Known as Vannie, lived all his live in orphanages   click to read or close full bio >>

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.


2014: Spring   click to read or close >>

I hadn’t planned to go back to Mongolia so soon, but thank goodness, I did! In late February a great job opportunity as cinematographer had opened up for Baaskaa, and I returned to Mongolia to train him.

During my stay, Vanni completed his driving license classes and we picked up where we left of in regards of gathering information about studies.

Because Vanni had reentered high school two grades above his level, Khosoo and I had checked in with the teacher and the principal regularly, and they kept confirming that Vanni is doing well in all classes.

I introduced Vanni to Badruun and Amar, from the Zorig Foundation. It turned out that Amar’s mother was a highly respected professor at the University of Technology, the most acclaimed university in Mongolia, and she offered to give Vanni an introduction to the course choices and the enrollment process. (I was a beneficiary of this meeting; she cooked a vegetarian meal for me, which was one of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had.) Inspired by the professor, Vanni opened up and admitted that he had pretty much skipped most of his math and physics classes during the last two years. He had never been able to catch up, understand, or follow the curriculum.

Needless to say, I was shocked. I never understood how he made up for the missing two years, and I didn’t understand the education system enough in order to be able to judge. Regardless, it was my mistake to rely on Vanni. He is not the most forth coming boy, because he doesn’t want to be seen as a failure, no matter how ridiculous the demands made on him is.

Mongolia’s education system is not oriented towards teaching the pupils to think independently; teachers are seen as an almighty authority to be obeyed blindly and a lot of focus is put on attendance. For a long time I thought Vannie never had English lessons, because he didn’t speak or understood, but it turned out he did have lessons for a total of five years. During classes the students are primarily copying written vocabulary from the black board, without practicing pronunciation or forming sentences. Most English teachers I met were not able to converse with me in English; they are hungry to do so, but lack the opportunity.

Upon realizing the extent of Vanni’s knowledge gap and how that might endanger his university entry exam, I rebooked my ticket for a later departure and tried to tackle the issue.

With the help of Selenge and the Zorig Foundation, we found several Learning Centers focusing on preparing students for their university entry exams. We chose the one that seemed to be the most promising and reliable (again, there are many who take the money and then “run”) and on our first day of attendance, (yes, I went too!) we were welcomed by the same director who ran the after-school program that Baaskaa and Nasa had attended in 2011. Connection and shared history are highly honored in Mongolia, so I knew Vanni was in good hands.

Since Vanni had two only months to catch up, the learning center wanted to evaluate his level of math, physics and Mongolian language, the three subjects that would influence his test score the most, with the goal to tailor a balanced weekly work program. His scores were scary all around and what was meant to be a “freshening up”, became a full-blown course load.

Vanni ended up going to the Learning Center from 9am to 6pm, six days a week. Every day, he then had another four hours of homework to do. He knew his chances were slim and he had to be entirely self motivated, because there was no one who would check up on him, except for the director of the Learning Center, (but she had 40 students), and me from afar.

Vanni did really well, except every so often, I would get a frantic message that he had skipped a day or didn’t deliver his homework. Naturally, I panicked.

Not knowing what else to do, I called Baaskaa, asking him to help me, or rather to please help Vanni. Baaskaa thought I demanded him to help with specific math or physic problems, when in fact I just asked him to engage and help Vanni to get up in the morning, or turning down the TV at night while Vanni has to do his homework. Since Baaskaa had never been parented, he didn’t really understand what I was asking him to do. He kept telling me that Vanni’s regiment was too hard, too difficult; Vanni was buried into his books all the time and never hanging out with him anymore.

When I returned to Mongolia, I realized how well Vanni had done and how much the concerns and complains about him skipping a class or homework here and there was out of proportion, in comparison to what he was asked to do and did deliver.

2014: New Year's   click to read or close >>

Vanni had graduated from his high school in the summer, but he needed to stay on for another semester to complete his vocational school. Now, in December, he successfully completed his three-and-half-year school program, receiving a high school diploma and a certificate as heavy machinery operator.

Since last spring, I had discussed with Vanni the possibilities of higher education. First he declined out of concern for the high cost and as most young men of his generation, he wanted to make money fast. After his high school graduation, Vanni’s teacher had urged Vanni to go to university, which led me to believe that the school would prepare their students for higher education. When Vanni finally expressed interest in studying engineering, I asked him to gather information about the different universities, the process of enrolling and the different curriculums during his remaining time in vocational school.

In mid December, I flew to the South Gobi for Vanni’s graduation from vocational school to pick him up. When I excitedly told his teacher that Vanni had decided go to university, the teacher was happy – and left the room. When I asked Vanni which university he had decided to attend and what we needed to do to enroll him, he just shrugged his shoulders, while mumbling, “I don’t know”.

Vanni, teacher, Martina in Gobi

Needles to say I was flabbergasted. I thought Vanni’s current school would give their graduates some pointers on how to move on in life, but apparently that was a miscalculation.

I am not sure why high schools or vocational schools don’t prepare their students for life after their studies. I had made the same mistake with Baaskaa in 2010. I had relied on the school to help him make the transition into professional life, not realizing that he was as clueless as I was, with no idea where to turn to, or how to find a job. The consequences were grave and we are still dealing with the repercussions.

I had learned from Baaskaa that most jobs in his profession, operating heavy machinery, require a driver’s license, since operating really means DRIVING. Every job he had applied for post-graduation turned him down because he lacked one.

To not repeat this mistake, Vanni and I had discussed that he should obtain his license while still in vocational school, because the school offered the course for a reduced fee, after his classes.

Obtaining a drivers license in Mongolia is difficult because it is mandatory to attend classes for three months, without the option to do so after hours. So you’d think that the vocational school would make it part of their curriculum, or at least encourage their students to sign up. They didn’t, and unfortunately I too had totally forgotten, and hence nothing happened.

Once in UB, Vanni and I went to three different driving schools and Vanni picked the best one (somehow he always recognizes “the best”) and the following Monday his first theory lecture started. Needless to say he couldn’t work now, so I had to support him financially for the next three months.

As for universities, I did some research online and we found all of the universities offering either mining or engineering courses. Since almost none of the websites were translated into English, I asked Vanni to study the websites carefully and then to call Khosoo’s son, a university student, and ask him for advice.

It is damn hard to figure out university courses and enrollment in your own language, but try doing it in a different language and culture! Vanni was totally overwhelmed and just shut down. I ended up asking my friend who normally translates my letters to the kids, to translate the web pages of the three most promising universities. By the time all this was organized and settled, it was time for me to leave Mongolia again.

I left Vanni with the task of completing his driving course and working through the requirements for university, thinking we have enough time between January and July, when the sign up process would start.

I believe this was also Vanni’s first New Year’s celebration.

May 2013: Vannie graduates from high school   click to read or close >>

Vanni never asks for anything, but he did ask me to come to his high school graduation. Not only would I have gone anyways, I was very happy he specifically “demanded” it. Vannie never asks for anything, but he did ask me to come to his high school graduation. Not only would I have gone anyways, I was very happy he specifically “demanded” it.

Earlier during the spring trip, I had visited his former orphanage. I hear the word orphanage and I see large dormitories with gray cement floors, populated beyond occupancy and aluminum bowls, dented from years of scraping spoons — in short, Oliver Twist-like conditions. What I found was a lovely elderly couple that had transformed their home into a foster home for several children of all ages. In addition to sending them to public school, the couple home schooled the kids and taught them Japanese. They taught them how to love and work the land by tending to a small flock of animals as well as an orchard. This couple was the true initiator of foster care long before Mongolia’s officials had heard about it.

Vannie, frame left in pink shirt
Vannie was portrayed as an intelligent youngster, who was eager to learn and explore; yet, he was lazy. They also confirmed that he loved being and working outside. Beginning of 7th grade, his school hired a new teacher. That teacher consistently singled Vannie out and teased him for being an orphan, often punished him without reason. Vannie lost interest in school and learning and consequently, a year later, ran away. His former foster parents were extremely happy when they heard that Vannie would graduate from high school this summer.

I had a long conversation with the lady of the house, debating what it means to take in children and then see them fail due to circumstance that are out of anyone’s control. It’s a constant battle to protect these kids and undo what has been done to them, while building their trust and belief things will get better. With Vannie’s former foster parents in mind, I went to Dalanzadgad in South Gobi, to attend Vannie’s graduation.

Vannie immediately introduced me to his close circle of friends. All of them were delightful and very considerate. They showed me the local attractions and took me out for lunch, pooling their money.

I was amazed to see what kind of deep bonds Vannie had formed. He was the only “orphan” among his friends, and they all supported him. When he needed a suit for his graduation, everyone searched their closets to find something appropriate.

Although his shoes were two sizes to large, it didn’t matter, neither to him, nor to his friends. When I offered to help, Vannie declined — he had everything he needed. I was truly amazed.

The graduation itself was a festive event and many students were awarded for outstanding achievements. Every graduate got to shake the principals hands and sent off into a bright future. Vannie’s teacher, who had seen his class through the last two years, gave a tearful speech, clearly happy to see his pupils succeed and sad to see them leave.

The next day they all had to go back for several more exams, which they needed to pass in order to graduate. The Mongolian education system will be forever a mystery to me.

Post gradation bliss:

It was truly amazing to see Vannie graduate. He had missed a lot of schooling and worked hard to catch up. Seeing him being part of this group of “2013 graduates” made me truly happy and gave me a deep satisfaction. He has option now and he “will be someone” in the eyes of world he lives in. He is a contender now.

I was one of the few guests at the graduation; most students came from far away and parents often don’t have the time or means to travel. I was definitely the only foreigner and dressed in what the boy called a “wallpaper patterned” jacket — it was fashionable in NY at the time - I thought it was festive.

When I asked Vannie how he introduces or describes me to his friends and teachers, he was surprised and replied “As my mom”. There was no question for him, except bewilderment why I asked. Yes, I am his proud mom.

December 2012: Vannie makes a “blitz” visit to UB   click to read or close >>

Vannie came from Gobi for two days, so he could celebrate Christmas with us. He has my admiration; he takes that 16-hour bus ride, one way, without complaining.

Although we had very little time, I wanted to introduce the possibility of him going to college. He was surprised, but then liked the idea though he was unsure of what he might like to study. As “homework”, I asked him to think about what subjects he’s interested in and to inquire within his school on what is available. Gathering information is often a daunting undertaking for the kids; we’ll see.

Vannie will graduate from high school in the summer of 2012 and from vocational school in December 2013, which gives us a bit of time to investigate and to consider the idea of higher education.

Sadly, his mother never contacted him after their initial meeting in August. Khosoo, Vannie’s surrogate dad, called her to inform her that Vannie and I are in UB, which finally prompted her to get in touch with her son. I am not sure what to make of it all, I guess it will become clearer in time.

August 2012: Vannie meets his mother for the first time in 15 years   click to read or close >>

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 laughed.

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 month).

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 visible.

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 and me.

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 impressed.

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, international family.

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   click to read or close >>

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   click to read or close >>

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   click to read or close >>

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   click to read or close >>

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   click to read or close >>

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   click to read or close >>

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.