Mongolian Kids
David G. McIntyre

When I heard the knock on the door, I knew who it was, and I wasn’t happy.

The homeless kids I had taken to feeding regularly at my apartment in Ulaanbaatar had come by no less than three times the day before, the last time at 1 a.m. Even the littlest one could sense my anger as I yanked open the door and glared with sleepy eyes.

So when the doorbell rang that Saturday afternoon, I opened the door and prepared to cross any language barriers necessary to express my irritation.

That lasted all of about ten seconds. Standing in the stairwell were all four of The Kids, as I eventually came to call them, smiling angelically. They handed me a box of unopened chocolates and two plastic roses, and sang “Happy Birthday” — most likely the only English song they knew.

“Margash?” (tomorrow) they said, searching my face for signs of softening.

What could I say? “Yes,” I told them and gave them each a kiss. And off they skipped, happy and forgiven — for the moment at least.

The plight of Mongolia’s street kids, who sleep above steaming sewer holes during winter and whose numbers have steadily grown in the past decade, is a favorite story for parachute journalists visiting the country for a short time. Compelling and easy to write — if not exactly new — the ever-increasing problem is a living illustration of the downside of Mongolia’s transformation from a former Soviet satellite state to a capitalist free-market economy.

Boys of the Streets
In the year I lived in Ulaanbaatar, I got to know some of these children and was constantly amazed by their good natures. Many are pre-teen and teenage boys like The Kids, who with their restless and sometimes relentless energy are the most difficult to house in the few places available for homeless children. Often, they leave the confines and rules of a home for the relative freedom of the streets.

David G. McIntyre

The author at the orphanage in Ulaanbaatar

Even though my Mongolian neighbors constantly upbraided me for encouraging “those bad boys,” I found that The Kids responded to kindness with something approaching the same.

A Canadian friend visiting the Ukraine once told me of the homeless children she saw there begging in subway stations. Treated by the adults as subhuman, they behaved as such, snarling and growling and grabbing. But The Kids in Mongolia were as clever and charming and endearing as they were conniving. Is this a function of Mongolian culture, which certainly contains its fair share of hospitality and good spirits, or were they an aberration? Even today, I’m still not sure.

When We First Met
In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that when I first met The Kids, I behaved far from kindly. In fact, I kicked one of them.

I was throwing a party in January during one of the coldest days of the year — somewhere down around minus 40 F. My small apartment was stuffed full of people when the doorbell chimed. Outside were four bouncy young boys, smiling cheekily despite their rags, runny noses, dirt-smudged faces and freezing limbs. I piled some food on a napkin and handed it over to them.

A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. And again. And again. I began to get irritated, and I went outside to shout at them. They just smirked and tried to push their way in the door. So I kicked Khuralbaatar, a tenacious mite with a sweet but mischievous face. Although he was about the size of an American seven-year-old, he was actually 11.

They left, and I felt terrible. I couldn’t believe I’d kicked a little kid looking for food, no matter how pesky he behaved. When they came by a week later, I gave them a loaf of bread. And thus we started a daily routine.

The Kids were persistent and often annoying. In general, though, they were so creative in their endeavors to get me to open the door I would usually end up laughing rather than shouting. One day, I was sick in bed with the flu and didn’t respond to their knocks, which came and went for half an hour while I drifted in and out of a drug-induced sleep. After a brief silence, I heard some determined scrabbling outside my bedroom window. Forcing myself to rouse, I looked out and saw one of them standing on the other ones’ shoulders, trying to get high enough to peer inside. He looked at me in surprise and fell backwards. I smiled despite my raging flu and handed over a bag of rolls.

Nice Try
They were always testing my limits as an unofficial soup kitchen. One day, after they’d come to my apartment once already, they came again, wrapping the oldest boy’s hand in a cloth to make it appear as if he had broken his arm. This was accompanied by a particularly bad acting job: he pulled a morose face while the others twittered around him in mock anxiety, dramatically miming all manner of accidents in which this could have happened. I just looked at them skeptically. The next day, of course, the bandage was gone, and the boy just shrugged and smiled sheepishly when I asked him about it.

They were unabashed opportunists, but somehow they always managed to redeem themselves. They always said “Thanks sister,” in English when I gave them something to eat. When they saw me in the street, they’d run to greet me and carry my packages and bags home. When friends left notes on my door, they’d save the notes in their pockets and deliver them to me personally.

Once, when a girlfriend of mine had stayed at my apartment until late in the evening, I asked the boys to see her home. They jumped to attention like soldiers and all four walked her to her door, chattering delightedly in Mongolian. They reported back to me that “Your friend is home safe.” All that was missing was the salute.

It’s so cold… a cow wearing a nice sweater

Missing “My Kids"
I’m far from Mongolia these days, but I won’t forget The Kids — whom I began to think of as My Kids — anytime soon. The plastic roses they gave me sit in a vase in my bedroom in Seattle, serving as an everlasting reminder.

I miss them, particularly Khuralbaatar, the child I once kicked. Periodically, he would come into the house and I’d wash his face and hands in the sink. Unlike most little boys, who would wiggle and squirm under the sponge, he’d smile, sit perfectly still and close his eyes — I don’t think he’d been touched very much. “My mommy’s in the sky now,” he’d say with a sigh, as I scrubbed at the dirt on his chin.

Destinations: Mongolia

The Kids in Mongolia

Even though my Mongolian neighbors constantly upbraided me for encouraging "those bad boys," I found that The Kids responded to kindness with something approaching the same.

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