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Mongolia movement offers hope covered in felt


Marlow Ramsay (left) stands with Nima, a Mongolian woman who received a ger through a JCS International giveaway project Ramsay helped oversee.

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August 22, 2005
-by Ryan Miller

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia — Nima used to spend her time digging through trash. She looked for heavy cardboard or plastic shopping bags without too many holes. These things kept her dry, mostly, and warm, sometimes.

The cardboard helped cover the cracks riddling the exterior of Nima’s ger, a traditional, portable felt tent that is home for many Mongolians. The bags, secured with transparent tape, covered the roof. Neither stopgap worked well: Despite using a great deal of coal and wood for heat, the widow and her three children wore coats through the winters and spent much of their time patching holes.

Today, Nima’s family has a new home.

They live on the same small lot with no running water and a single electric wire strung 100 meters to the nearest pole. But their new ger has a solid cover to protect from the rain and two layers of felt to keep them warm. They use less fuel, do not worry about shelter and no longer dig through garbage.

Thanks to the shelter relief project through Joint Christian Services International (JCS) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, 400 families in Bayankhongor, Gobi-Altai and Zavkhan provinces have new homes. Marlow Ramsay, Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network worker, gave oversight to the giveaways. Ramsay is team leader of development operations for Witness partner JCS in Mongolia.

“Receiving a ger that is warm and does not need a lot of repair can make the difference between a sustainable livelihood or sinking further into poverty,” Ramsay said.

Since Mongolia began separating itself from the Soviet bloc 15 years ago, the country’s social safety net has worn through. Several dry summers and winter dzud – weather disasters where heavy ice and snow buildup prevents animals from grazing – added to the nomadic herding community’s hardships. The animals provide food, fuel through their dung and shelter with their wool and skins.

After losing a significant percentage of their animals to starvation and exposure in 2000 and 2001, Ramsay said many herders have used their reserve resources to survive. Some are migrating to the cities and joining the swelling numbers of urban poor.

Project coordinators establish local committees in each community they enter – both rural and urban. The committees, working with local governments, choose the needy families to be helped. They look for young families in overcrowded conditions, people whose gers have burned or struggling families that are not destitute. Ramsay said the poorest families will simply sell their gers to the wealthy to buy food. Project organizers hope the new gers will allow overcrowded families the extra boost they need to thrive.

Local suppliers produce the gers, although the manufacturers have had difficulty keeping up with the heavy JCS demand. A grant from the Swiss agency covers the costs.

Ramsay said the ger-giveaway has extended ramifications. Each time a ger committee forms, workers make contacts within governments, meet community leaders and build relationships across the country. Those connections, Ramsay said, may help open doors for future community projects to help improve Mongolian lives.

For the ger recipients, the pay-off is immediate. Nima said her new ger looks good, has a lighter interior and has changed her family’s self-image. Her ninth-grade daughter now invites friends home for the first time in years. Living in a whole home gives them hope that other things can change in their lives and in the lives of others.

Nima, a widow for more than a decade, talks with other single mothers in her area, inspiring them to stay positive and inviting them to Chungsung (Heaven and Earth) Church, which she attends. In 1998 – a year when she struggled with health problems while raising her young children – coincided with her new Christian faith, and gave her hope, help and support. Now she has a better home. This fall she will study at Union Bible Training Center to learn even more about God.

“The gers do not solve all their problems,” Ramsay said, “but they give [people] a hand up to the next level where they can address other issues in their lives.”

Marlow and Vicky Ramsay have served with JCS through Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network since 1999. They live in Ulaanbaatar. Their oldest daughter, Rebekah, lives in Alberta, and their youngest daughter, Jessica, is a boarding student at Faith Academy in Manila.

JCS is a consortium of international Christian agencies working together as one non-government organization to meet physical, spiritual and intellectual needs of the people and nation of Mongolia.