – or out of the sewers.
For 4,000 years, nomadic herders have roamed the vast expanses of this desolate country – the most sparsely populated in the world. Shortly after the Soviet collapse, a successive period of drought and extremely harsh winters devastated livestock and herding – Mongolia’s lifeblood. When the winter of 2009/2010 killed off 4.5 million livestock – 10% of the country’s supply – many herders chose to migrate to the city rather than watch their families starve.
“What typically happens is that when one family’s herd is affected, another family will come to their aid,” Paul explains. “If everyone is hit in the community, there’s no one to turn to.”
Meanwhile social services, once supplied by subsidies from the Soviet Union, ceased to exist.
As families struggled to adapt to this new way of life, alcoholism increased, the number of single-parent households grew, and more children ended up abandoned and living on the streets.
“This will break your heart,” Paul says as he shares a photo of a mother and her two daughters – a family in Holt’s family preservation program. The mother is dying of tuberculosis. For her two daughters, however, the future is more hopeful. Through Holt’s sponsorship program, these two girls are getting an education. They have warm clothes, enough to eat and medical care when they need it. They don’t have to live in a sewer to survive the winter.
While in Mongolia this past November, Paul helped initiate expansion of Holt’s family preservation projects in Ulaanbaatar – adding, ultimately, another 30 to 60 children to the program. Through international adoption, Holt also finds families for children in care who otherwise cannot or should not be reunited with their birth families. “It’s progressing nicely,” Paul says of Holt’s adoption efforts.
In this beautiful country of blue sky, children are growing up in a society dramatically different from that of their parents. And in a country where over a third of the population is under 18, the youth will ultimately shape Mongolia’s future. Through our small but growing efforts, we hope to help shape a more solid foundation – and secure a better future – for the children of Mongolia.
Robin Munro | Senior Writer