Coming Full Circle (Steve)

Two years ago, shortly after we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Rita took us to tour The Children’s Place orphanage.  It was the first time I had ever been to an orphanage, and, as I wrote at the time, it was a gut-wrenching visit for me (click here to see that post).  With the emotional scars from the loss of Jonathan still very fresh, it was painful for me to see so many children grappling with their own loss and with such uncertain prospects ahead of them.  They get plenty of love at the orphanage, to be sure–but they are nevertheless orphans.  I left The Children’s Place that day emotionally drained.  Yet two years later, the most enduring image I have of that tour is the first: the door of the orphanage being opened by a 10-year-old boy named Usukhbayar who immediately struck me with his sweet and gentle spirit. In ways too deep to convey in words, his opening of the door opened my heart.

Over the next several days I got to know Usukhbayar and his younger sister Oyundari, playing soccer and basketball with them or spinning her around.  (Usukhbayar was a little big for the spinning.)  The more time I spent with them and the more I learned about their background, the more they seemed to root themselves in my heart.  At nights I spoke to Cathy (my wife) of them, and when I returned to the U.S. I found that I couldn’t shake them from my mind.  Cathy and I explored the possibility of adoption, but an adoption would be impossible: while their mother is dead, their father is alive (albeit unable to care for children) and retains parental rights. So while I kept the two photos below on my cell phone, I tried not to think about them.

 

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Remember this smiling face from 2012? (Usukhbayar)

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And this one as well? (Oyundari)

All that changed, however, when this past January brought Rita back to our home in Jacksonville.  Quite unexpectedly, over dinner one night Rita blurted out: “Are you two still interested in those kids [Usukhbayar and Oyundari]?  Because it is possible that you could become long-term host parents for them.  Give it some thought and let me know when I come back next month.”  Cathy and I agreed to consider the opportunity, but the truth is that we knew instantly that we would like to bring Usukhbayar and Oyundari to live with us as exchange students/foster children.  Indeed, providing them the opportunity to have an American education and helping to prepare them for lives on their own as adults would be a great gift . . . to us.  When Rita returned to our home in February, we shared with her the news that we would love to bring the children to America.

But to do so would require clearing several hurdles.  First, we would have to have the full support of the orphanage Director–and we were delighted that she immediately bought into the idea, which is really quite novel in Mongolia.  Next, the father would have to approve the plan.  Amazingly, he did.  Then we would have to have the authorization of the Mongolian social services agency, which is still in its post-Soviet growing pains and trying to figure out what it means to send kids to foster families abroad.  After 3-4 rounds of documents proving that we were people of good character who actually have jobs and a house, etc., they agreed to allow the children to live with us for a year.  The final hurdle was the U.S. government, which had to decide whether to issue the critical F-1 student visa, without which the children would not be able to enter the country.  As fate would have it, Usukhbayar and Oyundari had their first interview at the U.S. Embassy while the Mongolia Bound 2014 team was in UB.  I had not been expecting to see the children while I was in Mongolia because I knew they were at the orphanage’s Summer House, but on the afternoon following the interview Margie asked me if I would like to visit with them–they would be staying overnight at The Children’s Place before returning to the countryside the next morning.  I couldn’t say “Yes!” fast enough and caught a cab to the orphanage, where, with Margie as translator, I got to spend an hour with them talking about their hoped-for life in America.  Margie took the photo below during that magical hour:

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Everyone who has seen this picture of me with the kids at the orphanage back in July has said, “Steve, you look so incredibly happy . . .” And I think the kids look happy, too!

 

After a follow-up interview on August 14 with the U.S. Consul, who has proven exceedingly kind, the visa was finally granted last week.  Thus I am now on a plane bound for Seoul, where I will meet up with the children and their escort from the orphanage, along with Margie and her kids (who were already planning to travel to the U.S.).  After a scant 5 hours at Incheon airport, we will all catch a flight to Atlanta, where Cathy will meet us.  Then the nine of us will board one last flight to our home city of Jacksonville.

Needless to say, Cathy and I are thrilled beyond words.  (We’re also really nervous, too!)  Obviously this is a potentially big risk and a HUGE change in our lives, but our hope is to give Usukhbayar and Oyundari a future they would not otherwise have had.  Likewise, though, they will give us a future we would not otherwise have had. After the catastrophic loss of Jonathan, these children in a very real sense offer us a type of redemption: a chance to bring life from death, and to help close the circle between Mongolia and Jacksonville, between the Mother and Child Hospital and the Nemours Children’s Clinic, between The Children’s Place orphanage and Jonathan’s hospital bed on 5 Wolfson.

As we have informed friends and family about this exciting development, many have wondered aloud what would prompt us to take on such a challenge.  For me, one particular Scriptural passage has reverberated in my mind these past 7 months: to paraphrase James 1:27, “true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their affliction.”  Paradoxically, we hope that as we care for these two orphans, Usukhbayar and Oyundari will in turn help give our lives renewed purpose.

-Steve Soud

 

Soccer Camp 2014: Under the Mongolian Sun

Mongolia is the least populous country on the planet (it is said that the horses outnumber the people 12 to 1), and in the vast steppes that comprise most of the country one feels the immensity of green space, as if one were sailing on a rolling sea of grass. But the sprawling, dusty city of Ulaanbaatar is quite another matter: there is virtually no green space to be found, and the few postage-stamp-sized playgrounds that dot the city–especially in the ger districts–are marred by mud puddles and rusting, decrepit equipment.
So when we offered the first soccer camp two years ago as a way to complement the medical team’s activities at the hospital, we did not realize that we were providing kids from both The Children’s Place orphanage and the nearby ger district a rare opportunity to play in open, green space. But the camp was so successful that, what began as the inspiration of a then-16-year-old Justin Sandler (Eric’s youngest) in 2012 has turned into an annual event carried on by members of Margie’s and Rita’s church as a ministry to local street kids.
The 2013 camp was again held at the 97th School, but for 2014 Margie decided to move the camp to a gorgeous, full-sized field located at the National Defense University–and closer to the ger district, so that more kids could access the camp.  With the children from the orphanage at their “Summer House,” a lovely country place donated to the orphans for two summer months a year, the 2014 camp would be three afternoon sessions geared toward older kids from the ger district.
Camp began on Monday afternoon underneath a bright blue Mongolian sky, with a dozen or more kids from the ger district participating, along with Margie’s and Rita’s kids. Under the watchful gaze of Boloroo, the young woman who runs the outreach ministry to kids in the ger district from Margie’s and Rita’s church, the kids skipped drills, chose sides, and jumped right into a game. Despite the heat–intensified by the artificial field-turf surface beneath us–the kids raced back and forth between the goals in a spirited match.  Across the street was a supermarket where Margie and I loaded up on water and snacks to keep the kids refreshed, and at the end of our two-hour session the manager of the field told us the kids could play for another hour for free.  Margie speculated that he made the gracious offer because he recognized the fact that these kids don’t have access to a facility like this and wanted to help out. By four o’clock the kids were worn out from the heat and the games, and Timuraa, who had picked up the kids in Margie’s old van, transported them back to their homes. Day 1 was a success.
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A young Messi shoots and scores.

Day 2 (Tuesday) saw another brilliant blue sky above us, and the campers had a slightly different flavor. All the kids from Monday were there, but several rough-looking teenagers joined us as well.  These teens have what Rita calls a “homeless lifestyle”–that is, they will spend weeks away from family, staying in friends’ gers, returning to the family ger for a short time, and then disappearing again for days at a time. “They’re depressed, so they drink, and that just intensifies the cycle,” Rita observes. Older and bigger than most of the other kids, these teens are tougher to control, and they are just more physically aggressive–with the younger kids and with each other. When you grow up in a home where violence is ever-present, you carry that anger and aggression into the outside world.
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The players at day 2 of camp. Note the long sleeves worn by some of the teens.

Nevertheless, here these teens are, wearing some of the only clothes they have–which means long sleeves in heat and sun that even at UB’s latitude are burning this Floridian.   But the teens, too, seem to enjoy the opportunity to run and play in an open space. Midway through the camp session, though, these four or five kids disappear, leaving us all to breathe a sigh of relief and yet to wonder why they departed so abruptly. But a few minutes later they return with a 1.5 liter bottle of what appears to be a soft drink from a local convenience store. Boloroo nonchalantly calls them over to her and asks if she can have a taste–she is cleverly making sure that no alcohol has been added to the cola. The drink passes muster, and the teens return to playing soccer. The field manager again grants us extra time to play, and after two-and-a-half hours of play in the heat we are all ready to call it a day.
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Two young cheerleaders.

The third and final day saw fewer kids (and none of the teens), the blazing sun probably having scared some of the kids off. But we had a great group of about 15 kids who scampered about the field and played a high-scoring game. Meanwhile, I had noticed that the day before some of the kids moved off to the side and used a soccer ball to play volleyball. That night I headed to the State Department Store (a relic of the old Soviet system, with shopping bags that read “All Needs Are Fulfilled”) to buy a real volleyball, and I spent most of the day using the new ball to play “pepper” with a rotating group of kids who would tire of the soccer, play volleyball for a few minutes, and then head back to soccer. Since I have actually coached volleyball, I was able to give the kids some pointers–I just don’t know how often they will have a chance to play in the future.
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David challenges Emily.

As the camp drew to a close, Boloroo summoned the kids over to one of the few shaded areas of the facility–the team bench–and reminded everyone that the camp was a gift of God and invited all of them to the church.   Then we handed out the gifts I had brought–Hot Wheels cars, UF lanyards, seashells, and a few other trinkets, and the kids posed for one final photo with their gifts.
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The kids show off their gifts at the conclusion of camp.

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Boloroo holds forth at the conclusion of camp.

Though I finished the three days sunburned and exhausted, Soccer Camp 2014 was a resounding success. To be sure, I missed seeing the kids from the orphanage.  But through the efforts of Boloroo and others from the church (not to mention Margie’s daughter Emily), kids who might not otherwise have had the opportunity got a chance to run and play on a real soccer field in a fun and safe environment. They repeatedly showed their gratitude, and I know that Jonathan’s spirit lives on through events in Mongolia such as this.

 

Donate to Next Year’s Mission Online!

Thanks to the support of our beloved friends at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, you can now donate to the next Mongolia Bound mission online here.

There is so much work to be done, from helping to get essential medicines to proper equipment to medical training; your contribution will help establish a life-saving pediatric oncology program in Mongolia’s only children’s hospital, Mother & Child Hospital.

Last Day of Soccer Camp: Steve’s Thoughts and Emotions

Today is the last day of soccer camp, and we are all pretty emotional about it. Indeed, the entire week has brought us a mixture of emotions: the initial shock at the chaotic nature of Ulaanbaatar, the gradual adjustment to the chaos, the bonding with the children, and now the prospect of goodbye. We are physically worn out from the surprisingly hot sun and the play, and emotionally fatigued by the overwhelming sense of neediness we have encountered.

Natalie and John have swapped places today; since she arrived late Monday night, she hasn’t yet been to the hospital, and John, a soccer fan (unfortunately a Netherlands follower ;-) ), has done what he can do with the pharmacists at the hospital and wants to spend some time with the kids.

We are also joined by Dan, a young Englishman who, along with his wife Cat, is in the midst of a two-month mission commitment in Mongolia. Dan has just completed medical school and is pondering sub-specialization in pediatric hematology/oncology when he returns home later this summer.


Dan and Kat

While Cat contributes her expertise as a Physical Therapist to The Children’s Place, Dan has spent the week at the hospital learning as much from Eric as he can, but today is ready to indulge in one of his passions, soccer.  Though he is a hemophiliac himself, Dan refuses to let that hold him back, and for many years he has played goalie on a number of different teams, including one that recently tried out for the Mongolian first division.

When we arrive at the 97th School the children have actually gotten there before us. With Paul and Dan assisting, Justin quickly gets things organized and the children run through their drills.


Running drill with a parachute

Meanwhile John and I play with those who are less interested in soccer.  Abigail, the youngest of Margie’s three children, has finally warmed up to me and wants to be picked up. I oblige, and she asks me to run as fast as I can while holding her. I wear myself out racing her up and down the sidelines.



Steve, Abigail, Oyundari


Impatiently waiting to be spun around!

Then, before I know it, I am surrounded by children–among them Abigail, Oyundari, Enkhtuul, Halliuna, and a girl from the ger district whose name I don’t know–all wanting to be spun around by the arms. After 15 minutes of spinning I have to beg for a break, but now the girls want to play “Wolves and Sheep”–essentially a game of tag, but with a name descending from the Mongols’ days as steppe herders and hunters.  Before the morning is over, I am happily exhausted!

As the soccer camp comes to a close, Margie and the other Children’s Place workers who have accompanied her this morning gather all the orphans together to say farewell. The children burst into a song that seems completely spontaneous and that brings tears to my eyes.


Kids singing

Margie later explains that they have chosen a song associated with naadam, the upcoming national festival of Mongolia, but that each time she has thought they were ending they added yet another verse. That, she says, shows how much they have enjoyed the week.  As we walk back to the van, the little girl from the district who had so often asked to be spun holds my right hand.  She looks up at me and says, “Esteve, I love you.”  “I love you too,” I reply. Usukhbayar walks up on my left.  “Esteve, Jesus loves you,” he says in English. “Jesus loves you, too, Usukhbayar.”  The children are loaded into one van, the rest of us into another to head to The Children’s Place.

Shortly after we get to the orphanage, Eric, Sally, and Natalie arrive with Rita from the hospital. This is John’s first visit to The Children’s Place, and Eric and Sally’s first substantial time there. Lunch is being prepared for the kids, and we play with them while they wait.  Oyundari loves to be tickled, and I have great fun picking her up and tickling her.


The kids eating lunch


Enjoying food and the company

As we try to settle the children down, we give them gifts we have brought from the faraway ocean: scallop shells and shark teeth.


Admiring the seashells

Halliuna, at 12 the oldest of the children and a quick study in English, looks at Natalie and says, “This my family. My home.”  Her mother is an alcoholic and Halliuna hopes to go home soon, but it is far from clear what her home life would be like if she were to return.

Soon it is time for us to go and to say our final goodbyes. I give each kid a hug, but Oyundari, who is washing dishes, refuses–she doesn’t want to say goodbye. As Margie explains, these kids have lots of goodbyes in their lives.  The departure wrenches me emotionally: these kids are so lovable and yet their futures so uncertain, and my time with them has filled me with a grace for which I am grateful and which I don’t want to lose.

That night we take Rita, Margie, and their children out for a farewell dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant tucked down one of the scores of side streets and blind alleys that keep many of Ulaanbaatar’s gems hidden from the casual tourist.


Team dinner

Rita opens the meal with a prayer that honors Jonathan’s presence, and we then exchange gifts.  Tomorrow morning Rita will take Sally to the airport for her flight home, the rest of our team will leave for the countryside, and our new friends will head to Inner Mongolia for a reconnaissance visit.  But for me tonight represents one last moment with the children, and from the time we met in the parking lot Abigail has latched onto me.  For most of the meal Abigail, David, and I play rock-paper-scissors or other games, and I have a blast.  We say farewell in the parking lot, and our team gets ready for four days of adventure in the countryside.

John Experiences Soccer Camp for the First Time

Some of them may never had a parent; some of them may have to work long hours selling wood on the street; some of them don’t even have a tee-shirt or jacket that fits; some of them have disability; some of them teased by their classmates as the “abandoned kids whom no one loves”…

Nothing of this harsh life seemed to be able to hide the true joy of a child playing football.

After four days of my work in the hospital, I joined the Football Camp for the orphans and street kids today. Immediately after jumping off the sardined van, the kids ran directly to the football field. Kids are kids. Once they were on the football field, their joy emerged on their faces.

When they were kicking the ball (or some little ones waiting to get on the “human spin”), I only saw on their faces – happiness, sportsmanship, determination, strength, and lots of fun!


The human spinning machine

These characters were easily identified. However, I saw their deeper characters of care and love only after spending some time with the kids. There was a fun little boy with fairer skin who was in oversized jacket and always wanted to wander beyond the football field. Every time he tried to leave, some older girl would pick him up and bring him back to the field. One time he was really upset and decided to just sit and cry. His brother immediately left the football game that he was enjoying, pulled the boy aside, sat down with him, and spent a good amount of time missing his own game comforting the little brother.

During snack time, another kid fell down and started crying. The boy next to him immediately came and put a couple of his m&m’s in the crying boy’s hand.


Sharing M&Ms

Without saying anything, he had shared the best thing that he had with this little crying kid. Getting used to seeing kids fighting over toys or the need to ask, beg, and command fifty times to make kids share their candies, seeing these silent but spontaneous acts of love in their little people’s scale certainly was humbling and refreshing.

I then had an opportunity to tour the orphanage. It was a very neat place and it didn’t feel sad at all! They kids were so happy that we came and spend time with them. Some of them showing us the lunch that they had; some of them brought us to his bedroom and showed us where they sleep; Another girl showed us the stuffed rabbit that she deeply loves. We then went to their classroom and they were having so much fun making crafts from the materials that we brought from our church’s VBS. A little girl showed me the craft she made (pilot’s goggles) on which she spelled out “I LOVE YOU”.

It was certainly a very difficult moment to say goodbye to these kids. However, the moment when we were wished farewell by all those “Jesus loves you” and “God bless you”, I know that they have found a loving home in His house.

I have a Father, He formed my heart.
Before even time began, my life was in His hand.
He knows my name. He knows my every thought.
He sees each tear that falls, and hears me when I call.

“He knows My Name” Paul Baloche

-John Ng

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