Orphans of Change

As Mongolia lurches from the dreary certainties of communism to the risks of capitalism, its children are suffering





A young Mongolian woman is walking along Ulan Bator’s busy main street, enjoying an ice cream cone. Suddenly a small boy darts in front of her and knocks the cone from her hand. It has barely hit the ground before five urchins scoop it up and make off down the road, laughing as they share their booty. These “highway robbers” are among the estimated 3,000 children living on the streets of the Mongolian capital, victims of an economy in crisis and a society adrift. During the day they can be found hanging out at the railway station, outside cinemas or in front of department stores and hotels. In the evenings, they shelter where they can—some in doorways and many in the underground network of pipes that deliver hot water to heat the capital’s buildings. 

“A decade ago, homeless children were virtually unknown in Mongolia,” says Dean Hirsch, president of World Vision International, a Christian development organization. For more than three generations, this central Asian communist state—bolstered by $900 million in annual Soviet subsidies—provided nurseries, day-care centers, schools factories and collective farms for its 2.4 million people. “The facilities were Spartan and authoritarian,” says Hirsch, “but they provided a minimal safety net.” That net began unraveling in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union ended aid from Moscow and forced Mongolia to move to a market economy. Things worsened this year when the Asian financial crisis pulled down prices for copper and cashmere, which accounts for two-thirds of the country’s exports. Large numbers of rural families moved to Ulan Bator in search of jobs that did not exist. Government subsidies dried up and then the “vodka culture” left by the Soviets kicked in—adding a rise in domestic violence to the country’s array of social ills. Husbands drifted away from home, and wives and children finished up on the street. The government reports that one in five families now lives below the official poverty level. A 1997 World Bank report found 16% of families in absolute poverty. “It’s getting worse,” says Monkjin, a young Mongolian who works with the children at centers set up by World vision. “There’s more and more poverty, violence, alcoholism and unemployment.” I follow the boys with the stolen ice cream to a nearby park, where they sit below a statue of Lenin to finish what’s left of the cone. Nyam-ochir, 14, the leader, tells his story. “My stepmother kicked me out of the house after my father died,” he says, adding that he never knew his real mother. “During the day, I hang around the Ulan Bator Hotel trying to find food in the trash cans,” he says. “I live underground because it gets really cold outside in the winter.” 

Like the others in this group, Nyam-ochir says he does not want to go to any of the children’s centers set up by private and Christian groups because the bigger children steal their food and clothes. Nyam-ochir has a bandage around his head—the result, he says, of being struck by a rock thrown by another boy. Three brothers—Zolbayar, 11, Batbayar, 13 and Munkhjargal, 15 –say they left home because their parents mistreated them and “we always felt hungry.” Despite their bleak existence, they seem to enjoy the adventure and camaraderie of their life together on the street, possibly a throwback to their c country’s traditional nomad culture. The youngsters deny they are habitual thieves. “We only steal food when we are hungry,” one says. But it is clear many others have turned to small-time crime. One youngster, Mungsuk, happily owns up to extorting money from prostitutes by threatening to spray them with a water pistol. It is lunchtime at one of the World Vision centers, and dozens of children are just finishing a hearty lunch of thick soup and bread. Erdenesuvd, 10, but looking at least two years younger, sports a Chicago Bulls baseball cap pulled down low over her eyes. Her right hand is deformed—from what she doesn’t say. Her family moved to the city after their alcoholic father left them, and her oldest brother sold their ger, or traditional nomad’s tent. She has been living with two brothers, a sister and their mother on the streets of Ulan Bator for more than a year. She is a regular lunch visitor at the center, picking through garbage for food to feed herself at other times of the day. She is now receiving basic education through a program arranged by World Vision. Erdenesuvd says she is constantly afraid of being kidnapped or bullied by other street kids. Her brother and sister did not want to come to the center today, so she waited for another older boy to accompany her. “My dream is to have my own ger and to live there with my mother and sisters and brothers,” she says. Around midnight, I arrange to meet a group of teenagers to pay a visit to their underground home. A few streets from the railway station, they lift up a manhole cover and deftly clamber down. I follow with more difficulty. After my eyes adjust to the darkness, I find I am in a space measuring about 10 square meters, with no room for an adult to stand up. Two large water pipes run through this “room,” which is shared by 10 people, the youngest 10 and the oldest 23. Earlier this year, a pipe in one such refuge exploded, scalding several children to death. Cardboard is spread on the floor to provide a dry sleeping area. In the far corner is a man in his 30s. The children say he is suffering from a liver ailment, but cannot get medical help because, like many immigrants from the countryside, he has no identification papers. The youngsters share their food with him. Despite the conditions, they seem quite happy, frequently joking. “Why didn’t you call me on my mobile phone before stopping by,” asks 16-year-old Tsogt-Erdene, tilting his head sideways in mock seriousness. Odonchimeg, also 16, is the only female. She is the girlfriend of the leader, Zaya, 19, and is pregnant. “We are husband and wife,” she says as she leans over and kisses him. Odonchimeg says her stepfather beat her and chased her out of her family home. The gang member normally surface at about 10 a.m. and head for the railway station, where conductresses allow them to clean the trains and keep any discarded food they find. When the weather is warm, they go to the river to bathe and to wash their clothes. In the winter, they can shower at the children’s centers. By 9 p.m., they are normally back in the warmth of their underground home. 

“We support each other,” say Zaya, who looks like a pirate with his loop earring and bandanna. He points to his comrades one by one: “He sings in the railway station or in front of the disco, he picks pockets, he shines shoes and he begs for money.” When they get a bit of money to buy a little meat, they cook a communal soup in a small container in the corner of their hideaway. 

“We miss our mothers,” says one of the older boys, who has not seen his in the nine years that he has been on the streets. Zaya has been living around the railway station—among the pipes, on rooftops or under stairways—since the Soviets pulled out eight years ago. He says he would like to find a job and have a more normal life, but he doesn’t know how. “Leaving here is difficult if you don’t have identification papers,” he says. “But we have no permanent address, so it’s difficult to get them.” 

World Vision and similar operations work hard at reintegrating these street kids into society. Monkjin says a group of 12 children at one center have been encouraged to find an apartment of their own. She has offered to help them negotiate the rent and find the money to pay for it. A new informal education program has also started, and charities are liaising closely with the government on education and health care. 

Still, getting the youngsters back with their families is a difficult task; Monkjin says they succeed in only 10% of cases. This should come as no surprise, say Peter Bryan, a project manager with World Vision in Ulan Bator. “Nothing has changed at home,” he says. “The poverty is still there, the violence is still there. It’s all very good to get them back with their parents, but the situation has to change.” As Mongolia’s problems mount, nobody knows when that will be.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney