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

 

On the way home – 2014 (John)

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Telling Jonathan’s story

It has been two years, Jonathan.  First time I went in 2012, I was inspired by your dream and wanted to be part of the team to live it out.  I went without knowing much about this country Mongolia that fascinated you, except that the people are traditionally nomads and their country neighbours my motherland.

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2012 Mongolian Team

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The kids at Soccer Camp 2012 singing us a naadam song as thanks.

 

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On his way to the naadam horse race (2012).

With Candace’s and the boys’ great emotional support, I packed my bag and went!  I was blown away!!  I went home deeply inspired and touched.  I then understood why you were so fascinated about Mongolia!  The people there are so pure, content, positive, and happy.  Living their simple lives in the endless plains of the Mongolian Steppes, enjoying happy times with their family closely bound by their deep traditions in the warm gers, going through harsh winters with perseverance and strength, without fears… They have so much in common with you!  I was touched by their courage and strength to live… as nomads, as warriors against cancer.  I learnt the love that drives them to go on: the love of lives and nature; the love for their families.  I was moved by the innocent smiles that the Mongols patients had, even when battling life threatening diseases… just like you did.  I was touched by the love that the parents showed by being with them and holding them tightly… just like your parents did.  I learnt fatherhood at a deeper level when Steve was running around collecting Mongolian stones for you, and when he was praying in silence in Karakorum, and him turning your love into helping others.  I was inspired by the love of the doctors and nurses in Mongolia taking care of their little patients, even putting them before their own families… just like your doctors and nurses did.  I got to know two missionary families who went way way way before us to the Land of Blue Sky answering the Lord’s calling, taking care of Mongol children and being living testimonies of Christ’s love.  Two years later, these inspirations didn’t fade a bit; they only grew stronger!

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Bone marrow needles used by the hospital in 2012. They now have single-use needles.

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A mother holding her child tight.

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Visiting with patient and her mother.

Thank you so much, Jonathan.  I would not have the opportunity to learn and experience all these without you.  Thank you for having such wonderful dream and letting us be part of it.  Jonathan, I thank our Father for giving you such a loving heart and being such strong living testimony of His love and sacrifice.  I can tell you that we made many friends in the Mother & Children’s Hospital and we are honoured to partner in battling childhood diseases in the U.S. and in Mongolia.  There are many things that we have learnt from each other.  We are making many changes to take better care of the patients entrusted to us because of you!  Although I may not be able to go back to Mongolia in the near future, I am forever bound with them via the friendship that is beyond time and space, just like ours.

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2014 Mongolian Team.

Please continue to watch over us and inspire us.  We are honoured to partner with you to do all these and I will continue to tell these amazing stories… all started by one child’s dream.  The time will come when we meet again and chat and laugh over our little travel stories in person (milk curds in coffee, fly camp, Russian van…), until then, take good care of yourself and your family.

Day 1 in Ulaanbaatar (John)

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Zaisan Monument

We have arrived! After a very very very long flight… I have finally returned to Ulaanbaartar – City of Red Hero! After settling down in the hotel and a quick nap, we enjoyed the company of Rita, Margie, and their wonderful kids who have come all the way from Inner Mongolia! Steve was right. MANY have been changed in the city: construction projects every where, high rise buildings replacing many of the ger camps, less potholes on the main roads (!), and the very last statue of Lenin was removed! What remain unchanged are the eternal blue sky and the hospitality of the Mongols! We spent the morning with Rita touring the city the Mongolian way (everyone stuffed in a regular car). We revisited the Zaisan Russian monument and had an overlook of the city, Sükhbaatar Square, and Megjid Temple & Monastery. We then joined Margie and the kids for lunch. It’s AMAZING how much they have grown in just two years!!

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The team dining with Rita, Margie and her kids at Millie’s Cafe, an expat pub in UB

 

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Driving through rough side roads with major potholes, we visited the “ger district”. They have mostly people who had a rough time in the countryside and decided to make a living in the city. These people have no money, no resources, no place to live… only the strength, toughness, and perseverance in their nomad blood to live. They often rely on the kids to sell firewood to make a living. We stopped at a water station It was heartbreaking to see the kids pulling very heavy water carts coming all through the district to get this very basic element of life, while we just turn on the tap and have endless running water.

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Driving into the ger district

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View of the ger district

 

We then had the pleasure to tour the “Children’s Place Orphanage” nearby the ger district and actually hear the history of its ministries. Personally I was very grateful to spend an afternoon with Margie, who with Rita started this ministry. I worked primarily with Rita two years ago in the hospital, so although I got to tour Children’s Place, I haven’t had the opportunity to know more about its history and struggles. Just like our mission, it was started when one person feels the burden for the orphans in Mongolia, often left to die in the bitter winter. She followed her passion to help one infant at a time. Now after MANY struggles with the government, with God’s grace and her obedience to His call, it has grown to be a beautiful home serving up to 30+ children left on the street, denied parental love and the right to live. Here they learn love, compassion, courtesy, discipline, and how to help and take care of others.

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Sleeping quarters at The Children’s Place

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The kitchen and dining hall at The Children’s Place

We didn’t see the kids as they were in Summer Camp (happiest time of the year!), but I was still blessed standing in the kitchen, remembering the little ones helping their younger “siblings” finishing their plates, everyone cleaning up after lunch… a BIG contrast to the “serve-me” generations in the West and in Hong Kong. The ministry also grown to include after-school programs for the ger kids to avoid getting into trouble on the street and physical & speech therapy centre for kids in the countryside. May He bless His own ministries to continue serving the ger communities and spread His love. We will be departing to the countryside for three days visiting this beautiful land and meet up with our old friend Doogii the amazing tour guide and Chuka the fantastic Russian Van driver before we come back and work in the hospital and soccer camp. We are scheduled to visit the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan and follow his footsteps in the vast Mongolian Steppes!

Video: WJXT Shares Jonathan’s Story & The Mongolia Bound Mission

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.

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