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Julia Squire - Human Rights in Mongolia

Camels in the snow

I arrived in Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia on the 24th of February from Virginia after a long and hectic journey involving several delays and one cancellation in Beijing. During my long layover in Beijing, I met an Australian consultant who travels to Mongolia about twelve times a year on business. I overheard him remark facetiously to a friend, “If you get hit by a car in Mongolia, you will die of tetanus before you will die of trauma.” I chimed in with their banter, and after a few moments of us complaining about our unfortunate situation, he asked me why I chose to go to Mongolia, of all places.

At my high school, seniors perform an internship during Minimester (a period of two weeks before Spring Break) and then make a presentation to the school about their experience. The internship is meant to be related to the career that the student is interested in pursuing. Because I want to be in an occupation involving international relations and human rights, the idea of interning in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia with a focus on human rights was absolutely ideal. My parents agreed to pay for a portion, but I was expected to raise the money for the remaining expenses.

Temple in UB

Through the altruism of family, friends, teachers, and even strangers, I was able to raise enough money to participate in a human rights internship in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for the month of Minimester and Spring Break. I later received my placement and learned that I would be working in a shelter for victims of domestic violence owned by Mongolia’s National Center Against Violence (NCAV).

After I explained my interest in human rights and my expected role in the shelter, the Australian man responded with, “you’ll be shocked by the despair in UB.”

Having attended a school in a developing country, and having volunteered with Projects Abroad twice before, my internal reaction to the latter statement was, “oh whatever, despair is nothing I haven’t seen before.” But then the man added so casually, “once someone jumped off a five-story building and splatted right in front of me.”

Needless to say, I boarded my flight to UB, 24 hours later, with butterflies in my stomach, and I walked off the plane to greet Oogii from Projects Abroad with my stomach in my throat.

With hosts in the snow

However shocking it may be, I overcame all recent apprehension the moment I stepped out of the airport and into the -40°C Mongolian air to begin my short drive to the flat I was to stay in. I immediately realized, judging by the streets, what an adventure I was embarking on; there were clearly no pedestrian laws, no efforts to remove ice, and it was pretty obvious that the roads had not been repaired in quite some time—yet I was excited.

I received a very warm welcome upon my arrival at my host family’s humble dwelling. Just after I put my bags in my room, my host mother sat me down for some milk tea, food, and a little chat in a mix of Mongolian and English.

Since I had arrived a day late, my first day of work was the day after my arrival. At the shelter, I was given my task: to research other shelters, child protection systems, and shelter security in the West and to give a presentation on my research at the end of the month. I was very excited about my task, and decided to research not only the West, but also facilities in developing countries so the NCAV could see where it stood in comparison.

With local friend

The next day, Oogii gave me my induction into Ulaanbaatar. First, we went to the bank to exchange my dollars into Tugrugs. She then brought me to a stunning Buddhist temple. Then, we went to a phone store to get a SIM card so I could communicate with Projects Abroad, my host family, colleagues, and other volunteers in different placements. Finally, after hours with numb fingers and frozen lungs walking around UB and learning about buildings and facts I would probably immediately forget, Oogii took me to lunch and then brought me home.

The first day of real work was quite confusing since all information had been given to jet-lagged me. Furthermore, nobody at the shelter spoke English, so the English-Mongolian/Mongolian-English dictionary became everyone’s best friend.

As I became more familiarized with my placement, I knew my experience was to be very interesting and rewarding. I contacted organizations such as UNICEF, Amnesty International, and other private organizations in developing and developed countries around the world. I created a PowerPoint presentation that contained not only information about countries under the same topic, but also systems and situations indigenous to specific nations.

To be frank, I was appalled by the conditions at the shelter I was working in. The baby beds were cardboard boxes, and there was one bathroom and a soapless shower for up to 20 clients. The babies had no diapers, and the women had nothing to do all day except sulk (and I don’t blame them). For this reason, I focused on showing the shelter how much their living conditions differed from the conditions in Western shelters. I additionally described ways in which clients elsewhere were assisted with adjusting to life outside the shelter once their stay was finished, and shelter systems that guaranteed them safety.

I was very happy to receive positive feedback after my presentation. The group of people I presented to was made of students, social workers, lawyers, and doctors, all of whom seemed to learn of some NCAV characteristics that needed change.

Although there was a massive language barrier at the shelter, I made friends with two Mongolian social-work interns there. We went to lunch every day and communicated through dramatic gestures. I was also able to spend time with other Projects Abroad volunteers and towards the end of my month’s stay, I was able to go on a trip to the Gobi Desert with four other volunteers and two tour guides.

I applied for my human rights internship as an inexperienced high school student, but Projects Abroad found me the perfect placement that provided me with a unique learning experience in an atmosphere that I grew very fond of. I left Mongolia with a strong but basic understanding of human rights regulations around the world. I recommend a Human Rights Internship in Mongolia to anyone who is not only interested in the field, but is also willing to give up the small, unappreciated and unnoticed luxuries received at home.

While in Mongolia, you should be prepared to be faced with conflicts and situations not mentioned in your guidebook that you have never imagined yourself facing. If immersing yourself in outlandish situations and activities sounds like an enjoyable and memorable experience to you, I recommend going to Mongolia. If immersing yourself in outlandish situations and activities, along with studying human rights concerns in a developing country appeals to you, then you should certainly participate in a Human Rights Internship in Mongolia with Projects Abroad.

Julia Squire

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