Mongolia has winters colder than Moscow, and poverty, corruption and rampant alcoholism have left its young people in an "unbearable" situation.
Poverty can be bad enough in a hot climate. But in Mongolia – where temperatures can reach minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit – poverty is a bone-chilling nightmare.
The Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar has winters colder than Moscow, colder than Ottawa, and it makes Helsinki feel like Havana.
Fortunately, Ulaanbaatar also has the Catholic-run Verbist Care Center (VCC), which currently cares for 53 children and young adults with ages ranging from 4 to 22 years. Aside from shelter and food, the VCC provides education and skills training, along with handcrafting, music and dance.
Established in 1995, the VCC is named after Fr. Theophiel Verbist, a 19th-century Belgian priest who led missionary endeavors in Asia and founded the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM).
Fr. Simon Mputu, a CICM priest, serves as supervisor of the VCC. He uses the word “unbearable” to describe poverty in a climate as harsh as that of Mongolia. In Ulaanbaatar, the majority of residents live in compounds called ger districts with tent-like structures for homes. Such communities don’t even have running water, so the residents must “fetch water from government-run kiosks,” he says.
Mputu breaks down the cold economic reality: From October through March, temperatures consistently drop below zero, often far below. Keeping a ger district home at an endurable temperature for 15 hours per day requires at least one 10kg (22lb) sack of firewood or coal. The firewood costs 3 USD, the coal about half that. And either item is already beyond the budget of many ger residents. So, they have to find a different option. Some stockpile dung during the summer, hoping to burn it in winter. Others resort to burning old tires, which emit a nasty odor – and can beget even nastier health problems.
The need to stay warm has contributed to Ulaanbaatar receiving the label as the “world’s most polluted capital.” The effects on the residents, particularly the youngest ones, include respiratory ailments and neurological impairments.
Mputu tells how last winter he personally visited a ger district family who had a 3-month-old baby and almost nothing but tires to burn.
Aside from the brutal winters, Mputu feels that corruption and alcoholism are “two of the biggest challenges facing Mongolian society.” And he singles out alcoholism as “the main cause” of families breaking up and rendering children homeless.
Some of the most notorious reports of homelessness in Mongolia have involved children seeking shelter in the city’s underground sewer system. Mputu says that, although this desperate endeavor still takes place, it “is not as common as it used to be.” One reason is that the Mongolian government has blocked most underground entries. The second reason is that the government has also established temporary shelters for such children.
Additionally, Mputu says there are 32 charities serving Mongolia’s homeless children. Some of these charities are religious, some are secular, and all are necessary. Even one night of homelessness in Mongolia can easily turn into a death-sentence. Mputu says the authorities have been making recent efforts to rescue people from freezing to death, but it is still very often “too late when the rescue team arrives.” He adds how some homeless persons “justify their use of alcohol by saying that it keeps the body warm a little longer which would increase the chance of being found alive by the rescue team.”
Two years ago, Mputu believed that Ulaanbaatar’s situation with homeless children would slowly improve. But, amid the complications of the pandemic, he expects the issue will get worse. “Many people have slipped back into poverty,” he says. And although, as he points out, the government has borrowed money to increase monthly child allowances to families, the costs of basic commodities have doubled. “This will certainly result in many children becoming homeless.”
Twelve people currently serve as workers at the VCC. Of this dozen, Mputu is the only priest and the only foreigner. Fortunately, he has learned enough Mongolian to communicate with everyone. As a priest, learning the language is especially important to connect with people in a country where Catholics comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall population. Though the Vatican has had diplomatic relations with Mongolia since 1992, the Church does not have a large enough presence to qualify for a diocese.
Mputu says the Mongolian government, although sometimes “very appreciative” of the VCC, does not provide any financial subsidies. Therefore, the VCC relies on donations to cover its annual operating budget of $130,000 USD.
The VCC has a Facebook page, and any U.S. readers wishing to donate can use the following contact info: Missionhurst-CICM, 4651 25th Street North, Arlington, VA 22207-3500, Tel: 703-528-3804. Please note that, with any donations, the beneficiary must be clearly stated as “Verbist Care Center, Mongolia.”