St. John’s Kilmarnock School graduate spends 3 months volunteering at care and nomad projects in Mongolia.
18-year-old Emily Ho-Tai from Guelph, Canada, was drawn to Mongolia by its rich history, fascinating culture and the uniqueness of the country itself. “It is certainly a bit more off the beaten trail, so I thought it would be really neat to experience a country that is not as commonly visited.”
Eager to seize the opportunity of experiencing the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle firsthand, Emily signed up with Projects Abroad for a 3 month volunteer adventure at the Nomad Project, as well as the Care Project.
“The setting of the Nomad Project was in the beautiful Mongolian countryside. It was so wonderfully peaceful and serene - and there were lots of opportunities to explore the surroundings and take in the lovely scenery. It allows you to become integrated in a completely different way of life and it really makes you feel like you are truly experiencing Mongolia.” explains Emily. With the Nomad Project, Emily lived with a nomadic family in their traditional ger, a portable traditional Mongolian hut, for one month near the village of Altanbulag in the Tuv Province, which is located 200km away from Ulaanbaatar city. During her stay, Emily’s daily tasks included collecting cow dung for fuel, fetching water, cutting up vegetables for dinner, fermenting the mare’s milk to make airag, and herding the animals.
Emily also had the opportunity to visit friends and family in neighboring gers, exploring the area; including hikes up the surrounding mountains or walks to the nearby river and taking afternoon naps under the clear blue sky. “It was very interesting to just follow my host family around and see what their lifestyle is all about. I did everything from collecting cow dung to eating sheep innards to exploring the surrounding mountains. There is just so much to take in when you’re exposed to a lifestyle so different to your own.”
She continued: “Something I learned from the Nomad Project is what it means to be hospitable. The Mongolian nomads are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. My host family was constantly welcoming others into the ger, the same way we were always warmly welcomed into other people’s gers. I felt as though I could pop into any ger and, despite being a complete stranger, I would be offered food to eat or a bed to sleep on without any hesitation.”
Aside from the Nomad Project, Emily chose to also enroll in the Care Project during the following two months. Emily was placed at the 10th Kindergarten and Nursing Complex for Disabled Children in Ulaanbaatar where worked with disabled children around 4-5 years old with various disabilities, including cerebral palsy. “Although the staff do their absolute best to give each child the attention he or she needs, sometimes that can be difficult with so many children compared to the number of staff. For example, I acted as an extra pair of hands during feeding time or an extra pair of eyes during play time. I was also able to do many crafts and activities with the kids, which I always enjoyed seeing the kids doing.”
A truly rewarding experience for Emily was any time when she was able to make one of the children laugh or smile. “Sometimes I forget that even children with disabilities are very much aware of what happens around them and they are more than capable of laughing and smiling. It is hard to pinpoint a specific experience which I found most rewarding - seeing a smile on any of the kids’ faces was very rewarding for me.”
Moreover, she learned from working at this placement that she had always underestimated the abilities of disabled children. “I haven’t worked with disabled children in the past nor have I had many opportunities to interact with them so I don’t think I really knew what to expect. However, I soon learned that, with a little help, the kids are very much capable of doing the activities. Not only that, but they can play and laugh with as much enthusiasm as any other child. I realized just how much I had underestimated what disabled children are capable of and how I had always generalized those with disabilities as being unresponsive and unaware of their surroundings.”
“I think there are many benefits that come from volunteering. Not only do you help to relieve the busy staff, but you can help the children as well. Even if your time spent with them is not necessarily life changing for them, it is also the small moments that count. If you can comfort a kid who is crying or make them laugh even for a second, what is important is that you helped someone feel better even for a little moment.”
Apart from the projects, Emily has had the opportunity to experience more of Mongolia by travelling to the Terelj National Park and the Gobi desert with other volunteers and her host mother, managing to check out quite a few sites including museums, monasteries and temples, watching a wrestling match and seeing a ballet.
“I’ve really enjoyed living with a Mongolian host family. I think it really does add to the whole experience. I feel like I’ve gotten to experience so many things that I wouldn’t have experienced had I’d not been living with a host family. Also, it has been great meeting volunteers from all over the world. I love learning more about them and hearing their stories. It is quite neat to have this common thread which we can all bond over.”
After having spent three months in Mongolia, Emily advises future volunteers to be patient and give things time. “Don’t panic if at first you feel lost and unsure of how you can help out; over time you will see where you can step in and be useful.”
“All in all, I have many memorable experiences from being at my placement, but I think the things I will remember the most are the children themselves. I really got to know each of them and learn their ways, which feels quite special to me. There are many moments that I will look fondly upon - moments that made me laugh, moments that melted my heart - but when looking back on my experience, I think I will mainly remember each child and his or her own special ways, and the bond I felt I shared with them.
“I will also definitely always remember the incredible one month at the Nomad Project for a long time. - the evening my little six-year-old host sister led me on a horse to herd the sheep and goats, many moments out in the countryside where I felt so at peace and relaxed, looking out from the mountains, staring up at the stars, or watching the sun set and so many beautiful sights that I will certainly remember for a long time.”