After a year since my visit to Mongolia I still think of what an amazing experience I had there, and how it has made me discover and appreciate more of what exists at home in Canada. Last year, as I was exploring options for a long overdue vacation from work, I stumbled across the opportunity to visit Mongolia through Projects Abroad.
I wanted to experience something completely different from my daily life. Volunteering abroad, gaining first-hand experience in a developing country, immersing myself in a foreign culture, and adventure in the beautiful landscape of Mongolia drew me to apply for a one-month human rights internship with Projects Abroad. Traveling solo for the first time, the safety net offered by the Projects Abroad community was important.
During August 2010, I interned at the National Legal Institute, an agency of Mongolia’s Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. I worked in a small team with other interns from Europe, the United States, China and Australia to raise awareness among the poor about their legal rights. Our work was an important step in establishing a culture in Mongolia that respects human rights. Since abolishing communism in 1990, the country has been transitioning to a new political system with the goal of developing a nation respecting human rights, democratic values, the market economy, and the rule of law. However, many of Mongolia’s poorest people remain unaware of their legal rights or how to protect them.
Our goal was not only to inform the poor about their rights, but also to build their knowledge about the legal processes to protect these rights and to provide our assistance where necessary. We focused on raising awareness about land and civil registration – basic necessities for livelihood. Land ownership is essential for building a home, and providing security and a source of income. Civil registration is required to secure many of the rights and benefits granted to citizens in the 1992 Constitution of Mongolia, such as education, social security and medical support.
We concentrated our work in the ger districts on the outskirts of the city. The ger districts are home to the poorest people in Ulaanbaatar. Sixty percent of the city’s population – over half a million people – live in these settlements, often in traditional Mongolian tents known as gers. Many residents suffer from a lack of services and basic infrastructure, with many homes built on steep hillsides and in areas at risk of flooding. To reach these residents, we created and distributed posters with information about land and civil registration in the office of each khoroo (an administrative subdivision) in the Sukhbaatar district, with an accompanying survey for residents to report issues in these areas.
By the end of my one-month internship, nearly seventy cases had been reported to us. While most of the issues dealt with land and civil registration, we also assisted individuals who reported problems in other areas such as social benefits, marriage, and fraud. Our Mongolian supervisor worked with us to resolve the cases, including translating surveys and conversations, and taking us to visit the ger districts and government offices. We also conducted research on legislation and policies relevant to the cases.
One of my most memorable cases was that of Dolgar Ayush, a 73-year-old women living in the ger district. Her story illustrates the challenges that many of the poor and women in Mongolia face. Ayush was living with her unemployed son and his wife on someone else’s land in the ger district. She wanted to move out to live on her own because the daughter-in-law was taking her pension income. She sought our help in obtaining ownership of land that she found nearby. The land office initially denied her request to own a piece of land on a hill, stating that emergency vehicles would have issues accessing it. After our many conversations with the land officer and visits to different pieces of land in the ger district, the land office finally permitted Ayush to own the piece of land on the hill. We helped her with the process of getting a license for it, with financial aid from Projects Abroad.
Throughout my placement and stay in Mongolia, my Projects Abroad supervisor and other in-country staff were there to provide the support and opportunities that allowed me to make the most of my experience in Mongolia. When I had issues with my first placement organization, they addressed my concerns and placed me with an organization that could provide the work experience I applied for. I not only ended up with a fantastic work experience, but also a wonderful supervisor and international team that I had fun with outside of work.
When I expressed interest in visiting an orphanage, Projects Abroad staff allowed me to join a few volunteers at The Children’s Place. Spending a few hours with the kids who laughed, played, and wanted to sit in your lap and be held was heart-warming. The Projects Abroad staff also arranged weekend and evening activities that allowed us to meet other interns and volunteers. The excursion that they arranged to Terelj National Park, where I got to ride a camel for the first time and horseback ride, was one of the highlights of my trip.
My incredible experience in Mongolia would not have been possible without my host family, and trips to the countryside and the Gobi Desert with fellow interns. Projects Abroad matched me with a wonderful host family that not only provided me with home-cooked Mongolian meals and a comfortable place to stay, but also insight into Mongolian people and life in the city and countryside.
Road trips through the beautiful countryside, and visits to Hustai National Park and Gun-Guulat Nature Reserve with other volunteers on the weekends left me in awe at the country’s beauty. I did not want to leave without a visit to the Gobi Desert. I spent my last week on a seven-day adventure through the Gobi Desert with four fellow interns – no better way to experience Mongolia and cap off my vacation.
Towards the end of my time in Mongolia, I felt a desire to continue contributing to this country after I left. My one-month human rights placement with the National Legal Institute allowed me to gain first-hand exposure to the day-to-day challenges of the poor in Mongolia. The visits to residents in the ger districts, working with government, and meeting the children in the orphanage gave me a better understanding and appreciation of the complex challenges faced by a developing country. Although my stay was temporary, I knew I could make a long-term contribution in a small way by sponsoring a child.
I was fortunate to be able to arrange a visit to SOS Children’s Villages in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia before I left. Every time I get a letter from my child from SOS Children’s Villages in Mongolia, I am reminded of the amazing experiences and opportunities that I was able to have because of my decision to sign up for a one-month human rights placement in Mongolia with Projects Abroad. Now back home, I make the time to discover, explore and appreciate more of what Canada has to offer, as I did in Mongolia. To anyone looking for a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing experience, I highly recommend this program.