Julie Veloo: There are tons of projects that need willing hands and hearts to work here
By Allyson Seaborn
Canadian born Julie Veloo is a relative newcomer to Mongolia, having arrived in UB at the end of 2010. Today, however, Veloo is Vice President of the Veloo Foundation – a non-profit organization which runs a program aimed at alleviating the suffering and neglect of the most vulnerable and marginalized children in UB. These children don’t live in apartments, houses or warm and well-built gers. They reside in a shanty neighbourhood where residents make their living and clothe their families with items scavenged from the rubbish dump. They are known as the “Children of the Peak” and survive in the most appalling, third world conditions.
The Veloo Foundation is supported by many individuals and companies through financial and clothing donations and has supporters wide and far. The project’s first and biggest corporate sponsor to date has been Maxam Explosives, but smaller acts of generosity occur all the time. Through friends of friends and via word of mouth, a neighbourhood garage sale was even organized in Australia to help support the foundation. All proceeds from this Aussie garage sale will wind up here in UB and will be spent on making the lives of these neglected children just that little bit warmer, safer and happier.
Julie is humble about her impacting work saying, “our foundation is a small, family-run foundation whose mission is to help orphans and other similarly disadvantaged children in the developing world by improving their physical, social and educational environment. We have, in the past, been primarily self-funded and through our family and our friends. Our recent commitment to the Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project has resulted in an amazing groundswell of local and international support for which we are truly grateful.”
I ask Julie how the whole project came about and she tells me that last February she and a few friends went to the dump to visit and hand out some warm clothing and household items which had been donated by IWAM (International Women’s Association of Mongolia). “As part of that visit, I was taken around to visit a few of the local families and saw, first-hand, their living conditions. It was very difficult. At one house we met an eight year old boy living with his two year old sister. She was covered in burns and had no pants on. They were alone in their ger with no food, no fuel and no parents. It was minus 25 and the door didn’t close properly. The parents, like so many members of this community, were out at the dump scavenging for whatever useful, saleable, edible or flammable items they could find.”
A gutsy, take charge Veloo simply couldn’t turn a blind eye to it all. And thus the seeds of the Children of the Peak Sanctuary Project were officially sown that day. Parents of children at the dump told Julie that a regular 12 hour day sifting through garbage could help them earn a few tugriks and also help them to find something to burn for fuel. Veloo describes how, “often something very toxic like tires or shoes are used to burn. Having visited these children and learning about the other 180 or so people in similar circumstances up in this community, I was unable to walk away and do nothing.”
Julie explains about the other difficulties facing these people, “Alcohol abuse – as well as just about any other kind of abuse you can think of – is extensive. As with any community at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, a myriad of expected and unexpected problems exists. Many of the people we aim to help are from the countryside and have been forced into the urban setting as a result of having lost their animals in the zuud. Their adjustment is not helped by their lack of documentation which makes it difficult if not impossible to find work, get medical care and put their kids into school. Our hope is that we will be able to not only give the children educational and social opportunities, but also give the community members a place to gather and learn and the chance to see that they too are valued members of the greater society of UB.”
Unlike so many charitable organizations around the globe, there are no “admin” expenses, fees or salaries. “Just for the record,” Veloo states, “we don’t take any of the money for operating expenses. One hundred percent of money donated goes to the kids.”
For more information on the Veloo Foundation and how you can directly help the Children of the Peak, please email email@example.com or visit www.veloofoundation.com.
-Describe your first visit to Mongolia
-The first time I came to Mongolia was in December 2009 in anticipation of our move here. I came here with my husband and we spent a week looking at apartments, shopping, and just generally getting a feel for the people and the culture. We were fortunate enough as part of our tour to get out to the countryside and visit the Chinggis Statue & the 13th Century Village. It was snapping cold and windy for most of our visit and I was strikingly reminded of the weather where I grew up in northern Canada. I immediately fell in love with the wacky eccentricities of the place – missing manhole covers, stairs that end in the middle of the sidewalk, sidewalks that suddenly become roads, kids herding sheep through the downtown core and the like. It was a vibrant and energetic city and I couldn’t wait to move here. Unfortunately, we weren’t actually able to move here until Sept 2010.
-What is the best thing about living in Mongolia?
-That’s a difficult question. There are so many great things about living here. We are very fortunate in that we have a place in the city as well as a ger out in the countryside so we get the best of both worlds.
I guess I would have to say though that the best thing about living in Mongolia has got to be the culture (learning to ride!) and the people. The people here are a rare and unique mix and getting to know them has been a real pleasure. I find that Mongolian people are very generous, kind and helpful and getting to know them through my foundation work, other volunteer work, teaching and through my time out in the countryside has been a really wonderful experience. I love that they are SO proud to be Mongolian.
I realize that there are any number of negative aspects to the Mongolian culture as well ( I had a horse stolen and killed for food last year….one of the more negative aspects of the culture!) but by and large I have found the people to be really lovely.
-How has UB changed since your fist visit?
-Immensely. The construction and improved roads / traffic flow, of course, but the thing I notice the most is that when I first came, everybody stared at me on the street because foreigners were still such oddities. Now, no one gives me a second glance. Also, every season it seems that we see fewer and fewer deels on the street. Too bad.
-Describe a perfect weekend in Mongolia.
-Out to our ger for a lovely evening with our local neighbors out there…six or so hours of horseback riding along the river and up onto the tops of the mountains along the Tuul…going to bed early and waking up early in time to watch the glow of the sunrise on the multitudes of animals ambling to the river in front of their Mongolian herder (in a deel of course!) for a drink and then back into the city for a lovely dinner out with friends.
-What’s your advice to UB newcomers?
-Get out of the city and see the “real” Mongolia because the cultural differences make so much more sense when you see them “in context” as it were and make sure you join IWAM ( if you’re a woman or a following male spouse) and get out into the community to really help out. There are tons of projects that need willing hands and hearts to work and here, you can really make a difference.
-Is there anything you can’t live without in UB?
-Not in the traditional / usual sense, but we love the weather here (not the smoke!). The endless sunshine is great and both myself and my husband are big fans of the winter! We love the wonderful traditional holidays (Tsagan Sar and Naadam) with all of the wonderful traditional outfits running around the city. Of course, our work here helping people is very fulfilling and would be impossible to live without as well. If you include the outskirts then I couldn’t live without the riding I get to do out at Sara’s Ger Camp.
-Have you managed to learn any Mongolian?
-Yes indeed. In fact, most of the time I am speaking Mongolian as my driver doesn’t speak English, my neighbors out at the ger don’t speak English, and the people I’m working with for the foundation also don’t speak English. I am, however, a ways away from being fluent. Working on it though…
-What’s your favourite UB restaurant/s?
-The Bull, Hazaras, Rosewood….mostly I eat in however.
-What’s your favourite pastime or something you like to do to relax?
-Horseback Riding. Before I came here I was terrified of horses – now I ride every week and this summer went on an 8 day ride, a 5 day ride and 2 two day rides. That’s the kind of thing that Mongolia does to you.
-Picture Ulaanbaatar 20 years from now and tell me what you see.
-Can it withstand the international onslaught of chain restaurants? Starbucks? MacDonalds? If it can, then I think that UB will be a charming small capital city that has a very clear identity on the world stage….and hopefully no one will be climbing out the manhole covers.
-What is your favourite Mongolian food?
-What music do you listen to when you are stuck in UB traffic?
-Mongolian Horse songs – true…I’m trying to learn some so I can sing along with my Mongolian guides while we ride.
-Who inspires you?
-The kids up at the rubbish dump. These kids have nothing and yet when you go up there and take a minute or two to play with them they sparkle…like every other kid anywhere. They have such hope and such big plans for their future – it’s beautiful to see.
-What was the last book you read?
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens…if you count to listening to e books. I have the IWAM library in my house so I have tons and tons of books available but , unfortunately, I don’t usually have any time to actually read so I like to listen to books while I do housework and the like.
-Do you have a favourite quote or motto to live by?
-I kind of like …”There is no try. Do or do not”…which may not be word for word but I still attribute it to Yoda.
-If you could have dinner with five people who would they be?
-The President of Mongolia as I’d love to hear what he has to say about the state of the kids up at the dump! Additionally, I’d love to sit down with Bill Gates, the head of UNICEF and the head of the child welfare department here in Mongolia to find the most efficient way for foundations and other charitable organizations to liaise with and help the government take care of the kids here in Mongolia. And last, but not least, Meryl Streep – because I love her work!
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