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Munkhtuul family in Ulan Bator's Ger district. The family makes a living by hunting for recycling at the local dump to sell. The dump is also a source of fuel for the their stove which is also used to heat their home.

Munkhtuul family in Ulan Bator’s Ger district. The family makes a living by hunting for recycling at the local dump to sell. The dump is also a source of fuel for the their stove which is also used to heat their home.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Life beyond the dump

A school founded by a woman from British Columbia is providing hope and education in Mongolia's capital, writes Nathan Vanderklippe

Every time a strong gust lashes Munkhtuul's home, a backdraft of noxious smoke billows inside from the stove.

The family is burning shoes to stay warm, scavenged from the biggest dump in Mongolia's capital, a short walk from the place where they have lived for almost a decade, beside a dry creek bed fluttering with plastic bags and bits of cardboard boxes.

Garbage is their life. They gather cans, metal, plastic and, sometimes, mercury to resell. It is dangerous work, especially in the bitter winter of the world's coldest capital. But for no one have the dangers been greater than the children who live in the area's gers, the circular homes sometimes called yurts.

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In the past, "there were times when we locked up the kids to go scavenging," admits 53-year-old Munkhtuul, who like many Mongolians goes by one name. "But we try not to do that because they can get burned so easily." Once, shortly after they moved here, their ger burned down. Children in other families have died.

Only a short drive from Munkhtuul's home, the sky blue walls of Children of the Peak Sanctuary offer a cheery contrast to the glumness of the dump area. Inside, Munkhtuul's granddaughter and 128 others are fed breakfast, lunch and attend classes that teach the letters and numbers they might otherwise have no chance to study.

"It's a pretty big project, with the goal being to get everybody off of the garbage dump," says Julie Veloo, a Hixon, B.C., woman who founded the school, which is run on donations. "If they weren't at the kindergarten, they would be at the garbage dump or home alone."

Math class for Children of the Peak Sanctuary.

Math class for Children of the Peak Sanctuary.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Her students are from one of the poorest sections of the ger districts that ring Ulan Bator, and hold roughly half its population. Some are in dire circumstances. They have rickets and suffer the emotional scars of the viciously competitive life at the dump, where people fend off animals and fight each other for valuable scraps. Some don't have clean clothes or the ability to secure proper hygiene, since they can live almost a kilometre from water.

The school takes them all in, some as young as 2.

Ms. Veloo moved to Ulan Bator in 2010 with her husband, who managed the design and construction of the ore concentrator at Oyu Tolgoi, the massive copper-gold project once backed by Canadian mining promoter Robert Friedland.

Moving into a furnished apartment, they needed only a fifth of the space in the sea container used for their move. So she sought donations in Canada to fill up the remainder with warm blankets and winter coats. When they arrived in Ulan Bator, she arranged a distribution day. One man came in from the dump.

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"He was very aggressive. His eyes got huge and he said, 'I can take whatever I want?' We told him, 'As long as you give it to poor people,'" Ms. Veloo says. "He was in this little tiny beat-up old car and it was flying out the windows when he left."

When they had coats left over, they called the man, named Baaska, to take the remainder. He suggested Ms. Veloo come to see where he was taking them.

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

It was -25 C that day and she walked into a ger where a six-year-old boy was taking care of his two-year-old sister, alone. "They didn't have any fire, and she was covered in burns and wearing a T-shirt – and that's all," Ms. Veloo says. "I couldn't just go home and not do something, because this was just unbelievable to me that children would be in this position."

She started out with a daycare, which she then built up into a kindergarten. She is working to expand it with a summer camp, a program to teach children basic tour guide English and a hot shower facility near the dump for people there to use.

Baaska is among the people who now work with her. He sits on the Children of the Peak board and helps with its community liaison needs.

About 200 trucks come to the dump every day, he says, as he navigates a Land Cruiser up a deeply rutted road through the ger district, which is far from most municipal services. Soon the bleakness of the sprawling trash heap comes into sight. Cows fight with each other and with the human scavengers, who throw bottles to keep the cattle away as they dig with metal hooks through bricks, batteries and mattresses, forking their finds into dirty burlap sacks.

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Ichinkhorloo, a 73-year-old woman, is here looking for broken chairs or bed parts, hoping to find wood.

"I don't have any fuel or anything to burn, so it's very cold," she says. Fluid leaks from her eye in the bitter wind, making it look as if tears are creeping down her leathered skin.

On days when she scavenges for money, 12 hours of work might yield $3.20 worth of goods, a number that has fallen precipitously with commodity prices in recent years.

"Some days we barely have food. It's hardest on the kids," says Galbayar, 27, who is Munkhtuul's son-in-law. The food they buy includes slaughterhouse leftovers like cow lung.

Baaska knows what it's like.

"My childhood was exactly the same as this – 14 years I spent like that," he says.

It was easier then. Under Soviet rule, the state would force homeless children into school or full-time care. Now, they are on their own, fighting to survive. Some live in tents on the dump itself.

Baaska once walked into a ger where a family had in desperation lit tires for warmth. "I couldn't stay even for five seconds – my lungs were burning," he says. "But they had, like, seven kids in there. I figured many of them would be dead by 20 of cancer."

He pulled himself away from the homeless life, earning a master's degree from the country's Academy of Management and marrying. He has two children of his own, but "my wife sometimes tells me that you care about these kids at the dump more than your own. But I understand these kids, and I want to help them."

He pulls his Land Cruiser back up to Children of the Peak, where a drunken man is staggering out of the school gate, pulling his seven-year-old daughter, whom he has grabbed from her classroom. She is dressed in a thin green puffy jacket, its zipper hanging open over a white shirt.

The man is yelling. "This is not a jail! Can I not take my own child?"

Baaska gets out of the car and calmly walks up to the man, a parent so badly afflicted by alcoholism that the school now provides foster care to his daughter. The man tries to punch Baaska, a former street fighter not easily intimidated, who maintains a smile as he tries to talk him down.

"We are actually keeping your daughter safe here. She has food and a warm ger," he tells the man. "I'm helping your child. In five or 10 years, she will be educated and have a bright future."

After a few minutes, the man stumbles away.

Baaska has seen worse. "Sometimes, they even come with a knife," he says.

He pops inside the school for a lunchtime bowl of soup.

Roughly 500 children of kindergarten age live in the dump district. A quarter of them now attend this school, built out of a former dormitory for construction workers at the U.S. embassy.

In one classroom, a group of chubby-cheeked children practise writing numbers. "No racing! No racing!" urges their teacher, Munguntsetseg, cautioning them to write well, not quickly. Some children have only begun putting pencil to paper. Others are already adding. By year's end, they are expected to be ready for first grade at a government-run public school.

"We have the same standards as other kindergartens," says Munguntsetseg, although with a few differences. She also teaches basic survival skills. "I tell them about what is dangerous – if you touch a hot stove, it can hurt you in this way. I want to give them knowledge in case they are home alone," says Munguntsetseg, who just graduated as a teacher and is now one of three professional instructors on staff.

When she thinks about where her students have come from, "I find it very sad. The kids love to come to kindergarten and spend time with their friends. But I worry about them – when they are home alone, what is going to happen to them? What are the risks?"

Leaving children alone is part of long-standing cultural practice in Mongolia, where herders would tie children inside the family ger for safekeeping as they went to tend livestock in the cold. But "in modern times, it's not acceptable," says Munkhtuya, director of the kindergarten. One of the children at the school was burned by an electric hot plate and developed a scar that bleeds as she grows and the skin stretches.

"One of the reasons we have this kindergarten is to prevent that kind of situation," she says.

But Children of the Peak has also grown into a larger effort to help the local community, hiring parents, too. Sungidmaa, 47, once scavenged at the dump, after moving from the countryside to Ulan Bator to seek care for her husband, who then died of liver cancer. Trained as a sawmill operator, she was unable to find work in the city and scavenged to survive.

"It doesn't matter if it was hard," she says. "I needed to feed my children and pay for my husband's treatment."

Three years ago, the school hired Sungidmaa as a cleaner. It then sent her for additional training and brought her back as an assistant teacher. She dreams that those who come to Children of the Peak will find futures far from the dump that brought them here.

"When these children first came to the kindergarten, they were not like children at all. Most of them were shy and not socialized," she says. "Now, they are becoming happy children. I want to make this the foundation for their lives."

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