Known as Vannie, lived all his live in orphanages
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Batbileg (also known as Vanja or Vannie) was born on January 29th, 1993 in Ulaanbaatar.
His biography is painfully short.
He has no recollection of his family. All he remembers is a string of care centers and orphanages. He can’t remember when he left school either, he estimates that he did a couple years of elementary school.
The last orphanage he lived in was supported and run by a Japanese Non-Governmental Organization. He stayed there for four of five years. Khosoo said they didn’t like him – I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t like Vannie. In the summer of 2009 the orphanage closed due to lack of funding. Vannie was dropped off at Ayurzana’s center.
That’s where he met Baaskaa. Baaskaa would come to the center over the weekend, when he had to leave his school in Naleikh. They quickly became friends. When Byambaa and Byaraa decided they wanted to take in two more children, they discussed the plan with Baaskaa and asked him whom he’d recommend. Baaskaa immediately suggested Vannie.
Vannie moved from the care center to Byambaa’s in late fall of 2009. In the short time he has lived there, he has become a fully integrated member of the family and very much loved.
August 2012: Vannie meets his mother for the first time in 15 years
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Vannie sensed that the purpose of my visit was the meeting with his mother, but no one had told him the specifics before my arrival. In preparation, he asked about an appropriate gift for a woman, since he had never given a gift to anyone. Vannie, Selenge, who helped translate, and I discussed his gift options. Should it be a nice box of chocolates or something permanent? Could it be expensive, or would it make his mother feel bad if her gift was cheaper? Could it be a shawl or a necklace, or would that be impossible for her to wear, because her husband might think she was having an affair, since he didn’t know about Vannie. It was not easy to narrow down gift options for a person he didn’t
know but meant so much to him!
Selenge and I suggested that he should browse a department store, see what speaks to him and sleep on it before buying anything.
Vannie returned with two options he liked, a little decorative clock and a crystal dolphin (very popular in Mongolia, which always amazes me, because they are land locked without any ocean near by). We encouraged Vannie to go with his guts and congratulated him on his choice to go for something permanent, something his mother
could look at everyday.
The next discussion was about the meeting place. Ms. Tuul had expressed her preference to meet in a private setting. Vannie, as usual, didn’t have any opinion. It had
always amazed me how Vannie stayed out of trouble by never expressing any personal opinion, wants or needs. I suspect that it was a matter of protecting the little sense of self he had been able to develop while growing up in an institution. At some point I asked him what his favorite color was, mainly to challenge him and to show him that his opinion matters, but he responded as usual with a shoulder shrug. Selenge and I literally named every color in the universe until it became comical and we all just
The day before the meeting, Khosoo, Ayurra, Vannie and I got together to discuss the logistics. Not knowing that Vannie had already decided on a gift, the men suggested that he should give his mother $100, to show her that he is a man now and can take care of himself. I was flabbergasted. Never before had it been so obvious how big our cultural differences were. Mongolia’s culture is very much concerned about manhood, and there is a very specific definition of it. This is true in every culture, but in Mongolia the definition is extremely narrow. I guess back in the day he would have given her a sheep as a present, and the only thing that can top an animal nowadays is
money — because it enables her to buy a sheep.
I strongly believe Vannie doesn’t have to prove anything to his mother. In my mind, and from my experience, this meeting should be about getting to know each other. That’s all. At this point no one knows if this meeting can and will develop into a lasting relationship. Besides, if he gave his mother such a substantial amount of money, who could guarantee that she wouldn’t come back solely for the money? (The average income of the lower middle class is $400 a
I was glad to have had the gift conversation earlier, because I was truly concerned that I totally misjudged the local customs. Later that day, Vannie went back to the department store and bought his mother the decorative clock. He had made that decision entirely on his own, without asking
for advice again.
Since Khosoo had spoken to the mother multiple times, we decided on meeting at his apartment. That morning Vannie and I went there and prepared an elaborate breakfast, while Khosoo went to pick up Ms. Tuul. Of course, everything got delayed, so Vannie and I sat in silence at the kitchen table, waiting for the doorbell to ring. Vannie seemed strangely cool and relaxed, while I acted like a chicken without a head. In my defense, during the wait time I’d four
cups of coffee.
Eventually they arrived. Vannie and his mother kept it low–key; in accordance with Mongolian tradition, they showed no excessive emotions. Meeting one’s parent or child after 15 years of absence provokes contradictory feelings. In movies, such reunions seem all about joy and redemption, but movies must simplify things to keep the story going. To me, it seemed that Vannie was happy to meet her, period. Anything else could be dealt with later. Ms. Tuul, on the other hand, seemed to fear that her son
would be angry and reject her.
Thankfully Khosoo talked non–stop, which broke the ice. After a while, I suggested we’d give the mother and son some privacy.
Of course, the second we left, Ayuraa arrived, dressed in his uniform and scaring the mother — I think for a moment she thought this was a set–up.
Khosoo and I had gone to Ayuraa’s childcare center, which was only a block away, and Ayuraa soon joined us. It was a hot summer day, and Ayuraa started to whirl his fly swatter around, hitting flies wherever he could, while telling me how grateful he was for all I had done for the kids. What a priceless moment, worthy of being used in a film some day. I realized then how relieved everyone was that the toughest moment was over; we had crossed the bridge of
reuniting Vannie with his mom.
Eventually we went back and it seemed like the two had not moved an inch. I couldn’t tell how Vannie was doing, but he had a beautiful, constant smile, subtle, but
Byambaa, and particularly Byaraa, Byambaa’s wife, had asked to meet Vannie’s mother, to introduce themselves as his foster family. Ms. Tuul agreed,
and we all piled into a car.
On the way out to Byambaa, we picked up Byaraa from her workplace, a maternity hospital. Another picture perfect moment. In the backseat of the car, Vannie sat squeezed between his mom, his foster mom
Out in the countryside, Ms. Tuul was welcomed, and she finally seemed to relax. Encouraged by Byambaa, Vannie showed his mom around, pointing out the goats and sheep, the chicken coop, the vegetable garden, the well and the horse. Watching the two stroll around, while Vannie invited his mother to imagine how he had spent the last two years, was my favorite moment. Vannie suddenly demonstrated an unusual vigor and energy. I think his mother was
It was then that I realized I was nervous to possibly "lose" Vannie. Maybe his mother would step in and take over from here, and my support would no longer be needed or necessary. I wanted him to have a mother, but I also wanted to keep our relationship the way it was, not because he needed me, but because we had just developed a new, tender closeness. And maybe I did fear being replaced. My emotions were just as complicated and
confused as theirs.
And then it was photo time. Everyone lined up. Vannie, his mother, Byambaa, Byaraa and their three kids, Khosoo and some people who just happened to come by, Nasa and me. It was a really large family, difficult to position in a picture. But Vannie was beaming, at the center of this larger, multifaceted,
Ms. Tuul asked me to blur her face, because she wasn’t ready to share her past with her family yet.
June 2012: Vannie receives big news
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Back in March, when we found out the location of Vannie’s mother, Ayuraa, the police chief and director of the temporary childcare center promised to investigate. I think in the past, we all had accepted the fact that Vannie simply didn’t have a mother, case closed, so this
news came at a total surprise to all of us.
Although her name was known, it is a very common name in Mongolia. For some reason, the clerk who worked in the registration office connected the name with something else, and
identified Vannie’s mother.
When I returned in June, we still hadn’t told Vannie about his mother, because the local police in Gobi had located and identified the woman,
but no one had contacted her yet.
While Vannie and I were visiting Baaskaa in Gobi, Ayuraa sent a local policeman to speak with the mother. She was surprised to hear about her son and recounted how her life had unfolded during the last 15 years. Comparing her story with the facts we knew about Vannie, there was no doubt
that they were mother and son.
The mother agreed to meet Vannie, but because she had a new family, she wanted to meet in UB, away from her hometown. A tentative date in August was set, so all parties would have time to prepare themselves and take
the necessary steps.
I took Vannie with me to UB, because I wanted to tell him about his mother and the planned meeting, but I needed a translator.
But first we had to overcome some cultural barriers.
Ayuraa and Khosoo thought it would be best not to tell Vannie anything until the meeting happened. I disagreed. I had been in a similar situation. Due to political turmoil, severed diplomatic relations and personal disagreements on how to handle a divorce, I had lost contact with my father, a native Syrian, when I was three years old. At the age of 26, I started to look for him. It was my experience that knowledge is power. The most healing aspect to finding a parent later in life is the fact that by then you have choices. Even if the meeting wouldn’t turn out the way you had hoped, you partake and choose your own steps.
That’s what I wanted to communicate and facilitate for Vannie.
In my view, Vannie and his mother are equals. I think Mongolians see it differently. Due to the culturally ingrained respect towards the elder, a child has far fewer rights than an adult. It felt like Vannie was expected to accommodate his mother’s needs,
but he didn’t have the rights to voice his own.
Communicating that I had a similar experience allowed me to convince Ayuraa and Khosoo, and we told Vannie about his mother.
Vannie’s initial reaction was anger. He was mad as hell. He had spent the majority of his life in an orphanage, while his mother was somewhere out there.
After the anger came the tears. But he never said a word.
Vannie is the quiet type, who has learned to doge questions and attention. I assume this served him well in the orphanage. But what was once a helpful tool
could eventually become a hindrance; at some point even the
quiet ones need to be seen and heard.
Later that night, when we went out for diner, I noticed that Vannie was surprisingly talkative and open. I could see the change in him immediately, as if a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He had a mother, and he would get to meet her. Even if they were never to develop a close relationship,
he now could trace his roots and belonged to someone.
March 2012: Vannie has become the golden boy
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Vannie has become the golden boy. When I went to pick him up from his countryside home, Byambaa, his foster dad, couldn’t stop raving about him; what a
wonderful boy Vannie has become and how much everyone would miss him.
At his school in Gobi, I talked to his principal and teacher, who both declared that Vannie is doing great with no difficulties catching up to the class’s
level. The repeated reassurance of Vannie’s capability to fully participate in 10th grade, when he lacks eighth and ninth, makes me weary. I wonder if I am dealing
with a culture clash here; while the Mongolians try to keep all negative news from me in order to comfort me, the American in me wants to fix things before they break
and my German side expects the worst. Most likely Vannie is doing OK. I am sure he comprehends some subjects more easy then others, but given his situation, things are
good and moving forward with room for improvement.
Vannie and Baaskaa enjoyed their brief time together. They hadn’t seen each other over a year and barely had the opportunity to talk. Vannie proudly showed
Baaskaa the computer room with the newly arrived simulators for excavators and other heavy machines. In return, Baaskaa shared his working experience and listed the
various features of different excavator models and makers.
While we took the bus to Gobi, I decided to fly back in order to save some time and for the sake of sanity. Unfortunately, I made the mistake to present Baaskaa with
his airplane ticket before we left for Gobi, so Vannie asked why he didn’t get to fly (silently of course). It was a dumb mistake; Vannie had finally come out of
his shell and started to trust me, but yet again, I showed him that he was only number two. He was disappointed. He pulled back right away and became quiet. I asked
Baaskaa to translate my apology (a tricky act in itself) and explained that I love them equally, and that my decision was based on my wish to be economical. Over the
course of the next four days, Vannie relaxed, but he never fully let his guard down.
To my excuse, and it isn’t really an excuse, Vannie benefits from all the mistakes made trying to improve Baaskaa’s situation. While Baaskaa receives
the privileges of the first-born, he often pays the price of my inexperience.
September 2011: Vannie returns to school in South Gobi
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Since my last trip in April, I had barely been in touch with Batbileg, who’s nicknamed Vannie. Through Khooso, I heard that he was
doing well, but without Sara, I had no means to send or receive letters from Vannie directly. Not that Vannie is an avid writer, his letters
rarely contained more than two sentences, but it was a way to keep personal contact. It is also my way of getting information to the kids, and
keeping communication alive, even if it’s one–way only!
Vannie had nothing to go on but my promise, which wasn’t really a promise, as I always make sure to include a disclaimer. I’d
hate nothing more than to pump up their expectations and then disappoint them, so I always include " I will try my best to do this & that,
at this & that time, but I can’t guarantee anything." By now, they know and understand. Furthermore, Vannie’s expectations of
me might be very low, as he must have felt a bit like a tag–along. Baaskaa is always the first who voices interest, concerns, needs, and
therefore he’s the first I take care of. Vannie doesn’t say much, so there is a lot of guesswork on my end. Over the last years,
I’ve asked repeatedly if he’d like to return to school and he’s repeatedly declined, until last spring, when I couldn’t
do anything about it, as it was the middle of the semester.
While back in New York I tried to find a school for Vannie – well, I reminded everyone to try to find a school. Our options looked
bleak. A new law required students to have completed ninth grade in order to enter vocational school. Vannie had only completed 6th grade,
before he ran away from his last orphanage at the age of 14. Naleikh wasn’t an option anymore; the care center kids, who were gracefully
accepted, often without meeting the requirements, had taken advantage of the situation and stretched the teachers and principal’s good
will beyond repair. Ayurzaa, Khosoo and Selenge truly scrambled to find a school and for a moment, I felt I wouldn’t be able to keep my
semi promise. I decided to return to Mongolia anyway, hoping for a miracle. Upon my arrival, Khosoo presented me with good news; he had found
a school in a mining town in Gobi, specializing in heavy machinery, and they agreed to accept Vannie. Khosoo’s construction company was building
a new dormitory for the school and he had befriended the principal, who’d agreed to help, when he heard Vannie’s story. At the end,
it was all about finding that good–hearted principal again.
When we left Vannie behind last spring, I sensed that he was unsure what to believe – would I come back for him? Because of the
lack of communication, I had no way of informing him in advance, all I could do was drive out to the countryside and tell him in person.
Vannie was surprised to see Khosoo and me. When Khosoo laid out the plan, or "option", that Vannie would enroll in a vocational
school in Gobi, he couldn’t even finish the sentence before Vannie said "Yes!". When I added that we would leave that day, he
jumped up to get his belongings. He truly wanted to go back to school and learn a profession.
Vannie and I spent a night in my guesthouse. It was the first time we were alone, without Baaskaa, and Vannie was surprisingly relaxed.
He didn’t seem bothered that we had no way of proper communication. With content, he read the book I brought for him and seemed quite
comfortable when I took him out for dinner. I think I underestimated Vannie’s strength, mainly because he is always quiet and I confused
that with shyness.
Khosoo wasn’t able to escort us to Gobi, so he sent his 16–year old son Temuulen as translator. At the crack of dawn, the
three of us climbed into a rattling Russian bus to begin our 16–hour journey to Gobi. I was the only foreigner, as usual, and people
kept staring (which might have had something to do with the camera I was holding!). But when it came to pushing and shoving, or placing a
baby or oversized bag on someone’s lap, my fellow passengers didn’t make much of a distinction between a Mongolian and me. Having
just stepped off the plane after a 32–hour travel day, I thought I would never survive this bus ride. But I did. And I would do it again,
because it was such an extreme experience of being fully engulfed in another culture. Beyond that, whenever I thought I needed to get off the
bus, all I had to do was look at Vannie. His hopeful expression would have propelled me go to China and back, if that’s what it would
have taken to get him into a school.
We arrived in Dalanzadad, South Gobi, in the middle of the night. The next morning we went straight to the school to meet with the principal,
who had agreed to give Vannie a chance, even though he lacked the educational requirements that were implemented recently.
To my surprise, I discovered that the school was a regular high school, which also offered a vocational program. Vannie will enter the
10th grade and within two and a half years, if he manages to catch up, he’ll be able to obtain a high school diploma and a specialized
professional degree in the field of mining. After an extended absence from school, he’ll have to become re–accustomed to the tight
schedule and requirements of schooling, while learning to operate heavy machinery and catching up on the courses he lacks.
Vannie is not a boy of many words, but I could see that he was excited and not a bit scared. He says he can do it and I believe him. I have
the feeling he understands that this is pretty much his one – if not only – chance to be recognized for what he has to offer, rather
then being defined by what he lacks.
Because we had half a day for leisure time, I decided to be a tourist for once. I had always dreamed about visiting the famous sand dunes
in Gobi - although I didn’t necessarily see myself approaching them by bus! After a 6-hour ride in a Russian jeep, instead of the promised 3
hours, we finally arrived when the sun was almost disappearing behind the dunes. We quickly ran to the top of the dunes and wrote our names in
the sand, - a Mongolian tradition - before the sky turned completely dark.
Surprisingly – or maybe not – Vannie kept moving from spot to spot, writing his name, just to cover it with fresh sand, again
and again. I kept watching him, wondering how I could explain to him that this situation would be permanent, that one day, he’d have a
home of his own, populated with people who would stick around and he’d discover that it would be worth staying. I stayed silent though,
as I was afraid to promise him something I did not know for sure.
October 2010: Vannie decides to wait another year to start school
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As usual, Vannie was happy and healthy.
He is quite a sunny boy, always laughing (unless I cause him to cry by embarrassing him), always helpful and never demanding.
Vannie, Baaskaa and Inculai
He has decided to stay at Byambaa’s for one more year, before attending the same vocational school as Baaskaa, Davaa and Enkhtsetseg. When I asked him which profession he would like to learn, he replied “Excavator driver, like brother Baaskaa." I believe that he is now, in October, somewhat regretting having waited, because he senses that Baaskaa is getting ready to get out of the house and become independent.
Luckily, Vannie still keeps growing, even though it’s mainly his legs that stretch in length. At this point, he can easily compete with any supermodel! But I hope very much that he will put on a few more pounds before he starts operating heavy machinery. Judging by the amount he eats, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Vannie is still timid around me. When we had a bit of leisure time the three of us climbed up a mountain near the farm. I was happy to recognize that despite of his shyness, he’s becoming more comfortable with me. He still won’t let me go sheep herding with him, as he thinks it is too dirty for me. Upon my return to New York, I wrote him a letter, reminiscing about our outing to the mountain and asking what I have to do to be allowed to go herding with him. He wrote back and said that he missed me very much and that he will grant me my wish next time I visit.
May 2010: Vannie stops smoking and grows some more
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Vannie could be the poster child of a country boy!
He finally grew in height and gained a little bit of weight, which makes him look closer to his actual age.
Vannie’s one weakness was occasional smoking. Apparently he smoked a lot in his last orphanage, where all the boys smoked. Even in the childcare center the kids smoke. They learn it on the streets and bring the habit into the center. Baaskaa and Davaa are also occasional smokers. We tried to talk to them numerous times and they kept promising to stop, but unfortunately they never really did. I think Baaskaa’s absence allowed Vannie to stop and he says he’s happy not to smoke. He feels better and he sees the physical changes.
Vannie is still very quiet, he doesn’t talk much but is always attentive. That’s how I experienced him in the winter. He was very gentleman-like to me, offered me his chair, opened the door for me and made sure that I had my share of tea and cookies. But he wouldn’t talk. He does smile and laugh a lot, particular with Baaskaa back in the house! And he is totally fascinated by everything that has to do with the animals.
Sara has had the same experience when she visits. During her April visit, Vannie had no time for her, as the pig was about to give birth and he wanted to see it and help. So Sara had to follow him to the pigsty in order to exchange a few words.
Vannie never asks for anything. I am not sure if he is in general a very content boy or if he is simply shy. I noticed that his shoes were on the brink of falling to pieces. These were my old Merrill’s, which I had given to Baaskaa two years ago. Baaskaa wore them, then Ambush, Byambaa’s oldest son and then Vannie. Without really thinking, I took off my shoes, which were similar to the ones Vannie wore, and asked him to swap. Vannie flat out refused to even try them on. It went back and forth, until he started to cry. He was ashamed; he didn’t want me to wear his shoes. He was so ashamed that he’d rather pass up the chance to get new shoes than show me his dirty feet and socks. I finally grabbed a pair of Baaskaa’s shoes and offered to wear those instead. Only with a lot of cheering on from the family and after a lot of tears, Vannie finally gave in.
I felt bad; I should have been a bit more sensitive and not so impulsive. Vannie cried really hard. Just because these kids have nothing doesn’t mean they don’t have pride or dignity. Luckily Mongolians are pretty tough people, pity isn’t something they know much of. Everyone had a good laugh, hugged Vannie and told him how handsome he looked in his new shoes.
February 2010: Batbileg discovers his love for herding
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Batbileg is one of the sweetest kids I have ever met.
Byambaa and Byaraa love him. Every time he comes through the door Byambaa cries out “Vannie”, which is his Russian nickname (a cute version of Vanja – I have no idea who gave him this name). The actual meaning of Batbileg is ‘gift’, and that’s how they treat him.
Vannie is a very hard worker. He is small for his age, but he works like an adult. The first day I was at the farm, Vannie cam back from herding, carrying an adult sheep on his back that was frozen and incapable of walking. Sadly, it died a few hours later.
He looked a bit dazed, when we piled all the kids into the minibus to drive to the summer camp, but he enjoyed the trip. Baaskaa and Vannie are very close, they act like brothers and are always physically close. When all of us lined up on our improvised ‘beds’ on the floor of the dorm room we stayed at in UB, they always slept next to each other. When I checked on the kids in the middle of the night, I always saw them embracing each other in their sleep! I think everyone who meets Vannie feels that way; you want to hug him all the time!
When the kids discussed their wishes for the future, Vannie was very sure about being a herder. He said he loved working on the farm, with goat, sheep and pigs- there is nothing else he wanted to do. Someone had told me that he too expressed interest in being a bulldozer driver, but he dismissed that as an old idea, not valid anymore.
I asked him if he could think of any thing profession that would be helpful on the farm. Khosoo suggested he could learn to be a carpenter, because they constantly built new houses and stables. I pointed out that a back up profession would be good, in case another dzud happens. (Dzud is a Mongolia term for the combination of summer drought and severe winter that has hardened snow and ice into an impenetrable layer and makes it impossible for livestock to feed). Vannie listened closely and eventually responded that being a carpenter would be a profession he would be interested in. I could tell that he really just wanted to herd and it calmed him that he had until September to decide what he wanted to do.
Vannie enjoyed our time together. He is a very good basketball player, even though he is quite small in height. And he loved Avatar. He had never been to a movie theater before and he was impressed by the crowd and size of the theater.
Vannie is one of those kids that you can take everywhere; he is interested and will try anything!
When we worked with the kids to identify which items they needed and wanted, his list was the shortest, even though he had the least possessions. Byambaa and Byaraa scrambled to find a jacket for him, when I picked him up. I think they borrowed one from Ambush, Byambaa’s oldest son. What they didn’t tell me was that they also scrambled to find shoes. I don’t know whose shoes he ended up wearing, but when we bought him new ones, it turned out that the ones he borrowed were two sizes too big. He never said a word.
As soon as we returned to the farm (Byambaa: “Vannie!!!!”), without a word, Vannie exchanged his new clothes for work clothes and went to tend to the animals. (Every time I take out the kids, Byambaa is left alone with all the farm work!) We didn’t see him until dinner time.
January is the month of birthdays at Byambaa’s. Baaskaa’s in on January 27th and Vannie’s is on January 29th. I was lucky to be there for the boy’s birthdays and we surprised each of them with a large cake. Well, I guess Vannie wasn’t that surprised, after he enjoyed Baaskaa’s cake. But he were happy nevertheless. It was the first personal birthday cake both of them ever got!
Once I got used to the cold, I went out herding with Vannie. He became quite nervous, because he thought I shouldn’t be out in the cold, so he walked the animals in small circles around the house. First I was surprised, but once I understood I gave in and returned to the cozy warmth of the stove. You cannot argue with Vannie, he will always win with his boyish charm.