Teruya helps Mongolian orphans turn tears into smiles

March 24, 2013

By MARIKO SUGIYAMA/ City News Section

The curtain is about to rise in Tokyo on a music and dance performance by young people in from an orphanage in Mongolia. The performers are attired in national dress and their anticipation is high.

The coordinator is Tomoko Teruya, a woman who has single-handedly changed life for these 16 youngsters and many more back in Mongolia.

When Teruya, 28, says: "Smile!" in Mongolian, the children burst into grins.

All are either residents or alumni of the Children of the Sun Center, an orphanage in remote Darkhan City, Mongolia. They have traveled several times to Japan, most recently to perform at a hall in Tokyo's Ginza district in November 2012.

The houselights dim and spotlights reveal eight people seated, each holding a musical instrument. The crisp sound of a violin-like Mongolian morin khuurs resonates out and is soon joined by an intricate melody from a yangqin, an instrument with more than 100 strings. The pleasant low tones evoke an image of majestic plains.

Dancers then perform a routine in traditional costumes, evoking scenes of hunting and horse-riding in times gone by. They sing nomadic songs in a style called "khoomei," also known as throat singing, in which the singer vocalizes high and low tones simultaneously by constricting the throat.

As the one-hour concert draws to a close, the full house of perhaps 500 concert-goers, rises to its feet, applauding and dabbing teary eyes with handkerchiefs.

The Children of the Sun Center offers its charges a chance to learn to sing and dance, and to play musical instruments. They then travel to Japan to perform, and the revenue from their concerts helps to keep the orphanage running.

Teruya has been organizing these concerts every year since 2008. She takes the stage.

"They are not begging for money, they are earning it through their performances," she says. "It's an immense confidence builder."

Teruya is tiny, only 150 centimeters tall, but on that night she seems to have an imposing stature.


Temperatures in Mongolia in winter can drop to 30 degrees below zero. Orphans and children left homeless through parental abuse have been known to lift manhole covers and climb inside to escape the cold. These so-called manhole children have been declining in numbers recently, but in the 1990s there were thought to be 3,000 to 4,000 such homeless children in Mongolian cities.

When Teruya was in her first year of high school, she happened upon an exhibition of photographs of manhole children and noticed one young boy in particular. His ears, lips, and eyelids were swollen from rat bites, and a skin condition had rendered him bald. Although he was probably 6 years old, he appeared to be no older than 1—and he only knew how to move about by crawling.

Teruya has two brothers, six and eight years younger than her. This manhole child was of similar age, a shocking realization. She immediately joined her school's volunteer club and separately decided she would become a lawyer so as to be able to improve conditions for children in developing countries.

But how could she achieve it? She knew it was impossible to change the world overnight. Even so, she believed she could perhaps overcome the barriers by helping one child to begin with, then extending that assistance to an institution, and ultimately to an entire nation.

She traveled to Mongolia in the summer of 2004, during her second year at university.

From the capital of Ulan Bator, she drove for four hours through vast grasslands to Darkhan City, near the border with Russia. The single-story building that housed Children of the Sun stood alone in a meadow. Cows and sheep grazed nearby.

Over the next five days, Teruya spent her waking and sleeping hours with the 20 or so orphans living there. They pressed flowers together, chased cows and sang beneath the starry sky. One orphan had lived as a manhole child since infancy. Another had been orphaned and then abused at the home of a relative. Their smiles concealed deeply traumatic pasts.

After Teruya returned to Japan, she received an essay from a 13-year-old boy with learning difficulties.

"I met an older girl called Tomoko. I felt she loved me like a mother. When can I see her again?" the boy wrote. From then on, Teruya traveled to Mongolia whenever she could, between semesters.

Soon after graduating and going on to law school, an alarming e-mail arrived from the head of the orphanage, 56-year-old Erdenechuluun.

"We've lost our NGO funding," the principal wrote. "Please help!"

Most orphanages in Mongolia depend on financial support from foreign non-governmental organizations. Teruya took a leave of absence from law school and, with friends, founded an NGO called Yuimar Hummingbirds.

Now simply named Yuimar, the NGO aims to provide scholarships to children such as the orphans she had encountered.

"Yuimar" means "mutual cooperation" in the Okinawan dialect used in Teruya's hometown. She chose the name to express her desire to help others, not with a condescending attitude, but in a spirit of partnership.

Over the next six months, she raised 400,000 yen ($4,200) from friends and relatives. This sum would cover the living and study expenses for two university students in Mongolia for a year.

However, the reality of working in a place like Mongolia suddenly intruded. When she traveled to the orphanage, carrying the cash, staff confronted her: "Apparently you've been asking the children all kinds of questions," one said. "You want to go telling others about how we neglect them, don't you."

Teruya tried to explain that it was all a misunderstanding, but she could not get them to accept the money she had collected.

It left her at a loss as to what to do. But her thoughts returned again and again to the orphans themselves—and she knew she could not give up.

After returning home, she received an assessment for Innovation Grant, a funding platform through which venture capitalists help promising social entrepreneurs. It was an organization to which she had applied to several times previously, and she now poured her heart out.

"She lacked organizational management skills and judgment, but was more passionate than anyone I'd ever seen," says Idea International CEO Masaharu Hashimoto, 51, who vetted Teruya's funding application.

As a result, she won a grant worth 1 million yen. Officials from other Japanese NGOs helped to clear up the misunderstanding with the Children of the Sun Center, contacting staff there on her behalf and explaining that although she was still a student, she was sincere in her commitment. It worked.


As Yuimar began work as a fully fledged NGO, Teruya found it increasingly difficult to balance her work with law school. Should she focus on passing the bar exam, or spend her time developing the NGO?

While agonizing over this difficult question, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, and saw the world respond with deep sympathy.

The orphans at the Children of the Sun Center wanted somehow to help and repay the kindness that Japanese people had shown them. They donated money from the child allowances they received from the Mongolian government and held charity concerts locally, in the end sending 6 million yen to the disaster-hit regions.

It told Teruya a home truth about life in the rich world.

"I felt ashamed for having obsessed over the career, status and financial security that being a lawyer would provide," she said. She would continue her studies, but made up her mind to concentrate on helping children.

In autumn 2012, the orphans arrived in Okinawa to put on a concert there.

At a farewell party before they returned home, a 16-year-old boy named Uurtsaikh, who was visiting Japan for the first time, cried profusely when thanking his homestay mother, 47-year-old Rieko Uehara.

"Mom, thank you for taking care of me, not even sleeping when I had a fever," he said.

Uehara herself shed tears seeing such an expression of gratitude.

Now Teruya was certain she had chosen the right path.


Tomoko Teruya

CEO of Mongolia aid NGO Yuimar

Born in 1984 in Naha City, Okinawa. Graduate of Waseda University School of Law, majoring in international relations. Became involved in Japan International Cooperation Agency projects assisting the development of economic legal infrastructure and company law in China. Founded NGO Yuimar Hummingbirds (now Yuimar) in 2007 while a student at Sophia Law School. Selected by the World Economic Forum in 2011 as one of 30 Japanese entrepreneurs to participate in its Global Shapers Community, a network of leaders in their 20s and 30s. Scheduled to graduate from Sophia Law School this month.

By MARIKO SUGIYAMA/ City News Section
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People tend to gravitate toward Tomoko Teruya. She is a powerful speaker, and listeners easily find themselves engrossed in what she has to say.(Photo: Yuji Tozawa)

People tend to gravitate toward Tomoko Teruya. She is a powerful speaker, and listeners easily find themselves engrossed in what she has to say.(Photo: Yuji Tozawa)

  • People tend to gravitate toward Tomoko Teruya. She is a powerful speaker, and listeners easily find themselves engrossed in what she has to say.(Photo: Yuji Tozawa)

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