Guest Story: Visiting Naraa in the Gobi Desert

Visiting Naraa in the Gobi Desert

"Emee, Emee," shouts 4-year old Naraa, jumping into my arms as I climb from the car. Her mother, Orkhon, and sisters parade out of the ger. Camels graze on a near-by hill and brown and white goats run from the sound, while her father climbs off his motorcycle.

Besides the ger and a blue Russian truck, we are surrounded by spaciousness: gravelly brown earth, blue sky, and car tracks. Nothing else. It seems a miracle to find someone you are looking for in a lone ger in the Gobi Desert. When we arrived in Dalanzadgad, we had no phone number or directions to find her family, yet we were determined to check on Naraa’s health.

I first met Naraa three years ago. Our NGO Nomadicare was training doctors and health professionals from the 14 sums of Omnogovi in traditional Mongolian medicine and laboratory safety. Naraa’s aunt, Selenge, a doctor from one of the sums, casually asked me one lunchtime what to do for a burn scar.

Just as casually, I answered, “Vitamin E works well. Why?”

“My niece got burned. Would you look at her? I could bring her here tomorrow.”

“Yes, of course,” I said, but I had no idea how this would change the course of things.

The next day, 18-month-old Naraa came, wearing white tights, a dress and hat. Selenge took off the hat, pointed to Naraa’s hands, and pulled down the tights. Hair was missing over much of Naraa’s head. Her hands were scarred with one finger bent tightly. Her back had thick scars. Most disturbing of all, though, were the thick, ropy scars on her right leg. One look and, as a nurse, I knew that without treatment, she would never be able to straighten her right knee to walk normally. I swallowed hard. It is not in Nomadicare’s mission to bring individual children for care. What could I do?

I called a doctor friend in the US. “Shriners Hospitals give free burn treatment to children,” she told me.

I called Shriners in Boston. “Yes, this is the kind of work we do,” they said.

The story was this: Naraa’s mother and father were out herding their animals when their ger went up in flames. Sara (2 years, 8 months old) and Naraa (11 months old) were inside alone. Sara escaped, remembered Naraa, and returned through the flames, dragging baby Naraa out. Sara later got a Hero’s Metal from the President of Mongolia. Naraa survived, but had burn scars over about one third of her body.

Bringing Naraa to the US for help took a year and a half of planning. Each step had its challenges. We needed a birth certificate, but all the family’s papers had burned. I gave Shriners Naraa’s father’s name. When the family got the new birth certificate, they used her mother’s name. Shriners had to change the records. We needed the translated medical records, which took time. Doctor Selenge was going to accompany Naraa, but by the time we finally got the appointment, she was expecting a baby at any moment. We had to redo the papers so her mother could accompany her. We eventually found free flights for Naraa and Orkhon on American Airlines from Beijing to Boston, a free round trip flight from Ezinis from Dalanzadgad to Ulaanbaatar, and an apartment provided by Hospitality Homes in Boston for a donation.

The night before mother Orkhon and two-and-a-half-year old Naraa arrived in Boston, we had donations of $2000 toward our $8000 goal for costs while they were in the US. I was nervous about it until that very night, before I went to sleep in Boston, I got an e-mail from the Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana saying they had collected $2000 for our project. When that happened, I slept well knowing the rest would come.

When Doctor Conolan met Naraa and Orkhon, he explained that Naraa will be Shriners’ patient until she becomes 21 years old. “Burn scars are not like a cancer tumor that you can remove,” he said. “Scars don’t grow like normal skin.” He scheduled her surgery, but it had to be canceled twice. Naraa had pneumonia.

Saruul Erdene told the story on his website and Mongolians from all over the US contributed. My favorite contribution came from Zula in Los Angeles who decided to give the proceeds from a Valentine’s Party, billed as “The Sexiest Valentine’s Partly in LA,” to help Naraa. Mongolians in the Boston area contacted us and helped with donations, clothes, friendship, translations and some Mongolian Harvard students even set Orkhon up on a computer.

After four months and three surgeries, Naraa and her Mom were ready to go back home. I wondered how they would adapt. Naraa, by then, had spent days watching children’s movies. (Her favorite was Stuart Little.) At Shriners when the doctor was changing her bandage, a Care Assistant kept her occupied by playing children’s games on an iPad. I had to buy an extra suitcase for all the stuffed animals Naraa was given. Orkhon knew how to use e-mail , get on the internet, and find Mongolian shows on YouTube. Naraa watched kid’s shows. I tried to imagine how it would be for them be home in their ger. We even talked about the adjustment, but Orkhon thought it would be fine.

I think she was right.

When we ask, the director of health in Dalanzadgad asks her assistant to find Selenge, then finds Orkhon’s mobile number. We call Orkhon and tell her we are on our way, although we have no idea what way that is. Over chicken soup at a Korean restaurant, our driver gets the directions. He choses a dirt track like the others. We drive for nearly two hours. All we pass is one herd of camels. His Toyota Land Cruiser leaves a dust cloud behind us. We come upon a tiny sign beside a road construction site. “Here,” he says, climbs a nearby hill with the car, and takes his mobile out. He reaches Orkhon. Someone will lead us to the ger, she tells him. We wait and wait and wait. Then, staring at the horizon, we see a moving speck of white. We watch to see if it comes toward us. It does, so we drive in that direction. A young man in a traditional white silk shirt, black pants and black boots drives a motorcycle toward us. When we meet, he turns the motor off. Our driver turns his motor off.

“How has your spring been?” he asks.

“Fine,” answers our driver.

“How is your summer going?”

“Fine.”

The herder turns his motorcycle engine on and we follow. There is nothing between here and there—until we see the ger, a tiny round mushroom on the horizon. Then camels and goats. When Naraa calls me Grandmother in Mongolian and runs to meet me, I notice she is fast—and there is no limp.

Inside the ger, as she sings, “Everyone loves me. I am so cute,” we discuss the future. The doctor at Shriners says Nara will need more surgery in a couple of years. We agree that when she is six, it will again be time.

Written by Sas Carey from Nomadicare