By BGR Staff
One-third of Mongolia’s population experiences extreme poverty and is unable to afford basic food and shelter. The Tibetan monk, Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, was determined to do something about this.
Born in Eastern Tibet in 1939 to nomadic parents, Ven. Rinpoche received full monastic ordination in 1961 under His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He completed his formal studies in India and was awarded the highest degree of Geshe Lharampa, equivalent to a Doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. In 1995, the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to go to Mongolia to teach Buddhism to the Mongolian people. After his arrival in Mongolia, he set about finding ways to overcome the high levels of poverty he encountered there. He established Asral NGO in 2001 with the objective of keeping families together and preventing children from going onto the streets. Asral is the Mongolian word for “care.”
As part of Asral’s mission, Ven. Rinpoche established the Hot Meal Project in partnership with local government and community leaders. Since 2003, the project has provided essential nutrition to approximately thirty-two children annually ranging in age from six to seventeen, offering access to education they would otherwise have to forgo. In addition to the lunches, Asral further supports the children with mentoring, educational supplies, and vitamins.
Last year, Buddhist Global Relief (BGR) entered upon a partnership with the Washington State-based organization Maitreya Charity, which has worked closely with Ven. Rinpoche to support Asral. In 2018, with the hot meals program underfunded and in jeopardy of ending, BGR awarded a grant to Maitreya Charity to enable Asral to purchase groceries and educational materials, to fund an allowance for teachers, and to provide partial funding of a cook’s position to ensure the continuation of the project for the 2018-2019 school year.
Thirty-two children were enrolled in the Hot Meal Project at the beginning of the school year, in September, 2018. Two children moved away and four were added, totaling 34 children as of January 2019. Of the 34, 19 are girls and 15 are boys. In the first six months of the grant year, these children have received a daily hot lunch that is eaten in small groups, mentoring before or after school, educational supplies, and advocacy by committed staff, enabling access to education that would otherwise not have been available to them. A typical lunch is hearty and nutritious and may consist of soup with buckwheat, a main meal of meat, vegetables and potatoes or rice, and fruit juice. For many of the children this meal is often the only substantial meal of the day.
The program also distributes clothing and vitamins regularly, teaches the children basic hygiene, and offers games and activities for socialization. For mentoring, one teacher specializes in math, a subject that is difficult to master by Mongolian children; the other teacher specializes in the English language. The staff works hard to purchase groceries in the most cost-effective manner possible. This past year, individuals donated $156 worth of groceries to supplement the budget.
Many challenges beset the project. One identified challenge is the maintenance of hygiene standards to prevent the spread of diseases, including sickness from H. Pylori bacteria, common among Mongolians. As a result, a portion of the funds budgeted for the cook’s salary is being used to pay for a newly created cleaner position. The 8.2% annual inflation rate and the rise in cost of food prices by 9% make it difficult to stay within the budget. Also, Mongolian law dictates the minimum wage rate, which rose in January 2019.
Further, the staff has identified poor dentition as a significant problem, with 13 of the 16 children examined recently by volunteer dental professionals having an average of 4 to 5 dental cavities. When asked what would help the Hot Meal Project improve its goal of treating the child holistically, staff has stated that a well-stocked children’s library, a dish sterilizer, daily vitamins, and funds for dental work partially comprise their list of needed items. With their capacity to serve 50 children, additional funding would enable the project to serve more than the present 34 children.
Namuunaa is a 14-year old girl who is in the eighth grade at the 113th school in the Bayangol district. She has two brothers. Her older brother is married and the family lives in a ger. He works for a carbon-paper-making company. The second brother is 15 years old and attends the same school as Namuunaa. He lives in the same ger with his girlfriend and their newborn child. Both brothers are extremely poor. These three siblings’ father died in a car accident and their mother left the family a long time ago. She had a drinking problem and her whereabouts are unknown.
Namuunaa lives with her deceased father’s older brother’s wife. She does not have a secure, permanent place to live and moves between her relatives’ homes. She looks after her relatives’ children and helps around the house. She has little time for studying or attending other activities at school. She is interested in the social sciences. She is quiet, humble, a very good student and is kind to others. Her health is not good; she has stomach problems and her teeth need a good deal of dental work. She is not dressed adequately for winter, and sometimes goes to the Asral Center without warm shoes.
The Hot Meal Project provides the nutrition to help Namuunaa survive the harsh winter, keeps her within a circle of friends, and provides a quiet space where she can study. Last year, Asral Center found a donor to pay for some of her dental work, which has helped to improve her studies, sleep well without dental pain, smile more, and chew her food better. When Panchen Otrul Rinpoche visited in summer, 2018, she received donated clothes that helped to build her confidence to remain in school.
Khuselbaatar and Khurelbaatar are 9-year-old twin boys. They are third graders who attend the 113th school in the Bayangol district. Their father is deceased and they live with their mother and seven siblings. The mother is a seamstress who is unable to find work. She collects bottles and other types of garbage. The family has no stable income except for the US $8.00 per month per child subsidy that the government provides for every child under 18 years of age. The family struggles to pay for food and electricity. The children share their books, school bags, uniforms, shoes, and outdoor winter clothes. During the winter months, the family heats their small house with collected old tires and garbage.
These twins started going to school this year, not having attended school from age 6 to 9. Due to their late start, they lag behind their peers. At home, the children do their homework by candle light. The Hot Meal Project provides a free hot lunch after school and volunteer teacher Dagdan is providing extra tutoring sessions, resulting in some visible improvement.
Egshiglen, an 11-year-old girl, and Enkhtur, a 6-year-old boy are siblings. They both go to the 113th school in the Bayangol district. Egshiglen is in the fifth grade and Enkhtur is in the first grade. Their father died in a car accident in 2012. They live with their mother and grandmother. The mother’s speech disability prevents her from working. Although this school is government funded, its teachers regularly ask for money for books and other expenses. As a result, the mother cleans their school instead. She is extremely committed to obtaining a good education for both children.
Both children work hard at their studies and are very interested in their school work. Egshiglen likes her Mongolian language classes and Enkhtur likes his math classes. The family’s ger is very old and in poor condition; it leaks in the summer and loses heat quickly in the winter. It is heated with collected garbage because they cannot afford to buy coal. The children do not have adequate winter clothes and share their clothes. During a recent home visit, Enkhtur was dressed in his sister’s winter clothes, pants and summer shoes, and Egshiglen did not have winter shoes.
The project allows the siblings to concentrate on their studies in a peaceful and friendly setting with necessary supplies. Staff has built up their motivation and confidence to remain in school and to feel positive about their future. Their health is good, but they need a great deal of dental work.
This blogpost draws upon the six-months report that Maitreya Charity recently provided to BGR. All photos courtesy of Maitreya Charity.