An Interview with Mongolian Child Protection Activist Ganjavkhlan Chadraabal

Interviewer, Oyungerel Munkhbat.

Edited by, Oyudari Baatartsogt and Reghu Rn

Ganjavkhlan with Magic Mongolia kindergarten kids

Ganjavkhlan hurries into his teal-walled office. As an apology for being late, he brings out a beautiful siphon coffee maker and starts boiling water. Ganjavkhlan is one of the most well-known young activists in Mongolia. He founded Lantuun Dohio in 2013, a non-profit organization that fights against child abuse, domestic violence, and human trafficking. Lantuun Dohio is the only anti-human trafficking and anti-child abuse organization in Mongolia. 

Two years ago, Lantuun Dohio launched its main project, Magic Mongolia, with the financial support of public donors as well as a few corporate donors. Magic Mongolia is a Child Development and Protection Center that includes a kindergarten and a temporary protection shelter for children in Bayanhoshuu, one of the most polluted and underprivileged districts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Currently, Ganjavkhlan’s team is busy with the development of the second Magic Mongolia Child Development and Protection center in Bayanzurkh, the district with the second highest crime rate. As the aroma of coffee fills the room, we begin our conversation.

It has been two years since the first  Magic Mongolia was launched. How is it going so far?

We thought we overcame the hardest phase when we finished the construction and opened the centre, but it feels like the real job has just begun. Managing the center is proving to be a complex and demanding task.

Our kindergarten opened its doors in November 2017. The families we are helping cannot afford to pay for kindergarten services. Some parents have no residential registration in Ulaanbaatar, which prevents them from being able to enroll their children in a kindergarten. Parents submit applications and we visit them to assess their needs. 

I feel like only when the children first arrived, Magic Mongolia really did start to live up to its name. It is just an empty building without the children. We started with 45 children at our center and we have helped 118 children as of 2019. Compared to thousands of children in need, that is a small number. But if you think of it as 118 individual lives that were positively impacted, it is a massive endeavor. Now, some of these kids never learnt the songs and poems traditionally taught in kindergartens. Some do not even know the  most common children’s song Maamuu Naash Ir (“Come Play” similar to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in the U.S.”), which says something about their development and domestic situation. They develop in front of my eyes, learning all these songs and poems. Personally, it is very rewarding. 

Since the kindergarten operations stabilized, we started focusing on the temporary shelter to provide safety, counseling, and legal services to abused children. So far we have resolved 81 child abuse cases, some even resulting in criminal cases. We employ a holistic approach by working not only with the children but also with their parents and strive to build resilient communities. For example, we have classes where mothers can learn crafts and parents can take parenting lessons. We are replicating the model in the second most impoverished district of Ulaanbaatar now.

Magic Mongolia Child Development and Protection Center in Bayanhoshuu, Ulaanbaatar; Ganjavkhlan’s greatest achievement

You’ve initiated and implemented many projects since 2013. Which project in particular you’re most proud of?

It is Magic Mongolia without a doubt. In my opinion, it is Lantuun Dohio’s biggest and most impactful long-term project. My team and I have poured our hearts and souls into it. It is proof that great things can be achieved when young Mongolians unite with passion and dedication. 

Since 2013, we’ve implemented approximately 40 projects. They’re diverse. This particular project, “Where did they go?” has an interesting backstory. When I was little, I was robbed a lot by children who lived in sewer systems. The “sewer kids” would gang up on my friends and I and we would run away in fear. At the time, as a young boy, I did not think of them as abandoned children with nowhere to go. My friends and I thought that they were “the bad kids”. No one really told us about their harsh realities and tragedies. We avoided them; disliked them. I understand their plight now.

I remember there used to be so many of these “sewer kids”. We used to go to the park and there would be dozens of them hanging around. Suddenly, I didn’t see any of them. They just disappeared.

It is not one child or even a hundred; thousands of children were kidnapped. It was not like one day they grew up and seamlessly integrated into the society and had a happy life. It’s a huge human trafficking and organ trafficking issue. It’s tragic. The evidence is overwhelming. This project connected a lot of dots for me. We identified many of these kids over the course of the of the project.

Nap time at Magic Mongolia.

How did you get in touch with the affected kids?

When I spoke about the problem of child trafficking openly through this project to the media, many came forward with their stories. Some saying that they used to live in the sewers, that their siblings were sold. They were told they could get a job in Korea, Macau, Erliang, China etc. They said they were tricked by promises of high paying jobs abroad and forced into prostitution.

You said in another interview that you uncovered all of this information by running into the late Mr. Ganzorig, a prominent human rights activist . You said that this meeting and discovery made you an activist. If you had not met him, what would you be today?

I would have been a mid-size manager or a businessman. I do not think I was very big on social causes. I had my business management degree and  always thought of running my own business.

*Mr. Ganzorig was one of the first few who openly spoke and fought against human trafficking in Mongolia. His daughter was found 12 days after being kidnapped, and forced into prostitution, She had many injuries and wounds inflicted on her due to her trying to fight her kidnappers. He died in 2012 of unknown causes. 

What made you believe that you had to be the one to raise awareness about this issueand initiate action?

Mr. Ganzorig dying that year dealt me a huge blow. In the beginning, I didn’t think that I was strong enough to make any impact. But at that moment, it looked like no one was going to do anything and that was unacceptable to me. No one was talking about child trafficking or abuse. 

Another reason I had to act was the fact that almost 90 percent of the NGOs I talked  to were run by women. I thought that it is important for men to also speak out against domestic violence, human trafficking, and other social issues in Mongolia. That’s the reason we first formed the NGO with all male members. Later, women joined. But even now, despite our efforts, it is not usual for men to be active or vocal in such matters. 

I heard when you were starting out as an activist against domestic violence and child trafficking, there were several instances where you had to be hospitalized after being beaten up. 

Haha! There was no turning back for me. I thought “whatever happens, happens”. I didn’t care about waking up in a hospital bed. It made me protest even stronger.

Looking back, I think I’m not as daring as before. At the time I was single. It’s different now that I have a family. I have more responsibilities and more to lose. Being a daredevil will not cut it anymore. I don’t want to put my family at risk by being reckless or being incendiary, so I operate more strategically now.

Bayanzurkh district kids waiting for completion of the second Magic Mongolia center
Bayanzurkh district kids volunteering to plant trees at the second Magic Mongolia construction site

Can you tell me about your family? Do your parents share your passion for social issues and activism? 

My dad is a soldier and my mom is a doctor. I grew up with my grandparents from the age of five. My grandfather founded the “Labor School” and chaired it his whole life. He would choose the children who were supposed to be sent to juvenile prison and enroll them into his school to rehabilitate them through education and work. To him, no child was a lost cause. 

He inspires me greatly. People who visited him during the Mongolian Lunar New Year were considered ex-hooligans and hoodlums. My grandfather practically raised them. Most were orphans and they would call him “Father”. I didn’t really understand his legacy then. Only after his death, do I realize that what I’m doing now is connected.

What motivates you?

I’m not obsessed with success or fame. I’m not the kind of person who tries to use every single moment efficiently. I sleep if I want to and I’m sometimes irresponsible. I won’t lie to you and say that I wake up thinking about my long-term goals. But I do understand that what I’m doing is important and needs to be done. I believe my actions and initiatives will have a big impact in the future. But that isn’t actually what motivates me to wake up every morning to do what I do. My actions come naturally. I just want to help people. I do not strive to become famous or successful.

How do you wish for people to remember you in the future?

I don’t care to be remembered for my deeds, even after my passing. But I want what  I initiated and built to exist after me. Maybe I’ll die after I create 10 Magic Mongolias. The children will go there, become more educated and gain opportunities in life. What I leave behind will hopefully sustain itself and continue to impact many lives.

Millions of people are connected by social media and everyone seems to have thousands of friends online. But only a fraction of those people turn up at your wedding or a funeral. Those are the people whose thoughts matter to me.

I’m not concerned with how Mongolians will remember me; that’s their prerogative. A random person can dislike or disagree with me and that is fine.

What are Lantuun Dohio’s future plans?

We want to become an internationally recognized company/NGO against child abuse, human trafficking, and domestic violence. That’s why we registered our NGO in Virginia, United States. 

What are your future plans outside of the social work?

Lots of traveling. I love traveling and writing. I would also like to build a big chain of coffee shops. I hope to have a peaceful life doing simple things and cultivating my businesses.

What do you love about Mongolia?

People tend to think of Mongolia as a developing nation. The current Mongolian youth are lucky because they are facing unique challenges. I truly believe they can solve these wicked problems. These young people will define the future of our country. As a young Mongolian myself, it personally feels fulfilling to be part of the change. 

Looking at Mongolia as an ideological farmland, we are trying to cultivate the land and experiment with different types of seeds to promote growth of beneficial plants. However, many weeds are in the way as well: the negative media, the political propaganda that is brainwashing people and extremist religious influences, etc. They’re trying to grow their own agendas, which may be harmful to the bottom-line of Mongolia’s social prosperity. The good news is that these influences have not completely taken over yet. I love being part of this generation.

What does being a Mongolian mean to you?

A real Mongolian is someone who keeps Mongolia dear and close in his or her heart. I know many Mongolians who were born and raised abroad. They grew up in a different culture and do not speak Mongolian, even though their parents are Mongolian. In that sense, even though they are technically Mongolians, they’re really not. They haven’t even been here or even want to visit. 

Being a Mongolian means caring and worrying about the issues happening in Mongolia, no matter where one lives. That and appreciating Mongolian nature and nomadic lifestyle. 

You can find skyscrapers in any country you visit, that’s nothing special. Mongolia’s treasures lie in its nature and its traditional nomadic lifestyle.. 

I have a final question and it is from a young follower of yours. How can young people, especially teenagers, contribute to Magic Mongolia? 

I want our youth to be a part of Lantuun Dohio as volunteers. Maybe create a youth club next to the center. Lantuun Dohio and Magic Mongolia do not belong to any one person. It belongs to young people. I hope the youth will participate in the development of the second Magic Mongolia. Become a member and join forces in our fight against domestic violence. I don’t want your money. Contribution can be through investing time and work in our common cause.

As for other organizations, they do not have to become partners with us, but we can collaborate. We have a herculean task at hand: to organize and unite. We’d rather not work alone or duplicate efforts. There are lots of opportunities to launch internationally. In Mongolia, it is politically unstable and we have too much internal conflict. That doesn’t solve anything. 

People power and the grassroots organizing built the first Magic Mongolia and the next 10 Magic Mongolias will have to be built in a similar way. We, as an organization, need to be more strategic and build more alliances. 

A Lantuun Dohio volunteer creating art on Magic Mongolia’s structures

How is the second Magic Mongolia development doing?

We’re building it in Bayanzurkh district. Based on social surveys, Bayankhoshuu, where first Magic Mongolia is, and Bayanzurkh are the most vulnerable districts. We’re planting trees, planning to build a kindergarten, playground, mini factory, library, cafe and mental health and counseling service facilities for the community with disability accessibility.

Supporters can become monthly donors on www.lantuundohio.org, add Lantuun Dohio as the choice of nonprofit when shopping on www.smile.amazon.com, or start their own fundraisers on Facebook. (https://www.facebook.com/LantuunDohioUSA/)

Since the rest of the world is helping Mongolia protect our children, we as Mongolians, must help ourselves as well. We can’t always be asking for help. It is also time for us to give back to the international community. Please reach out to info@lantuundohio.org for collaboration proposals for early childhood education projects.

Freshly planted Magic Mongolia 2 grove

Thank you.

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