Saranchuluun Otgon arrived in Jerusalem in September 2007 with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Mongolia.
She was one of the 20-something students at one of the city’s most intriguing programs: the foreign student master’s degree program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Braun School of Public Health.
The course draws health professionals from far-flung countries who are dealing with some of the world’s toughest health challenges. Current students are facing Ebola, polio and HIV/AIDS, as well as ongoing issues like maternal and child health and nutrition. Nigeria, China, South Sudan, the Philippines and Haiti were among the countries represented in last year’s class, which graduated recently.
The graduates show up at the ceremony in sensational native costume, and sing emotionally in Hebrew. It’s a moment I savor every year. Then they go home, taking up challenges in cities and rural outposts; they remain loyal informal ambassadors for Israel.
When Otgon joined the program, she traveled together with a fellow student from Mongolia. The two roomed together in the campus dorms.
In case you’re unsure of where Mongolia is, remember that it’s a landlocked country bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, east and west.
Almost half the citizens live in the capital city of Ulan Bator, infamous for air pollution and encircled by formerly nomadic Mongolians who are looking for permanent homes in the city. (By the way, the old term “Outer Mongolia” refers to the historical region of the Qing Dynasty, and is no longer in use. When I grew up, it was a synonym for something obscure and hard to find.) At the recent graduation ceremony, Dr. Yehuda Neumark, director of the Braun School, revealed a story about a former student – Otgon – that she’d finally allowed him to make public.
“Toward the end of the year of her studies, Saranchuluun Otgon came to my office. Without saying anything, coloring in embarrassment, she rolled up her pant leg. Beneath the cloth were the metal wires of a prosthetic foot. Until then, no one on the staff knew.
“The reason for her divulging this to me was that the device wasn’t working right. We quickly found our way to a prosthetic devices repair lab in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
When I asked Saranchuluun if anyone in her class knew about her foot, she said no one did except her roommate – her colleague and friend from Mongolia.
“I suggested that it would perhaps be beneficial to share this with others in the public health class, and she replied respectfully but adamantly that she didn’t want to.”
Why not? Said Neumark, “She explained that in her country, people with disabilities are stigmatized and there is no awareness for handicap accessibility issues, and if it became known, she would never get promoted very high in the system.”
So they kept it quiet. She finished the year and went home without any of the other students, or even the social coordinator and staff, knowing her secret.
But now it’s out – and not just among her students. A YouTube video making its away around the web reveals Otgon’s story. She was born in 1981 in what Mongolians call the Ger District, a hut city without basic sanitation on the edges of the capital. She was a straight-A student, and loved to dance; Otgon wanted to be a dancer when she grew up.
Horseback riding on vacation in the Mongolian plains, naughty kids spooked the horse and Otgon fell. There was no doctor nearby; the elders treated her injury with herbs and tea. When she got back to the city, doctors were puzzled by the continued pain. She was diagnosed as having cancer in her bone (perhaps a lesion that caused the weakness), and began a program of chemotherapy and radiation. When she was 13, her foot was amputated.
Not when Otgon applied for the program in Jerusalem, nor when she was accepted, did she mention her disability.
The technician who repaired her prosthesis in Talpiot was so moved by her story that he fixed the prosthesis for free, and suggested she come in for a tune-up when she was preparing to return home.
She never did share her personal health challenge with her fellow public health graduates.
Still, Dr. Neumark’s suggestion percolated.
Go public, he said. You have a story to inspire others.
Back in Ulan Bator, she became a fulltime lecturer at the School of Public Health in the Health Sciences University of Mongolia. Then she spent time at Columbia University in New York.
There too, like in Israel, there was much more openness about disabilities. Today, she’s back in Mongolia, working on her PhD. In the meantime, she’s married and given birth to a son.
Five months ago, Otgon outed her disability, showing the world her sneaker- clad artificial foot on Facebook.
She founded an NGO called Chain of Success and in April launched a Facebook group, “Let’s Run Mongolia!” This summer, she organized Mongolia’s first-ever public running event welcoming people with disabilities. Her prosthesis showing, she ran with men and women in wheelchairs, missing arms and legs, blind and deaf. Yes, out there in Mongolia.
Three-hundred participants and 180 volunteers participated in the Let’s Run Together marathons.
Several weeks ago, Otgon presented a TED talk for TED-Mongolia on stigma and social change. She was named the Mongolian Junior Chamber of Commerce International person of the year.
Otgon has a new dream: She wants to run in the 42-km. New York City Marathon! She wrote to Neumark: “It’s a big challenge! I am running to change social stigma and discrimination toward people like me. Also, I am trying to support other disabled people who like sports in my country. Now I am working on the website to gather money to buy another prosthetic leg for someone, another hand-cycle, a travel ticket for the New York Marathon, etc.”
Says Otgon, whom I met briefly when she was here, but has become a Facebook friend of mine, “I’m fed up with being discriminated against and embarrassed.”
Still, my favorite part of what she says has to do with all of us without these challenges.
“I’d like to say to all those who have two arms and two legs that they should use them… use them for good!” ■ The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.