As a nation of 2.8 million, Mongolia often slips behind Australia’s diplomatic and commercial periphery, and even the intrepid Asia Options’ team are yet to explore the picturesque steppes north of the Chinese border. Australia though has for many years played an active role in funding and implementing international development projects in Mongolia. One of these programs is the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID), an Australian Government initiative. This week we’re thrilled to share insights of the AVID volunteer program in Mongolia from Lynette Phuong in Ulaanbaatar.
What is your experience in development? How did you come across the AVID volunteer program in Mongolia?
My parents’ experience of fleeing their war-torn homeland, Vietnam, some 36 years ago, has been a major driver and inspiration for my eagerness to give back to the community, and in particular through my work with recently arrived refugees and asylum seeker youth with the Australian Red Cross. This is my ninth year volunteering as a Young Humanitarian with the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. In 2010, just after completing my undergraduate studies in a Bachelor of Arts/Commerce at Monash University, I embarked on an internship year with the United Nations Association of Australia (Victorian Division) whilst still holding various leadership positions with the Australian Red Cross and a voluntary role with the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria (AIIAV).
That year, Access, the AIIA’s youth network established a mentoring program and I was matched up with a truly inspiring mentor, Adjunct Professor Ian Howie, who has spent the majority of his 30 years’ international development work with the United Nations as a career official. After working with Ian on some presentations on family planning and sexual reproductive health and learning of the shocking maternal health indicators in the Pacific region, I knew I had to do something to address this. So that’s when I started looking at various postgraduate study options in public health.
After reviewing various programs, I ultimately applied for the Master’s degree in Public Health (MPH) at the University of Melbourne and was successful with my application. I commenced my studies with my older sister Linny who is now an advanced trainee paediatric doctor at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Just months later, our younger sister Judy also commenced her postgraduate studies in the Master’s Degree in Social Science at RMIT where she majored in International Development.
After undertaking a three-week immersive course at the world–renowned Comprehensive Rural Health Project at Jamkhed, India, and seeing first-hand the strength of community mobilisation efforts to empower individuals to ‘own’ their ideas and actions to enable behavioural change, I knew I wanted to hurry my studies along so I could be working in the field. This led to the decision to resign from my full time position with the Cancer Council’s Daffodil Day and Pink Ribbon Day campaigns (a job I loved!) to finish my Master’s Degree. Six subjects later (five intensives and one semester long subject)… exhausted… but definitely worth it, I finished and graduated with a Distinction average last December. Funnily enough, the day after I submitted my final paper for my master’s degree, the application for the Public Health Program Officer role with the Mongolian Public Health Professionals Association (MPHPA) through the AVID program was due. Sick, sleep deprived, but determined, I polished up my application and crossed my fingers! Two days after my graduation ceremony, I received the offer. My sister Judy also received an offer for an AVID assignment too – doubly great news!
With a passion for health promotion and education, and the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease, respiratory diseases and diabetes, and an interest in healthy food, it made sense to apply for this role with MPHPA. The assignment’s three major outcomes got five ticks from me! The assignment seemed ‘perfect’ – the three major risk factors accounting for the major disease burden in Mongolia are dietary risks, high blood pressure and tobacco smoking, which are modifiable lifestyle NCD risk factors. MPHPA is a professional, experienced and recognised NGO that works actively in public health research, policy and program evaluation, policy development, advocacy and professional development. Since 2003, MPHPA has conducted ongoing policy and advocacy activities with a particular focus on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs laws and regulations in close collaboration with government, professional and non-governmental organizations. Their efforts have seen an increase in excise tax of alcohol and tobacco, a revision of alcohol and tobacco control law in 2003, 2008, 2010-2013, and the Mongolian Government’s focus on “Healthy Mongolians” Program in 2006.
What were the initial hesitations before signing up and how did you overcome these?
The extreme cold did frighten me, and still does. Of course knowing that I am now living in the coldest capital city in the world is a tad scary, but then I have to remind myself that I do love challenges. Gulp! Although I have experienced some cold days in my first few days here in Ulaanbaatar, I’m trying to stay optimistic about my preparations for the upcoming winter. My mentor and I had a very successful shop at Icebreaker before my departure, and to tell you the truth, I’ve brought all the Icebreakers and duck feather down jackets I could carry and have purchased some camel wool thermals and socks here. Another shop with some local friends in time for the harsh winter is definitely on the cards. The other little ‘heart attack’ I had before leaving Melbourne was related to the language. I Googled ‘Mongolian language’ and had only stumbled across the traditional Mongolian script. Unsure of how (if ever) I could grasp that, after a goodnight’s sleep, I re-Googled and found that Mongolians use the Cyrillic alphabet. Phew! But nonetheless, I saw this as an exciting opportunity to pull out my dusty calligraphy set and exercise my calligraphy skills. I was very pleased that my time spent familiarising myself with the Cyrillic alphabet before departure as it instantly came very handy upon my arrival in Ulaanbaatar- signs didn’t look so unfamiliar!
What have been some of the highlights?
The sunshine. Mongolia is after all the “land of blue skies.” Actually, every time I pass Chinggis Square, I stop for a moment and take in the view. Immediately after, I can feel a big cheesy smile form on my face as I observe the steppes in the south, the modern Blue Sky Tower, Mongolia’s tallest building in the middle, and the perfectly blue cloudless sky – what a view! The orientation program provided by our In-Country Management Team, including our first two weeks of Mongolian language lessons with the lovely Urnaa were superb! Another highlight was meeting other AVID volunteers who were already in country and happy to share their tips and favourite places – this definitely made my transition into life in Ulaanbaatar much easier!
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that there is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere you go in the city. It makes staying in touch with family and friends back home way easier. My colleagues and active members of the Mongolian Public Health Professionals Association are such a delight to work with. There’s never a dull moment in the office! Although we’re a very small team, the work of the association is highly regarded. I’m happy to share that we work hard, giggle, eat (constantly, maybe that’s just me snacking the entire time) and celebrate often. Excitingly, during my short time with the association so far, we have launched our pilot mentoring program; a bi-monthly eNewsletter for MPHPA members; signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Mongolian National University; been awarded two bids for tenders with UNICEF and Ministry of Justice; and delivered many public health training classes.
In late July, just after Naadam, I was excited to have the opportunity to deliver health leadership and management training with our former Executive Director to the directors of the Umnigovi (South Gobi) aimag health departments and heads of soum and inter-soum hospitals. Whilst there, I visited Yolyn Am, which is a region in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park in the Gobi Desert, which is famous for its rocky cliffs and canyons where blue veined ice survive well into the summer. So, yes, the vast landscapes offered by Mongolia are definitely a highlight! And how could I forget to mention the wrestling at the Naadam festival? Other highlights include: living with three amazing Australian volunteers; kickboxing (a new martial art to me; I am however missing my Judo and Jiujitsu training); delicious vegetarian tacos at Avocado Café; my daily (therapeutic) visits to Nomin supermarket; movies in 3D (I haven’t watched so many!); karaoke; and, being a pescatarian, scrumptious fish from Lake Baikal in Russia!
Would you recommend this program and Mongolia to others?
Absolutely! Through the AVID program, Australian volunteers have the exciting opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences to help build the capacity of individuals, organisations and communities in their host country and make a positive difference in a developing country – all the while having an adventure and experiencing a new culture! Moreover, Mongolia has a very long history, vast landscapes spanning camel-trod deserts, canyons and grasslands, a difficult language (one for the language enthusiasts!), varying climates, but… the welcoming people and fun had at every grocery shop can make everyday a new adventure!
The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is an Australian Government initiative.
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- Lynette Phuong on the AVID volunteer program in Mongolia - September 30, 2015