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.



Remember this smiling face from 2012? (Usukhbayar)


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:

orphanage 7-24-14

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


Top 20 Quotes of Mongolia Bound 2014

As we make our way home and reflect on our experiences over the past two weeks, we thought we would share with our Mongolia Bound readers a humorous glimpse of our travels and experiences. Each of the quotes listed below reflects either our individual personalities or aspects of our experiences.
20.  “Made you look!”  (Margie’s and Rita’s kids playing a favorite game by trying to get us to look at “spots” on our shirts, etc.)
19.  “Where’s the lecture hall?”  (Response: “Through the Tunnel of Death.”  See photo.)

The Tunnel of Death leading from the children’s hospital to a separate building housing lecture hall, laboratory, etc.

18.  “Do you know where this word comes from?”  (Steve putting on his professorial role.)

17.  “Where’s John?” (Response: “He’s either taking a hot shower or shooting a photo.”)
16.  “Do you want red, white, champagne, or white and then red?”  (Steve asking the group about what type of wine they want for dinner, invariably followed by someone asking . . .)


15.  “How would you describe the body of this wine?”  (Steve’s response: “I’m not going to waste my time. This is crap wine.”)
14.  “What type of meat is this?”  (John asking about the salad at dinner at Khuduu Aral. The answer: beef tongue.  Alex and Cindy promptly stopped eating.)
13.  “It’s not as bad as Fly Camp.”  (All of us at different points comparing things to our first camp at Khuukh Nuur, which was swarmed with flies in biblical proportions.)

Steve vs. flies at “Fly Camp”


Sunrise over Blue Lake (Khuukh Nuur) at Heart-Shaped Mountain. This made up for all the flies.

12.  “There are no rules.”  (Steve describing traffic in Ulaanbaatar.)

There are NO rules.

11. “Chuuka! Chuuka! Chuuka!”  (Our cheer after our amazing driver, Chuuka, had successfully forded a stream or achieved a 45 degree angle in the famous Russian van.)
10.  “Actually, it’s no good to drink.” (Doogii telling us not to drink the spring water–one day after we all drank it. See photo to see how the water changed color overnight.)

Before: John takes a swig of water fresh from Auger Spring.

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After: Steve holds the bottle of spring water the next day. What were we thinking?

9.  “‘Camel’ is the marrow side of the bone.”  (Cindy, the hemonc, immediately able to discern the “camel” side of a sheep’s ankle bone. For centuries Mongols have used these ankle bones–with each side representing a different animal–to play a variety of games along the lines of checkers or jacks.)


8.  “Do you know that every day you produce 10% of your platelets?  Taking a daily aspirin irreversibly inhibits the function of the platelet.”  (Cindy to Steve when she learned that he takes an 81mg tablet of aspirin each day. )
7.  “Go with the flow.”  (What everyone who travels in Mongolia ultimately learns: you either become fluid or don’t make it.)
6.  “Where did all this water come from?  Is the raft supposed to fill up with water?”  (Cindy as she boarded our raft and noticed it filling with water. It turned out that the inflatable raft was designed to take on 3-4 inches of water.)
5.  “Doogii, do you know how to swim?”  (Steve asking a pivotal question of Doogii as we reach the middle of the Kherlen River on our raft and she informs us that this is her first time rafting.)
4.  “If you think that I have any control of this horse, it’s an illusion.”  (John on horseback.)
3.  “I enjoy looking at slides.”  (Cindy’s geek/researcher’s side coming out.)
2.  “It’s a beautiful stain.”  (See above. She’s referring to the stain labs make to be able to read slides.)
1. “Actually, it’s okay.”  (Doogii on innumerable occasions, but most memorably as she’s telling us that we are rafting without a guide and she has never rafted before and can’t swim. This became the saying of the trip, and it pretty much always turned out to be true.)

Chuuka preparing to drive through deep water.

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Perhaps the only lawnmower in Mongolia.

On the way home – 2014 (John)


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.


2012 Mongolian Team


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



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!


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


A mother holding her child tight.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The kids show off their gifts at the conclusion of camp.


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.


Return to Mother and Child Hospital (Steve)

Two years ago I wrote: “It is the same in all nations and cultures everywhere: the look of fear in the face of a parent whose child has leukemia.”  Much has changed in UB over the last two years, but when I returned to the Mother and Child Hospital with the medical team I saw that one thing most definitely hasn’t changed: that fear-filled face of the parents on the oncology ward.
I spent Monday morning following along as Cindy, John, and Alex did rounds with the Mongolian doctors and residents through the pediatric oncology ward. We were greeted warmly by Dr. Chimgee and Degi, who speaks good English and has become our primary contact at the hospital. We were also joined by Oyunaa, a young resident in hematology-oncology who also speaks good English. Both John and I were delighted to see that people remembered us and were happy to have us return and offer our services.

Cindy leading rounds with a young cancer patient.

I will leave the full medical explanations to those who are actually qualified, but I made a few observations that are perhaps worth sharing. First, it was great to see Cindy in action again. She was one of Jonathan’s doctors and always had such a wonderful attitude and personal style, no matter how dire his prognosis. Even in translation, her upbeat demeanor and compassion shined in the dim surroundings. It was also my first chance to see Rita working at her craft, and I was deeply impressed by her medical knowledge and professionalism.

An anxious mom watches the rounds.

As we progressed through the rounds, I began to hear language I didn’t hear two years ago: “This is an 8-year-old girl with T-Cell ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia).”  I glanced over at Rita, who looked equally surprised and leaned over to say to me, “That’s new–it’s the first time I’ve heard them use a full cellular diagnosis. They must be using the flow cytometer now.”  Regular readers of our blog will remember that, two years ago, on our first trip to. Mongolia, Eric Sandler suggested that the hospital try to acquire a flow cytometer, an expensive and technologically advanced machine which enables doctors to determine whether a patient with blood cancer has leukemia, lymphoma or some other type of cancer–and gives them the ability to isolate the type of leukemia or lymphoma (T-Cell or Pre-B Cell leukemia, for instance) and modify treatment accordingly. When the team returned last year, the hospital had managed to acquire a flow cytometer but didn’t have anyone on staff with the expertise to use it. Last year Eric suggested that they get some reagents to make the machine operable, and over the past 10 months they have somehow managed to do so and learned how to operate the device on a rudimentary basis–enough to make more nuanced diagnoses. Thanks to a little boy and his doctor, the Mongolia Bound teams are clearly making a difference.

A young cancer patient eating breakfast.

The rounds were both heartbreaking and uplifting. As I said at the outset, I recognized and empathized with the grim expressions on the faces of the parents. (The children are almost always in better spirits than their parents, here in Mongolia or in the U.S.)  When we encountered an 11-year-old boy who had relapsed ALL, it struck a little too close to home and I had to leave the room with tears steaming down my cheeks.  But on the way to another section of the ward we encountered an anxious set of parents whose 18-month-old daughter had been sent to the hospital in UB because a countryside doctor thought the spots along her midriff might be the telltale bruising of leukemia. As Cindy and Rita peered more closely at the child lying peacefully in her father’s arms, they came to the same conclusion: those weren’t bruises but temporary blemishes, probably a dermatological rash. The little girl had no need to be on the cancer ward and could go home with her parents. The mother–who, it turned out, had spent four years in London–thanked us profusely in English. If only more of the diagnoses could have such happy endings.

She is worried now, but she is going to get good news.

On Monday afternoon I headed over to soccer camp, and I will give a full report on how that’s going in my next post.
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