Hong Kong photo auction to help Mongolia’s suffering tent children

As parents struggle with alcoholism and unemployment, the Tsolmon Ireedui Foundation and photographer Paul Cox aim to make a difference in Ulan Bator, where many families live in ‘yurt’ tents

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 1:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 November, 2016, 5:33pm

When they found Dolgoon, the 18-month-old girl had been left alone, her hand tied to a mattress, in a small home in one of the poorest suburbs of the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. It was mid-October, minus 6 degrees Celsius outside, and she was cold, thirsty and hungry.

Her mother, a single parent of four who struggles with alcoholism, had left her in the care of her older brother, six, who’d gone to a friend’s house to escape the cold.

“We went to search for her brothers and we found them in one of the houses in the neighbourhood watching TV,” says Tsolmon Chimgee, founder of the Tsolmon Ireedui Foundation (TIF), who grew up in the area. “We gave warm clothes to Dolgoon and her brothers. We gave them a hot meal, and some coal to warm the house and cook for the next few days, and some money.”

WATCH: the story of little Dolgoon

Dolgoon’s case is one of the many that inspired Chimgee and her family to start the small Hong Kong-registered charity that provides care for children in impoverished Ulan Bator’s Chingeltei district. They bought a small building in 2010 and opened a small kindergarten. By 2013, they’d raised enough funds to build a laryurt house, and can now welcome 50 children.

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“It’s a very poor area and you have a lot of dysfunctional families: drunk parents, divorced parents or the father is dead, so it’s very challenging for these kids,” says Chimgee’s husband of 15 years, Marc-Henry Lebrun, the charity’s treasurer.

It’s not uncommon for infants to be left in the care of older siblings, he adds. “This is problematic, as it means the older brother drops out of school. Also, they’re just kids so they go off to play with their friends and leave the little brother or sister alone.”

On November 8, the Tsolmon Ireedui Foundation is holding a “Red Hero” (“Ulan Bator” translated) auction of photographs by Hong Kong-based photographer Paul Cox. The auction is supported by Christie’s and The Reserve, and all profits will go to the charity. It’s the foundation’s third auction: the first two raised more than HK$500,000 from the sale of 19 photos, enough to keep the day care centre running for six months.

This time Cox has 18 pictures, featuring intimate family portraits from inside yurts – Mongolian tent homes – and other impressions of the country from his time on the road. He admits it was a challenging assignment.

“Chingeltei district is quite rough,” says Cox, who hails from Zimbabwe. “I was told not to go out on my own. If I took a picture of people they were very distrustful – I’ve had people pulling me or wanting to punch me three or four times.”

Alcoholism is part of daily life in many of the city’s vast yurt settlements, where 62 per cent of the population is unemployed, according to the World Bank. Cox says it was normal to see fights at the local markets, drunks swinging at each other in broad daylight or passed out on the floor. “I’ve been to the district six times and saw a fight every time – except this last time. I didn’t see a fight but was standing at the bottom of some stairs, and the doors to a shop opened and a man rolled down the stairs and landed at my feet. Just completely drunk.”

It’s predominantly the men who binge drink, and according to a 2015 World Health Organisation report, the average life expectancy for men in Mongolia is under 65 – far lower than that of women (73).

It’s evident from Cox’s intimate photos, shot with a Leica, and his anecdotes how personally involved he became with the cause. Another clue is the “Red Hero” tattoo, written in Mongolian script, on the inside of his forearm. “I really love the people,” he says. “Their uniqueness, their pride, their identity and their culture. You still get that warmth, but you have to go digging for it. When you go into somebody’s house, suddenly their culture comes out and no matter how poor they are they’ll offer you tea.”

Before becoming a photographer, Cox worked as a plumber in Spain, and served in the British Army with the Royal Artillery and the Royal Marine Reserves. He believes his military training helped prepare him for working in tough environments. “I had a lot of discipline, and also learned not to give up,” he says. “In some ways the yurt areas are like being in a Mad Max movie. But I like the fact that it’s not easy to photograph there.”

In the countryside, gender roles are clearly defined: the men hunt, herd and slaughter the animals, while the women cook, clean and milk. However, as families move to the suburbs, the roles have blurred.

“Men have had a lot of their identity – and their role of being the breadwinner which they had originally as nomads – taken away,” says Cox.

“Some nomads in Mongolia are considered rich,” says Lebrun. “Hundreds of horses, sheep and goats; that’s big in terms of wealth. You cannot really start from scratch – what are you going to do, buy two sheep and wait for them to reproduce? So the very poor people living in the suburbs of Ulan Bator can’t go back and become nomads again.”

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More than half of Mongolia’s population of 2.8 million live in the city, with more migrating there each year. Some go in search of jobs, others are forced to leave the countryside when a dzud (severe winters that wipe out millions of livestock) kills off their livelihood. A widening wealth gap and lack of affordable housing means the yurt districts are growing.

With temperatures dropping to minus 40 degrees, the cold is omnipresent in Mongolia. Cox recalls arriving in Ulan Bator on his first visit, in the winter of 2013. “There were two of us in the foreigners’ queue at customs,” he says. “And the cold: everything hurts, it’s so uncomfortable. Even your snot freezes when you’re breathing. It’s so dry my nose would bleed. My skin would peel.”

The city’s water supply is heated to prevent it from freezing, and the giant pipes act as a massive public central heating system. The heating does not extend to Chingeltei district, though, and the foundation’s kindergarten is one of only two buildings in the district to have running water.

Government support is minimal, explains Lebrun. “There’s no safety net. If you lose your job, and you don’t have assets, you end up in the slums very quickly. It’s not like other places, where you have unemployment support. It’s a very poor country.”

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Mongolia is rich in resources, including gold, coal and copper, and Lebrun says it has the potential to be the next New Zealand in terms of meat and milk exports, but they don’t have the industry or infrastructure to back it up.

“The mining boom did not benefit the vast majority of people,” he says, “and it’s already over. Commodity prices dropped, and the Chinese buy from Mongolia on the cheap; they tell them, if you don’t sell to me, who are you going to sell to?”

When the huge Oyu Tolgoi mine in the Gobi Desert reaches full capacity in a few years its output will represent a third of the country’s GDP, and a massive boost in foreign investment. But will any of the money it generates trickle down to families like Dolgoon’s?

“That’s a responsibility of the government,” says Lebrun. “But I don’t think any Mongolians believe that it’s going to change for the better any time soon. So what we want to do is to try to give a chance to these kids, because they didn’t ask for this life.”

Aside from the auction, the charity’s main source of income is derived from a mountain biking event held yearly in Mongolia. The next one will be in June 2017, and the charity is looking for corporate partners. “Our challenge is to raise the funds to keep the centre running for as long as possible,” says Lebrun. “And if someone were to give us US$1 million we could build 10 centres, no problem.”

Dolgoon attended the foundation’s kindergarten and was later adopted by a nomad family. “We see her from time to time and she is growing well,” says Chimgee. Her brother returned to school, and another of her brothers dreams of becoming an Olympic wrestler, so the foundation is paying for him to do judo classes.

“Our target is to put the little ones in a safe environment, with hot meals, regular doctor’s check-ups,” says Lebrun. “And to put the bigyurt kids back in school. The district’s public school has heating, lights, teachers, everything. So it’s a very good chance for the children’s future.”

Doors open for the Red Hero 3 auction at 6.30pm on November 8 at the Kee Club in Central. The sale begins at 7.30pm. For details: www.tifcharity.org