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Volunteer AbroadVolunteer Overseas

Ben James - Human Rights in Mongolia

At work in the office

Having already decided that I wanted to do something “big” for my summer holiday of 2010, the question was what it would be exactly. My starting point was that I knew I wanted to do something related to my career choice, which is law, and I knew I wanted to do an internship abroad. Projects Abroad had come to my attention through a presentation in my first year at university and the organisation had remained floating around at the back of my mind ever since. I was limited in that my degree (graduating in English Language) was not law and most countries offering the Law internship wanted some legal qualifications. Enter Mongolia. To be fair, I would have wanted to go to Mongolia anyway, as it has always been a country I have been fascinated by.

Despite not having legal qualifications at that point, I would say enthusiasm and commitment are prerequisites for the Law and Human Rights project. Speaking to volunteers on the other internships, I would say these are essential if your time in Mongolia is going to be a success. I think being as mentally and emotionally prepared as possible helps: being ready will help you arrive in a frame of mind to get the most out of it.

Huge statue of Genghis Khan

Regarding my internship, my month in Mongolia was hugely beneficial. I was placed at the National Legal Institute, which is opposite the Parliamentary building. I had no idea as to what my role would be exactly when I arrived on my first day: initially I thought I would be doing more Human Rights based work, such as designing leaflets which were distributed around Ulaanbaatar to raise awareness of people’s rights. Instead, my supervisor Dr. Sukhbaatar gave me the task of writing five topics for a business law textbook in English that the National Legal Institute were publishing for law students there. This was certainly more responsibility than I was expecting!

Other things I worked on during my internship were editing an article for my supervisor that he was submitting to a legal journal in Taiwan on the conflict between the constitutional courts and politics in Mongolia. I then had to write and give a presentation on this. It was quite nerve-wracking presenting this in front of the employees there, but it was good for my confidence and enhanced my presentation skills. Having a translator also helped! Looking back, I can see that I returned home with more self-belief as a result of my work at the National Legal Institute.

Mongolian ger

The internship was invaluable, but the main highlights of my time in Mongolia were definitely the things I did with my host family. They took me to “Turtle Rock”; the Genghis Khan statue (which is quite magnificent - I can’t emphasise enough how huge a figure Genghis Khan is in Mongolia); and I spent a weekend living with some of their family in the countryside in a ger (traditional tent). If city life in Mongolia is different to what we are accustomed to in the West, going into the Mongolian countryside is a whole new world!

It is important when venturing into the countryside that one has an open mind as the norms you come across there will probably be of stark contrast to your own. I found it fascinating to see how Mongolian herdsmen lived daily, although I was glad after a few days to return to a wider variety of food and a shower in the city. I should add that you may become vegetarian after an adventure in the countryside. It was eye-opening watching a goat being slaughtered, but it did put me off meat!

With the children in my host family

I was really blessed with my host family. I could not have asked to stay with a better family. Not only was I lucky in that I had all the amenities I needed such as a washing machine and a shower etc. but I also became good friends with them. The two children were adorable too; the two-year-old son Tsegts was particularly sweet. I even posted the family a Christmas card on my return home. Language was a bit of a barrier at first, but we overcame it with dictionaries and they were also keen to learn English. I tried to learn a bit of Mongolian and I would recommend to any volunteer to attempt a bit of their language, as well as embrace the culture. This will definitely aid you in getting the most out of your time there.

It is important to bear in mind that every host family will differ and this will affect fundamentals such as where you do your washing and what kind of food you’ll eat. Aside from your host family, other general advice would be prepare for the unexpected; everybody’s experiences will be different and not everything will be covered in your handbook.

If you are looking for an experience that will enrich your life, as well as develop your skills, I would certainly recommend a Projects Abroad internship in Mongolia.

Ben James

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