By Elise Honningdalsnes

A pair of small, beautiful hands reach out to the housemother, searching for a hand to hold. The hands belong to a beautiful young child with intense brown eyes. No one knows her name, but at the orphanage they call her Altaa. It is short for Altantsetseg, which means “Golden Flower”.

Dugarmaa in her usual spot
Dugarmaa in her usual spot

Altaa is running around in the nursery. She falls, laughs and gets up again. She’s playing with another girl and they are both searching for attention from the older kids. Despite only spending a short time at the orphanage, she’s already settling in well. Hugs and kisses from the older kids are mandatory. The smiling one-year-old has had a rough first year, but now things are changing as she is taken care of and fed every day; it’s a new world.

Altaa is a third generation street-child. She used to live in a utility tunnel underneath the buzzing life of the city. The dank, humid air, the smell and the varying temperatures have all left their mark on poor Altaa. This young child grew up believing that hanging out in sewer tunnels under the streets was normal. She’s probably never had anything related to a bath and her clothes hadn’t been changed in forever before arriving at the orphanage. The young girl is fairly malnourished and she is too small for her age. Her mother drank a lot during the pregnancy, which has left a permanent mark on the young child. She will always carry the damage that alcohol has inflicted on her.

Currently, there are about 60 children living on the streets in Ulaanbaatar, according to the authorities. However, NGO’s say the number is believed to be up in the hundreds. Most of them have run away from home due to abusive parents, or simply because their parents were so impoverished that they had no choice but to let them go. Many of the girls living on the streets have been victims of sexual abuse and if pregnant, they have been beaten into miscarriage by their abusers.

There are still severe cases of violence and sexual abuse happening in homes all around the city. In many cases, grandparents are the ones raising the children, and sometimes this leads to neglect of the younger ones. In other cases, domestic violence is directed at the children of the house and they finally run away from home.

The street kids have no choice but to beg, shine shoes or pick pockets. They have nowhere to go, so they sleep on empty cardboard boxes outside in the cold or in dirty manholes. If they happen to fall sick, they won’t live until next summer.

Many girls living on the streets become victims of prostitution. They sell themselves in order to pay for tomorrow’s food. Some of these girls fall pregnant and suddenly they have another life to care for in addition to their own.

The government has tried and failed to find homes for these kids. One of the things they have tried is to cover up the manholes. Unfortunately, because of the inhume winter temperatures, this only led to children freezing to death on the streets. Another initiative they’ve tried is to find homes for the kids. When put in apartments in the city, the kids run away because they’re scared and they want to go back to the familiar, but cold, environment they used to live in. This is a result of little or no follow-up from the authorities after being placed in homes.

Dugarmaa lives on the streets in Ulaanbaatar. Her home is a bench behind the State Palace, and that’s where you can find her every day. Twenty years on the streets has set a mark on her, but she is always in a good mood and smiles back if you smile at her.

The older lady doesn’t beg, so the only way she can get money is by collecting empty bottles and cans. However,Dugarmaa isn’t the only one collecting bottles, so the job isn’t as easy as it sounds. Whenever she collects one kg of cans and bottles, Dugarmaa receives 100 to 200 MNT.

A young child searching for bottles with a relative
A young child searching for bottles with a relative

During her 20 years living on the streets the older lady has made several connections and she is well-respected by the others. Last week the lady received money from a stranger. At the same time a younger bloke living in the same area was hit badly by a car. Dugarmaa spent her money on a walking stick for the boy.

A few days later he returned to Dugarmaa and repaid her with bread. Dugarmaa has helped young, pregnant girls on the streets and she knows how hard life can be for all the children living there, after all, she has 20 years of experience. Dugarmaa lost her son several years ago, and she fears what winter might bring.

There are however less kids and grown-ups living on the streets today than earlier. Today there are about 30 orphanages in and around Ulaanbaatar that take care of children with various backgrounds. Most of the orphanages are run by foreigners and NGO’s. A few years ago, mothers left their infants on the doorsteps outside the orphanage because they had no opportunity to take care of their children. Today, the number of children coming to the orphanages is decreasing and the government is doing a better job helping these children than earlier. Adoption within Mongolia is also increasing and more children are put in safe and loving homes.

However, everyone isn’t as lucky as the children who come to the orphanage. Many of the street kids are afraid of the authorities, reporting on abuse by the police. The children will rather stay with their friends on the streets than being taken care of by the authorities. The children tend to stay together in groups of the same gender and they rarely walk around alone for safety reasons.

With winter approaching and temperatures dropping, the children will be sleeping close to each other in their manholes to survive the night. Every day is a battle for these unfortunate children.