The Underbelly (Blog entry)

The Underbelly

Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia
Flag of Mongolia
Friday, Sep 08, 2006  01:13

Entry 6 of 17 | show all | print this entry

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The tunnels #1

The tunnels #2

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This week I began work at World Vision. It has been an eye opening week, that’s for sure.

On Tuesday, I visisted the city’s heating tunnels underground the city, where the street children and other homeless people live during winter. The NGOs estimate there are about 3000 kids on the streets. I can understand now why they go underground, it has already been snowing the last few mornings and the nights are freezing, so they can only really survive by going underground.

To get down to the tunnels, there are holes in the ground all over the city. Very hazardous, it’s important to carry a torch at night when you’re walking round or you could end up down one with a broken neck or at least a broken leg (apparently quite common!). Pretty horrific living conditions down there, stinky and dirty, it’s hard to imagine living there. I was glad to get out. A couple of us stepped in what must have been human excretement while down there, so it was an unpleasant journey home in the van afterwards.

What is interesting is that many mongolians don’t have much sympathy for the street children, viewing them as delinquants who choose to live on the streets and who wouldn’t want help even if it was offered. I can kind of see where the view comes from, since the kids can be pretty aggressive, disruptive and are obviously committing a fair bit of crime, but I bet they or I would probably be just the same if we were living on the streets. The kids are hungry!

I have been blown away with the work World Vision is doing. They came in to help the street kids when even other aid organisations wouldn’t, and the transformations are just incredible. On Friday, I met a group of the kids living in the "Lighthouse Centres". All the kids arrived at the centres from living in the tunnels. They were
all either orphans or mostly they were in the tunnels after leaving dire domestic situations, usually abusive. All had STD’s when they arrived, even the kids as young as 5. One had seen her brothers and sisters murdered. Some of the girls had been raped by their fathers. The kids sang for us, and it was indescribably moving seeing them so happy, knowing where they had come from. One of the boys was so happy when he was singing, he was crying.

The projects are much more comprehensive and far reaching than I imagined. There are centres for getting the kids off the streets, then projects for re-uniting them with their families, projects for assisting impoverished parents generate income so they can look after their kids properly, projects for teaching the kids practical farming skills if they prefer that over formal education, projects in the children’s prisons for teaching the kids vocational skills to use when they get out….the list goes on.

I met a girl in the girl’s prison, aged 19. She was pregnant when sentanced and had had her baby in prison. She had the baby with her in a mother’s unit sponsored by World Vision, and in existance because of a law change lobbied for by World Vision. But the baby will be taken away in when it reaches a year old and put into an orphanage. The girl is in prison because she was living on the streets and stole $1.20. It was her third theft offence so she recieved a "three strikes, you’re out" sentance of 10 years. There is no parole here. The unfairness of the girl’s situation and seeing her crying, trying to imagine what she is feeling – about her future, about losing her child in a few months -was heart breaking. Particularly heart breaking is knowing that with the $1.20 she stole (before being caught) she had bought soap to wash with, and some washing powder. The World Vision advocacy team is working on lobbying the goverment to change the current laws pertaining to crimes like hers, and generally working to promote basic human rights.

For the lawyers reading this, I have been intereseted to hear about World Visions legal procedures projects too. The legal system here is in a very infant stage. The laws have been plucked straight from Russia and there has been very few if any precedents or effort to apply the law to the mongolian context. There is little if any understanding of what precedent means even! Or what it means to defend! The "defence" lawyers typically just listen to what the judge says and accepts it! World Vision is having to teach practitioners how to defend clients, and is working on developing a law of procedure because at the moment there isn’t one.

The photos with this entry are me and Rahel at the tunnels where the street children sleep in winter. The night we visited we there were no kids yet, because the city heating is only turned on next week so until then, they sneak into the stairwells of apartment buildings like mine and Rahel’s and sleep there. By the way, in case you were thinking that I look huge in the photo, I am wearing a borrowed jacket – the mutton fat hasn’t got to me yet!


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