When a team of Holt donors travels to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to build homes for four of the most vulnerable families in the poorest district of the city, something so unexpected happens — so stunning and so moving — they decide on the spot to build one more.
Amin-Erdene kneels down to zip up her little cousin’s vest — a shiny, hot pink, sleeveless thing that looks far too flimsy for the weather, which has dropped 40 degrees since yesterday. It’s early spring in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a high desert region where the temperature can swing dramatically from both season to season and day to day. Yesterday, it reached the high 70s. Today, it’s in the low 30s, but feels even colder — a face-numbing, paralyzing cold that makes me want to curl into myself like a potato bug.
But 7-year-old Amin-Erdene and her cousins seem unfazed.
In a country where in the depths of winter the temperature can drop 40 degrees below zero, this is nothing. Amin-Erdene blankets a heavy coat over her little cousin, who sits in an old car seat outside the crowded ger where they’ve been living. Her feet poke out of the coat, in socks and white-heeled dress shoes that make me think of something our local partner said — how parents will often keep their kids home from school in winter because they’re worried about frostbite, and they can’t afford warm shoes. Amin-Erdene’s older brother picks up another little cousin and snuggles her close to him, kissing her on the cheek.
There’s a hard exterior to these kids. A toughness, and a sadness. Their expressions are often stone serious, and they seem distrusting of outsiders. But to each other, they have a fierce devotion. They are a family. And in that, they find the good.
But today is an especially good day for this family.
Today, a group of Holt donors have come to build Amin-Erdene, her four older siblings and their mother their first permanent home since they left a violent situation over 6 years ago.
The team is made up of 12 individuals who have donated the funds and traveled across the globe to build gers — traditional Mongolian homes — for four of the most vulnerable families living in the poorest district of Ulaanbaatar. Among them are three Holt adoptees, five adoptive parents and three past and present board members. One is the sister of an adoptee. One is a retired elementary school teacher, another a retired public defender. They come from Atlanta, New York and L.A., Boston, Vancouver and Phoenix, Omaha and Dallas and Manchester, UK. Several of them sponsor children. Each of them has a story about what connects them to Holt. But they all have something in common — something rare and beautiful that has brought them together in this remote part of the world.
They are determined to give kids like Amin-Erdene and her siblings what every child should rightly have, without question. A safe and stable home of their own.
“I see myself in the eyes of these kids,” says Kim Hanson, an adoptee and adoptive mom who has traveled from Omaha with her husband — and current Holt board member — Skip. Through the years, Skip and Kim have traveled to several of the countries where Holt has programs, but this is their first time visiting Mongolia.
Of everyone it seems to be Kim who is able to break through the hard exterior of Amin-Erdene and her cousins. They climb in her lap, make silly faces together and huddle close to her for a group hug. Maybe it’s because they too see something of themselves in Kim, who can also seem tough at first — an exterior at odds with the very warm and funny and generous person that I get to know over our six days together in Mongolia.
Unlike Amin-Erdene, Kim didn’t grow up with her siblings and cousins and mom in Korea. She spent the first four years of her life in an orphanage before going home to an adoptive family in the U.S. But like these kids, she knows what it’s like to face uncertainty at a very young age — and she sees in their lives a glimpse of what her life might have been like if she had stayed in Korea.
“Year after year, I would see these kids and knew how different my life would have been if I hadn’t been adopted,” Kim writes later, in an email reflecting on the trip. “I feel all of these children around the world are my brothers and sisters and I want to be a voice for them.”
“And it’s by no means their fault or choice to be in such living conditions.”
Thunder claps in the distance and large, dry hail clinks off metal scraps in the yard outside Amin-Erdene’s ger, which her family rents in the Songino Khairkhan district — the “ger district” — of Ulaanbaatar. Strong wind gusts keep blowing their door open, wasting heat before it creaks shut again. Only a padlock will keep it firmly closed.
In this community, families of 10 or 11 people may live together in a single ger roughly the size of a small living room in the U.S. There are no partitions. It is just one single room with a woodstove in the center and a hole in the roof to let smoke out and daylight in. They have no plumbing, no central heating.
And nowhere to go to be alone.
This in itself is a major obstacle to keeping families together. “When children have to share a crowded ger, kids are more apt to run away — just to get away from that situation,” explains Paul Kim, Holt’s director of programs in Korea and Mongolia. “Our focus is to prevent separation, because once that child leaves home, it’s far more difficult to restore the family integrity.”
When kids run away, they often end up living on the streets, or underground— seeking heat during Mongolia’s long frigid winters from the steam pipes that meander under the more affluent parts of Ulaanbaatar.
“Much of Ulaanbaatar receives heating in the winter months from steam generated from coal power plants,” explains Paul. “Throughout the city, you can see massive pipes swaddled in layers of insulation, which transport the steam. Under the streets are more pipes, which during the bitter cold of winter offer a source of heat for homeless children.”
In the morning, it’s not uncommon to see children emerging from manholes — the only indication of the city’s vast subterranean civilization. But underground is not a safe refuge for anyone, much less children.
“The conditions below are terrible; dark, unsanitary and dangerous,” Paul says. “Each winter, children seeking shelter are burned or even killed by high pressure steam erupting out of broken pipes.”
Our goal, as Paul explains, is to keep children in the safety and warmth of their families.
Inside a well-maintained ger, families manage to stay warm through Mongolia’s long winters. Round and windowless, and wrapped in insulating layers of felt made of sheep’s wool, gers are relatively well designed to conserve heat. When it’s time to sleep, a family will roll mattresses out on the floor around the stove, which they keep burning all night during the long winter months.
Surviving the winter in Ulaanbaatar, however, is a short-term trade-off for long-term health. To stay warm in a ger, families burn coal. And if they can’t afford coal, they burn tires or trash — creating a thick haze of toxic smoke over the ger communities. But as about 70 percent of Ulaanbaatar’s population lives in gers, the smoke creeps into ever corner and crevice of the city. Respiratory illness is a major cause of premature death in Mongolia, and Ulaanbaatar’s air is among the most polluted in the world.
“The biggest hardship facing our families is not food,” says Gantuul Bata, a member of Holt’s team in Mongolia. “They can go hungry for two or three days. But to keep warm in winter, coal is very expensive, so they go to the trash site and burn whatever they can find. In winter, the smoke and smell is awful.”
In Mongolia, it’s a privilege, Gantuul says, to live in an apartment with hot running water and central heat. “I never lived in a ger,” she says. “It’s a very difficult life.”
But for Amin-Erdene and her family, and many of the families Holt donors support in Mongolia, living in a ger is a life far easier than the one they have known.
“Some of these families have been homeless for 13 years,” explains Paul. “We’re talking about families that may have a mom and dad, or maybe just a mom, maybe just a dad, two, four, five, six, sometimes eight kids. They’re trying their best to survive.”
For six years, Amin-Erdene and her siblings lived under the stairs of an apartment building, where their mom worked as a maid. Their mom is a slender woman in her early 40s, dressed in all black but for white sandals with little rhinestones on the straps. Her dark hair is cropped short and pulled back in a clip, and she wears no makeup on a face marked by smile lines that deepen into a warm and lovely expression as she stands in the doorway — her arms draped around her daughter. Amin-Erdene’s mom tells us that her husband was an alcoholic, and when she and her children could no longer endure his abuse, they moved out of their mother-in-law’s ger into the basement of the apartment building. She has five children, including four boys, ages 7-19, and Amin-Erdene, her only daughter.
When her family came to the attention of our staff in Mongolia, child sponsors in the U.S. began providing monthly support for Amin-Erdene and her 10-year-old brother, and with the support of Holt donors, the family received funding to move out of the basement and into a rented ger next to her younger sister’s ger. Amin-Erdene’s mom now works nights at a pub, which supplements the funding she receives from sponsors to support her children and the small welfare check she receives from the government.
A week ago, Amin-Erdene’s mom and her children learned that a group of donors would be traveling from the U.S. to build them a brand new ger — a permanent home of their very own.
“Seven days ago, I was told that Holt donors were going to donate a ger and furniture,” she says. “Since then, for the whole seven days, we were very excited. I could barely believe it. I cried a lot, because this is my dream.”
Amin-Erdene and her mom and siblings have moved to the couch, and Amin-Erdene rests her head in her mom’s lap, intertwines her fingers with her mom’s and closes her eyes. She is still wearing her coat, but the hood has fallen away from her head. Her black hair is cut close to her scalp. It is shorter than her brothers’.
For Amin-Erdene, a new home means she can grow her hair out again.
“All the kids have lice,” explains Gantuul. It’s a chronic problem in the ger communities, as are diarrhea, ticks and skin rashes. In the summer, they can bathe in the river. But in wintertime, it’s so difficult to walk to the well, pump water into jerry cans and push the water cart back up the icy hills and ravines of the ger district, that many families don’t bathe for months at a time.
But as part of their gift to the four families, Kim and her fellow donors have not only bought the materials for a ger— they provided each family with furniture and appliances, including a small washing machine.
“The washing machine will help get rid of the lice,” Gantuul says of Amin-Erdene as she sleeps in her mother’s lap. “I promised her she could grow out her hair again.”
At the end of the day, once Amin-Erdene’s ger is constructed, Paul stands outside as the team moves their new furniture inside.
“What we were able to accomplish here today was not just give a family a house,” Paul says, his voice barely audible in the wind.” We gave them a place that offers security and warmth — and a place where a family can stay together.”
By providing a place of their own, where they have privacy and permanency and more resources to spend on food and clothes, coal to heat their ger and other things they need to survive, these 12 extraordinary people — Robyn and Carol, Linda and Joy, Donna, Alex, Erna and Seri, and Mary, David, Skip and Kim — have built these families the foundation for a new life.
Alongside the Holt sponsors who support Amin-Erdene’s family and our staff who work in the field, they are working to ensure that need and desperation doesn’t cause the children to run away — or cause their parents to relinquish them to someone else’s care.
“You have families where the parents just love the children,” says Paul. “But without a place to stay in an environment so harsh… gets tough. And for so many of the families who don’t have places to stay it means possibly abandoning their children to the care of someone else, in the desperate hope that the children will then get food and shelter.”