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The Young Urbanites of Ulaanbaatar

May 6, 2012

Last month I attended my final Peace Corps conference, the Close of Service conference, held at a holiday camp north of Ulaanbaatar. The conference is an important rite of passage as volunteers transition to the next stage of their careers, with topics covering the filling out of paperwork, saying goodbye, and moving on. This summer we will all scatter in different directions across the globe, whether it’s extending for a third year as a Peace Corps volunteer, staying to work in Mongolia with a different organization, taking time to travel, or moving back to the US. (Fyi, I fall firmly in that last category.)

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At the COS conference

On my way from the conference back to the Gobi, I helped out at a fundraiser, an open-mike night at UB’s Xanadu Art Gallery, for the Agaa-Egee Mentoring Program. Agaa-Egee, which means ‘Big Brother, Big Sister,” connects children in local orphanages with role models to guide and inspire them as they transition from life at the orphanage to adulthood. Founded by a fellow volunteer, Alison, Agaa Egee is a flagship venture, drawing on Mongolians’ traditionally collectivist values to promote community service and address the increasing inequalities in wealth and opportunity that have arisen as Mongolia’s development accelerates.

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Door duty (photo by Nomin Munk)

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Twist and shout…for Agaa Egee! (photo by Nomin Munk)

What struck me even more than the bewilderment of finding myself suddenly immersed in the familiar – surrounded as I was by English-speakers listening to Western music in a trendy art gallery – was the unique community of Mongolians and expats that had gathered in the gallery that evening. About half the crowd consisted of Peace Corps volunteers and other foreigners that had come out to support Alison and the performers. The rest were the Mongolian mentors and supporters of Agaa-Egee, a demographic of university students and young professionals that I hadn’t yet encountered during my two years living in the countryside. The energy of these English-speaking, culture-savvy, socially engaged youth was powerful enough to make me feel as if I had suddenly stumbled upon Mongolia’s urban alter ego.

According to Alison, the majority of the program’s mentors are students and young entrepreneurs in their mid-late twenties. Many of them have lived or studied abroad and have returned to contribute their talents and optimism to a rapidly changing Mongolia. Often recruited from English clubs and the repat community, these are internationally-minded young leaders who believe strongly in corporate responsibility and community service. So, says Alison, in addition to providing support for children in need, Agaa-Egee’s brand has evolved into a network of “culturally open foreigners and cool repat Mongolians” who are looking to connect with others who share their values.

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The mentors (photo from Agaa-Egee website)

In the conversations I had with these young Mongolians, I noticed more similarities than differences. They gather in the capital city seeking the same things as us volunteers, whether it’s hunting down American comfort food, studying new cultures and languages, or exploring new ways to address the challenges that today’s Mongolians are facing. Many of them are repats who do not always feel welcome in their native land, who sometimes feel they have more in common with expats than with other Mongolians. It is their open-mindedness that both sets them apart from their peers and positions them to make unique contributions to their community.

I, too, will soon be a repat, and the stories of these young Mongolians resonate with me whenever I think about the impending transition: How will my family and friends understand my Peace Corps experience? How can I transfer the lessons that I’ve learned here to my professional and personal life in the US? Where will I find a hearty plate of mutton or a glass of fermented mare’s milk???

 Well, my plane hits American soil on June 27th, so I guess I’ll find out soon enough!

Three Months to Go!

April 10, 2012

2012 is a big year for Mongolia. The three-month countdown does not just apply to my Peace Corps close of service on June 22 (!!!). It is also the countdown to Mongolia’s national election, and this year’s election is momentous in more ways than one.

Mongolians will witness a bit of history as Mongolia adjusts its parliamentarian system to make it more responsive to broad national interest. In Mongolia’s current system, candidates compete in their home provinces for that region’s share of parliament’s 76 seats. Their province’s voters put them in office and keep them there. Ignoring local demands in the name of the general good equals political suicide for a Mongolian parliamentarian and often leads to stalemates in resolving budgetary disputes. To combat this political reality, starting this year 28 of the 76 seats will be filled by nominees appointed by political party leaders, according to the percentage of seats that party won in the national election. Through this new mixed system, Mongolia’s leaders hope to balance national and local concerns in parliament decisions.

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View of UB (with the parliament building in the bottom right)

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Inside Parliament

This year has also witnessed a push to make Mongolia’s electoral process more open and honest. New laws prohibit vote-buying through cash handouts and gifts, a prolific practice in the past. They also ban the use of foreign campaign consultants, who might make a grab for Mongolia’s resource wealth through the candidate they helped get elected. Finally, Mongolia will import new voting technology from the US, abolishing the untrustworthy practice of hand-counting the ballots. As a result, this year’s election will definitely not be just another race.

 Please welcome to the stage Ts. Anandbazar, oil king and aspiring parliamentarian. The president of national oil giant Sod Mongol, Anandbazar will battle for Dornogobi Province’s single parliamentary seat, running against five or so contenders, including two incumbents. He has already started to use his fortune to woo Sainshand voters. Despite the new election laws, Anandbazar has still found not-so-subtle ways to garner support. Last summer he funded an all expenses paid trip to Lake Khuvsgal, clear across the country from Sainshand, for 50 school teachers. Around New Year’s, he threw a “1000 Teachers Party” for all of our province’s teachers, including drinks, party favors, and performers from the capital.

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Ts. Anandbazar and his Sod Mongol Company

What will most affect public opinion regarding Anandbazar, however, will most likely be his plan to construct an oil refinery in Sainshand, the first refinery in all of Mongolia. Mongolia’s mining industry is developing rapidly, projected to expand six times by 2015 and increase Mongolia’s GDP an average of 14% per year over that same period.* Currently, two-thirds of Mongolia’s oil demand is attributed to the mining industry, and that number will only grow as mining becomes an ever-more integral part of Mongolia’s economy.**

The one catch, however, is that all of Mongolia’s known oil reserves are owned by China. Chinese companies extract the oil and ship it to China, where it is processed and sold back to Mongolia at exorbitant prices. The ability to process its own oil would decrease Mongolia’s foreign dependence and positively affect local industrial capacity, domestic jobs, and national security. The Sainshand refinery, which will begin production in 2015, will process one-third of Mongolia’s oil demand, creating up to 4,500 new jobs in an area plagued by unemployment. In short, the proposed refinery project is a BIG deal.

According to the refinery’s American consultant, Anandbazar and his Sod Mongol are trying to do things right. Rather than relocating an old refinery from Russia or the Middle East, which would be cheaper but more dangerous and less green, the Sainshand refinery will be built from scratch, using more efficient technology that is better for the environment. Training programs are planned that will train a local team to build and operate the refinery, as opposed to bringing in foreign (probably Chinese) talent. Most importantly, contrary to the experience of some countries in the Middle East and Africa, Sod Mongol is attempting to engage the public in discussions about the refinery and its impact on Sainshand’s workforce and environs.

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The Mongolian People’s Party Headquarters in Sainshand

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The Democratic Party Headquarters in Sainshand

It’s hard to say how many of Sod Mongol’s promises are a genuine endeavor to cultivate local opportunity and public engagement and how many of them will be ignored as soon as Anandbazar’s parliamentary fate is decided. Either way, in a year when Mongolia is both grappling with break-neck speed development and boldly trying to make its governmental processes more honest, the story of Anandbazar is an interesting case study in which both problems collide. I, for one, regret that I will not be around to watch the election drama play out. One thing is for certain, within a few years my Gobi hometown, and much of Mongolia, will no longer be recognizable.

*Mining statistics are from “Booming Mongolia,” The Economist, Jan. 21, 2012

**Refinery statistics are from conversations I’ve had with American consultants working for Sod Mongol

UPDATE (May 6, 2012)

A few weeks ago, in the wee hours of the morning on April 13, former Mongolian president N. Enkhbayar was arrested by the Independent Authority Against Corruption. The first Mongolian politician to serve as the Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament, and President, Enkhbayar split off from his parent party to form the new Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party in 2011.

The reason for the arrest is still unclear, with vague charges of corruption and failure to appear for earlier questionings. With the election drawing near, many suspect political motivations and an attempt to discredit his party. The National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia declared the arrest illegal, and protests were held in Ulaanbaatar during the days succeeding Enkhbayar’s arrest.

The arrest was a violent one, and stunned Mongolians watched live on television as the police broke down the former presidents door and forcefully arrested him in front of his family. Mongolians see the event as yet more evidence of the corruption of Mongolia’s leaders and legal system. (As we watched the news reports, a friend turned to me and said wistfully, “America is such a free country.”)

Needless to say, the election has gotten a lot more interesting…

Another Asian Adventure: Beth Goes to Thailand!

February 21, 2012

This is my first blog entry since the end of October. Pathetic. I wish I had a sufficient explanation, like “I was coordinating a nationwide project” or “I was hibernating” or “I was tending my herds of camels in the desert!”  The real story, however, consists of a series of disjointed events – from trainings to tests to traveling – from which I’ve suddenly emerged just as spring begins to tease the Gobi with the first promises of warmer weather. Could my last Mongolian winter really have passed so quickly?

Aerial view of Mongolian winter...

This is also my first blog of the New Year, according to both the Western and Lunar calendars. I am thus making the resolution to blog twice a month during the few months (FOUR!) that I have left as a volunteer in Mongolia.

One of the aforementioned winter interruptions was a long-awaited, very therapeutic trip to Thailand with Will. When my flight took off from Ulaanbaatar in mid-January, the temperature was -20° F. When I landed in Bangkok, it was almost 90° F. I got off that plane…and started sweating. A lot.

Now, I must admit that I did very little research about Thailand prior to my departure, and I gained only the most superficial knowledge during our 7-day sojourn. (We were primarily focused on getting to the beach.) Besides the temperature, however, there were a few cultural differences that were difficult not to notice. Take the flavorful food. Or the highly developed tourism infrastructure. Or the way the locals greeted us with good-natured smiles instead of suspicious glances.

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Enjoying the food and the beach!

One of the most interesting dissimilarities, however, was the pervasive religious presence in Thailand. I am hardly an expert on the respective religious doctrines prominent in Thailand and Mongolia, and the information in this entry is based solely on my own observations and the tidbits of supplemental information I gleaned from Lonely Planet. But even to a novice such as myself, it was immediately apparent that religious devotion is an integral part of Thai society, while in Mongolia it has largely been overshadowed by the temporal interactions of daily life and plain ol’ apathy.

About 95% of Thais practice Theravada Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that originated in Sri Lanka. All Thai men spend some of their life as a monk, even if it is only a few weeks before they get married. Religion is more than a private personal choice. It is a rite of passage that defines Thai adulthood.

Buddha statue in Thailand's Grand Palace

Religion also plays an integral role in the routines of Thai households. Considering the bulk of my Asia experience has been in countries shaped by a communist legacy, where leaders actively, and often violently, sought to dig up religion by its roots and destroy it, I was overwhelmed by the signs of daily worship that dotted the streets of Thai cities. Every family made offerings of food and incense to small, but elaborately decorated shrines. Shops selling religious paraphernalia lined the chaotic streets, their gold and yellow hues making them distinctly visible despite the clutter.  Cellophane-wrapped baskets stuffed with salt, oil, and other daily necessities waited to be bought as an offering to the monks that inhabit the abundant temples. The plethora of religious shops and the financial exchanges between monks and laymen evinced a commercialization of religious life that Will and I found overwhelming at first!

One of many religious shops in the Thai city of Chumphon

Offerings for Thai monks, available for purchase

Now consider Mongolia, which is also primarily Buddhist, but the similarities stop there. Many Mongolians will identify themselves as Tibetan Buddhists, although they commonly incorporate elements of shamanism and superstition into their belief system as well. The majority of Mongolians I’ve talked to practice Buddhism in the most limited sense, with perhaps an annual visit to the monastery, or are self-proclaimed agnostics. During these infrequent visits, Mongolians pay a pittance of an offering, a small fraction of a dollar, and the Mongolians I’ve asked did not know how the monasteries are economically sustainable.

Monastery in Nalaikh, Mongolia

Perhaps due to these differences in religious economies, I found Thailand’s magnificent temple, whose golden spires could be seen across the city, to be most impressive of all. The amount of visible wealth housed in the palace-esque structures made it understandable why Thai temples were so frequently pillaged during ancient wars with the Burmese. The Mongolian monasteries I’ve visited have been humble, almost deserted places, where monks sit on cushions reading Tibetan prayers in rough, low voices. In contrast, the Thai temple grounds were teeming with yellow-robed monks of all ages, Thai worshipers, and foreign tourists. Some of them even felt like an exhibition, surrounded as they were by white tents housing amulet shops, religious offerings, and people lecturing over loud speakers. None of the religious symbols I’ve become accustomed to seeing in Mongolia – such as prayer wheels, ovoos (sacred mounds of rock), and terrifying depictions of Tibetan gods – were present in Thailand.

At the Grand Palace, Bangkok

The Energy Center at Khamriin Monastery, Mongolia

Regrettably, Will and I traveled in our own sightseeing bubble, and I never had the opportunity to talk to a local about the role religion plays in the life of the average Thai. Do they find fulfillment or a sense of security in being a part of such an expansive religious community? Do they feel burdened by the requisite rites or the financial dues? How much does their religion influence their professional and personal decisions?

Next to Sainshand's sacred 'ovoo' on (Lunar) New Year's Day

As an outsider, and one coming from what can be a formidable environmental and social climate, I most appreciated the way in which the constant hum of religious activity added to Thailand’s open and animated character. After spending almost two years doggedly focused on cultural integration and local acceptance in Mongolia, it was a relief to relax obliviously into Thailand’s warm, welcoming atmosphere and just enjoy the exotic.

Sober October: Mongolia’s Road to Responsible Drinking

October 30, 2011

Last week on the front page of the Daily News, a Mongolian paper with a national circulation, there was an article titled, “As Early as ‘First Grade Letters’ Day’ Teachers and Parents Begin Alcohol Socialization.” After celebrating “Letters Day” – an adorable holiday where 1st grade students, parents, and teachers commemorate the students’ first baby steps towards literacy – the parents took the teachers out to a bar to celebrate. (Presumably, the teachers even sent the students out to buy vodka for them, an all-too-common occurrence despite the 21-year-old age minimum for buying and consuming alcohol.) The article even claimed that  alcohol is often used as a bribe by parents to get teachers to favor their students. By observing these interactions, even from a distance, Mongolian children learn to see alcohol as an essential part of adult relationships.

“As Early as ‘First Grade Letters’ Day’ Teachers and Parents Begin Alcohol Socialization.”

The publishing of this article was perfectly timed with Peace Corps’ annual Alcohol Awareness Week initiative. This year I collaborated with the Health Department, Medical College, and a local NGO to replicate last year’s awareness activities on a larger scale. At five schools across Sainshand, 13-18 year olds watched a documentary, attended lessons about alcohol’s effect on health and relationships, and participated in a variety of competitions, from trivia to basketball. We reached some 1,900 students, and I was very impressed by the efforts of our partner organizations, particularly those schools that did not have me around to constantly nag them into action!

Before writing this post, I read my alcohol post from one year ago. I’d like to think that we successfully corrected our previous mistakes, for example, by framing the project in a softer light (a discussion about responsible drinking instead of a crusade against alcohol). We also targeted a wider age range, and it was very interesting to see how differently middle and high school students received the presentation. The younger students certainly seemed to be more responsive to the message, and they actively participated in the lessons, even telling me that they were fun! To me, the importance of reaching children before they become socialized into Mongolia’s alcohol culture is now very evident. The repetition of this message as these children mature, combined with exposure to positive role models, will be crucial in breaking the vicious vodka cycle in which Mongolia is trapped.

Health Lesson

Who knew learning about alcohol could be fun?!

The education aspect is easier, especially as alcohol education is rapidly becoming a priority for schools and other organizations. It is the role model part that has me worried. As the opening article demonstrates, alcohol consumption is very visible even in the organizations whose first priority should be the safety and health of its children. Of course, most Mongolians would tell you it is not ok for children to drink, but children are still present in situations where alcohol is consumed in unhealthy amounts, whether at public venues or in the home. I even see children at bars! Mongolian children thus absorb the social norms that later influences their attitudes toward alcohol.

School #1 students performing in an Alcohol Awareness Week competition

"The New Generation Doesn't Choose Alcohol and Cigarettes"

The more time I spend in Mongolia, the more personal the alcohol issue becomes. It is painful and confusing to watch my friends throw back shots while having discussions about how their husbands’ drinking is ruining their marriage. It makes me wonder about the future choices my students will make and casts a shadow over Mongolia’s ever-brightening future.

Furthermore, I find myself increasingly pondering my own attitude towards alcohol. So, when one volunteer posed the “Sober October” challenge, I accepted, agreeing to not drink alcohol for the entire month of October. It was a scary prospect. As I’ve emphasized, alcohol is critical to most social gatherings, and it can seem impossible to refuse, especially when you have accepted in the past. However, despite my trepidations, I thought it would be a good opportunity to address the role model issue and to start a conversation with the adults with whom I’m usually toasting.

Thus far, I’ve stayed strong, and I only have one week to go. The experience, however, has defied most of my expectations. Besides making a few snide remarks (Beth, you’re pregnant, aren’t you…), my Mongolian friends and coworkers do not care whether I drink or not, especially not after the first round or two. Surprisingly, I’ve found it not at all difficult to abstain in big party situations, where the supply of vodka always seems infinite. It has been a much greater challenge in more intimate settings, to drink coke with dinner while everyone else is sipping a beer. In other words, it is much harder for me to not drink in situations where I usually enjoy it the most, such as when I’m out to dinner after a particularly long day.

Birthday pic - just for fun

Thus, the awareness benefits of Sober October have been few, and the introspection opportunities many. Although it may not have sparked any philosophical conversations about alcohol and society, Sober October was still an important experiment for me. It helped me appreciate how difficult it is for someone to change social habits like drinking, even when you are someone, like me, who only drinks moderately and has strong convictions motivating the behavior change. I’ve begun to understand the futility of the “just drink a little less!” plead, particularly in this culture that does not always equate out-of-control drunkenness with alcohol abuse, especially in the context of a holiday or special event.

Fortunately, the Dornogobi Provincial government is taking action. At last week’s weekly teacher meeting, our school director introduced the government’s new plan – an “Alcohol-free Dornogobi.” It is yet to be seen exactly what an “alcohol-free” province means or how it will be implemented. The proposed component that I’ve heard the most grumbling about thus far is the order that employees drink milk or low-proof, traditional beverages at the many work parties that happen at every organization each year. (I cannot wait to see if this is for real…)

This government project is very new. The details of the initiative, much less any clues to the strictness of enforcement, are very unclear. However, last year I wrote that, for now, the most important task is to start a public dialogue about the effects alcohol consumption is having on Mongolian society. Where one lone Sober October crusader was not the answer, perhaps the government’s new initiative will be!

Summer on the Steppe

September 20, 2011

Here are a few pictures from my summer of teaching and travel. (I’ve only included photos from Mongolia, since my internet is slow, and you all know what the US looks like!)

For the first part of June, I went out east to Sukhbaatar Province, where I worked at a summer camp organized by Peace Corps volunteers and local Mongolian teachers. It was my first time traveling in Mongolia off the train line (and the bus broke down three times, turning a 12 hour ride into a 16 hour one!)

Jeopardy Review Game at camp....classic.

With my team at Darigange Summer Camp, Sukhbaatar Province

After I returned from my month-long trip to the US, I spent a few days visiting with friends in the capital. This picture is from a day trip I took to an Ulaanbaatar suburb to visit a good Mongolian friend and her family.

At the new Buddhist monastery in Nalaikh

I spent the first two weeks of August visiting my friend Laura, who lives in a little town outside of Erdenet, one of Mongolia’s largest cities (with a population of about 90,000). We taught a summer class at her school, probably the most successful class I’ve organized/taught in Mongolia!

Looking out over Laura's town

All you need in life - a good friend, a Mongolian toddler, and a giant herd of camels

The last day of summer classes!

Peace Corps Mongolia Part II: Return To The Gobi

September 20, 2011

It is hard to believe that it has already been three weeks since troops of black and white clad students marched into the school yard, donning their snazziest vests and puffiest scrunchies. I met the beginning of the school year with some trepidation. Coming off of a two-month vacation spent with friends and family in both American and Mongolia, the thought of once again tackling school life alone, with an enthusiastic and unrelenting chorus of “Hellos” waiting around every turn, was enough to make me second guess my decision to leave behind air conditioning, washing machines, and delivery food to finish my second, and last, year as a volunteer. Would we be able to develop a balanced work plan that challenged my co-workers as English students and educators, but also leave time for their other responsibilities as parents, administrators, and disciplinarians? Would we be able to overcome the frustrations of the year before – the lateness, apathy, and professional misunderstandings?

Students (and their scrunchies) watching the opening ceremony

I wish I could say that my anxiety disappeared as soon as I walked through the doors on that September morning. It didn’t, and it hasn’t. (Then again, I’ve never been one to shake anxiety easily.) I will say, however, that I was genuinely happy to be there. The first of September is treated as a holiday in Mongolia, as schools across the country call back children who have spent their summers riding horses in the countryside and attending summer camp… or watching TV and playing computer games. Teachers greet each other with vigorous handshakes and “Happy Holiday!” and speeches and concerts are held under colorful banners and streamers. My English teacher co-workers expressed a fervent desire to make the most of my last year with them. In such a festive atmosphere, one cannot but submit to the general good cheer. And so I met the greetings – “Hellooo Beth Teacher, you summer ok?”- with genuine good humor.

Our school all decked out for the first day

Fortunately, the past few weeks have shown that optimism to be more than just rapidly-abandoned good intentions. Thus far, the English teachers have been almost strict in their adherence to our new team teaching schedule (with the help of my gentle reminders, of course). Attendance at my bi-monthly class for English teachers has been perfect, and students have shown up in unprecedented numbers to our English review classes.

Although I might be giving too much credit to the worldliness and foresight of 15 year olds, I cannot help but think that some of the interest in English education is related to our school’s being recently named a potential candidate for the Cambridge International program. “With more than 9000 schools in 160 countries,” Cambridge provides a standardized curriculum and exams that earn students a diploma whose quality is recognized internationally. Part of that curriculum requires that some non-English subjects, such as math and physics, are taught in English.

Obligatory photo in our first day of school outfits

It is yet to be seen how seriously the teachers and students at my school will take this candidacy, and what, if any, changes will be seen as a result. I do think it is evidence that even a little town like mine is preparing itself for its future position in a more globalized Mongolia. For better or worse, the mineral wealth buried under Mongolian soil has drawn international attention to this land where the horse to human ration is 13:1. My province, Dornogobi, recently signed a treaty of mutual friendship with a partner province in Japan, and, in my absence, some 150 Japanese “VIPs” (as my Mongolian friends called them) visited Sainshand as guests of the Dornogobi government.

My mission as a volunteer in Mongolia is ultimately not to be an agent of even minor economic development. I have neither the experience nor the resources to accomplish such a project. However, I hope the current changes that Mongolia is undergoing will eventually provide opportunities for study, travel, and employment for the teachers, students, and other community members whom I have come to care for. And when those opportunities present themselves, I hope that their time working with me will have developed their language skills, global awareness, and interest enough to motivate them to seize those opportunities.

Globalization’s Modern Slavery

May 4, 2011

March and April were very busy months here in Mongolia. I prepared my students for a less than spectacular performance in the English Olympics (a nationwide English competition), co-taught an English language and methodology seminar with my fellow Dornogovi sitemate Cameron, and tried to calm down my fellow teachers as they faced evaluations conducted by the provincial education department.

Spring Sandstorm

Outside of my English education duties, my sitemate Julie and I organized a month long series of exercise classes at the town’s center gym as part of a larger health initiative. Each week a different Peace Corps volunteer came to teach the basics of an athletic activity that falls outside of Mongolians’ usual basketball, volleyball, and chess (yes, chess) repertoire, such as aerobic dance, yoga, strength training, and Ultimate Frisbee. (Of course, my favorite part was playing tour guide and entertainer to our American visitors.) Somewhere in there I also celebrated the first rain since October (about five minutes of slightly more than a drizzle), my first real sandstorm (which was unbearable despite the large sunglasses and scarf covering my face), and Easter (a strange combination of brunch and beer with a couple of Mongolian friends).

Exercise Session 2: Yoga

With the coming of May, however, the teaching and projects are slowing down. Everyone in the Gobi is energized by spring’s warm, if sandy, arrival and distracted by the impending promise of summer. This recipe does not make for very motivated teachers or attentive students. Although, with my US trip just around the corner, I am as guilty as anyone else of looking forward to future pleasures at the expense of current productivity.

Easter

Now that I’ve caught you up on over a month and a half of Peace Corps happenings, it’s time to get serious. This week’s topic is one inspired by Peace Corps’ Trafficking in Persons Awareness Week that happened from April 11 – April 17. As graduation rapidly approaches and students begin exploring their options, it’s a critical time to educate students about this very real risk.

Trafficking in persons is defined as the recruitment and transportation of persons through force, coercion or deceit for the purpose of exploitation. This exploitation includes prostitution, forced labor, slavery or other “practices similar to slavery and servitude.” According to a 2009 US government statistic, 12.3 million adults and children are in forced labor or forced prostitution around the world. (Statistics about human trafficking, however, are tricky things, and I saw global estimates at anywhere from 4-27 million. And try as I might, I couldn’t find reliable exact figures for Mongolia or the US.)

The world wide ratio for the prevalence of trafficking victims is 1.8 per 1,000 inhabitants. In Asia, however, the ratio is 3 per 1,000 inhabitants, and trafficking in persons is not a new problem to a place like Mongolia. Human trafficking was a particularly big problem in Mongolia in the 1990s, when the overnight transition from communism to capitalism devastated the economy and monetary security was especially volatile.

(At that time, many Mongolians were also victims in the separate, but related, crime of illegal organ trading. There is a worldwide shortage of donated organs relative to the number of patients who need them. Some victims in developing countries are exploited when traffickers obtain a kidney coercively and sell it at a high price. There have even been reports that some Mongolian members of parliament participated in the trade during the 1990s. When the numbers of homeless children in Ulaanbaatar dropped significantly, it was said that influential Mongolian officials trafficked them to China where their kidneys were sold.)

As Mongolia becomes increasingly involved in the international community, but still suffers from high unemployment and widespread poverty, it has become an important source country for the human trafficking industry. The victims are most often trafficked to other locations in Asia, primarily China, to work as sex slaves and domestic laborers (women) or other blue collar laborers (men). Some women are even married to Chinese or Korean men who cannot find a wife and have decided to pay for one instead.

Trafficking victims are often people who are looking to support their families or earn money for their future education. These victims are usually lured in by the promise of lucrative jobs or study opportunities abroad. It is not unusual for Mongolians to work abroad, often doing day labor in countries like Japan or Korea, where wages are much hirer. It is estimated that out of a population of almost three million, over 100,000 Mongolians are currently living, working, or studying abroad. Traffickers can therefore take advantage of this increasingly mobile population who often cannot tell the difference between a trafficking ruse and a legitimate job offer.

Typically, a middleman, often a woman who was once a trafficking victim herself, agrees to arrange the contract, paperwork, and airfare to the destination country. She takes the victim’s passport to “assist” with the necessary documentation. Upon arrival, the victim is told that she owes a large sum of money for the flight and fees. Thus, the victim finds herself in debt bondage, working to pay off a cycle of debt that keeps her eternally at the mercy of her “employer.” Physical and emotional abuse helps to ensure that the victim remains helpless and subservient.

Because Mongolia is a source country (versus the US, which is a destination country), breaking the supply chain is an essential part of fighting human trafficking. According to the latest US State Department report, “The Mongolian government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” although “it is making significant efforts to do so.” This is why it is so important to use a preventative approach, raising awareness about the risk and teaching susceptible populations how to spot suspicious advertisements.

Trafficking in Persons Awareness Seminar

Such efforts are particularly important at my site. Being both close to China and on the railroad, Sainshand is a prime location for the recruitment of potential victims. Indeed, as we went around to the local schools, students said they had heard of a couple of youths from the surrounding countryside who suffered such a fate.

So far, we’ve visited four secondary education institutions in Sainshand. (I use “we” because the project is a joint effort between the police department, the Medical College, the Health Department, and Peace Corps.) We show a trafficking documentary made by MTV (a revered source of American pop culture here in Mongolia), followed with a lecture by Sainshand’s juvenile officer. (They do all the talking. I stand in the back and give the evil eye to students who are not paying attention.) Despite poor attendance at some of the schools, we’ve managed to reach almost 140 students. In addition, three local TV stations have aired the documentary, along with a short interview with yours truly about why anti-trafficking efforts are particularly relevant to Sainshand youth.

The longer I’ve been in Mongolia, the more I’m frustrated by Mongolia’s conflicting identities. I love Mongolia because of its strong national character. It is the product of a unique history and culture that has periodically had global ramifications. Today, however, as its resources and people are exported to neighboring countries, Mongolia can seem to be a place that exists to feed the rest of Asia’s vices. Mongolia is gradually trying to assert itself, both to protect its natural resources and prosecute traffickers, but it’s not an easy task for a landlocked country of only three million.

We can help Mongolia and other countries by being educated and conscientious consumers. To avoid being unknowingly complicit in this modern day slavery, we all have a responsibility to be as aware as possible about the origins of the goods and services we use.

Sources:

  • “Current Situation of trafficking in person and relevant legislation in Mongolia”
  • “Human Trafficking and sexual exploitation of Mongolian girls and women”
  • The US State Department’s 2010 Human Trafficking Report
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