Outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – July 2011
Sometime around five years ago, I decided that James 1:27 (“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”) ought to be taken literally. I am still determined to adopt someone someday, and while I’m not opposed to single parenthood, I’m holding out for a marriage first. For a while, though, I considered working in an orphanage. When I mentioned this to Gany, a Mongolian girl working as a temporary interpreter in my hometown in Illinois, she invited me to visit the orphanage her church runs in Mongolia. Several months later, I did just that.
Every summer, The Children’s Place orphanage goes to a camp in the countryside to escape the polluted air of the capital city. Gany and I joined them for several days. Our taxi played a Backstreet Boys CD on repeat as we bounced down country roads and avoided massive potholes flooded with water. At the campground, the door to a simple one-room building opened, and five children ran to greet us. I had never met any of them before, but one grabbed my bag and two more grabbed my hands. I immediately knew that my heart wasn’t going to escape this visit untouched.
There were only three adult women working with over twenty children. Although these workers were capable and caring, their days were full with bathing children, doing laundry, and endlessly cooking meals. The care of the children was left to…the children. Those who were eight-years-old or older carried toddlers, feeding them and rocking them to sleep. I was impressed by the spirit of generosity and helpfulness these young children already had, but I was heartbroken to see so much responsibility foisted on such tiny shoulders.
Since I have very few domestic skills, I realized the only way I could serve in this situation was to hang out with the kids and have fun. Bearing my burden with dignity, I let kids crawl into my lap, draw in my journal, and take my sunglasses. I had trouble remembering the foreign-sounding Mongolian names of most of the kids, so I nicknamed them Sleepy Potty Baby, Girl-Looking Boy, Annoying Girl, Cranky Baby, and Bug Hunter.
Each night, the tables were pushed to the sides of the room, and thirty mats were laid out on the wooden floor. I was unused to listening to thirty people breathing in the dark, bodies shifting and the floor creaking. The first night I laid on my back, staring up at the ceiling. The little girl next to me rolled over, and in the faint moonlight I saw her eyes meet mine. She smiled tentatively, and I felt her hand grab mine. I fell asleep soon after, holding her hand, hoping desperately that she felt loved.
There were two kids who especially grabbed my heart. Usukhbayar (featured often in my video above) fixed the girls’ hair, drew constantly, and designed formal wear. He knew enough English to say, “I love Jesus and milk tea,” and I loved him dearly. He was gentle and sweet, and he was in charge of the kids who looked after the even-younger kids. I wanted so badly for him to be my son.
Amraa was the second kid to steal my heart. He got in trouble often for messing around while eating or running too far away while playing. His smile was infectious, and I would have let him get away with everything. He liked to hold my compact mirror in front of my face each morning, staring intensely at me while I put in contacts. He had endless energy, and I wondered if I were capable of raising him and Usukhbayar.
Of course, I wasn’t. I’m not brave like Katie Davis, and instead of devoting myself to raising orphans, I went to graduate school. It proved all too easy to let my experience become a memory. The kids became pictures, and I dehumanized them into stories. But when I decided to write this piece, I looked up The Children’s Place to make sure I’d gotten the name right. Over and over again, I saw pictures of Usukhbayar on people’s blogs and in Google images. Unexpectedly, tears filled my eyes, and I cried over my keyboard. He was still there? No family had found him, loved him, made him feel like he belonged?