By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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A large world map hangs above Gale Frierson's twin bed in his Capitol Hill apartment. Red-pin flags stick out of almost every country, marking the 67-year-old retiree's extensive travels. A year ago, he and Amarzaya Toodoi would often stare into the map, sounding out the names and tracing the route Toodoi had traveled to get from his home in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to the United States. Frierson used the map as a tool to teach Toodoi English, but he also wanted to instill a message in the soft-spoken young man: You are here. You made it.
That was before Toodoi lost his visa on technicalities.
Frierson's eyes linger on the world map, but these days, he is interested in a map of another sort. Hundreds of pages of documents lie splayed across his bedspread, detailing the path that 24-year-old Toodoi has desperately followed in his attempts to continue studying in the United States.
"I guess I'd have to say that until I met Amarzaya, I was a relatively complacent American citizen," says Frierson, a gray-haired bookkeeper who has waged a one-man campaign for Toodoi's return. "Right now, I'm as irate as hell."
Education is highly valued in Amarzaya Toodoi's family, as it is for most of the Mongolian population, which has a 99 percent literacy rate. Toodoi's father is a retired professor of veterinary medicine; his mother is a retired schoolteacher. Troubling economic times have made money tight for them, so saving to send Toodoi to college in America was a big sacrifice for the family.
When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, in 1991, Mongolia lost its primary economic partner, and the socialist nation of 2.7 million was forced into a deep recession. Pensions, fixed wages and assured factory jobs all vanished as the new government struggled to embrace democracy and free markets. For Mongolian leaders who have languished for the past decade in post-communist limbo, the country's future salvation lies in buzzwords such as "privatization" and "foreign investment." As a result, Mongolian businesses are desperate for employees who speak English and have been educated in the United States, the ivory tower of free enterprise and competition.
"We learn a lot from [studying in the U.S.], and then, when we go back, we can use all that knowledge and experience in Mongolia," says Orgiltuya Dashzerge, who just completed her master's degree in environmental sciences at the University of Colorado at Denver and is president of the Mongolian Student Association. "And so when we come back to Mongolia, it's great. People will say, 'Oh, she was studying in the U.S., and she was studying this subject, so she can be useful.' It's a big chance for us to study here."
With 36 percent of Mongolians living below the poverty line and the unemployment rate hovering around 20 percent, an American education often provides the only opportunity to find good employment for young people like Toodoi. So when he was granted a student visa in October 2001 to come to America and study business, it was cause for celebration. He would return and work for a large Mongolian company and help his parents, perhaps move his family from their ger, or yurt -- a domed, tent-like structure made of lattices and canvas -- into an apartment that better protects against the cold Mongolian winters.
After two days on a bus from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing and then on planes to Tokyo and the U.S., Toodoi finally arrived in Chicago on October 27, 2001. He clutched an I-20 student enrollment form that identified "ELS Language Center Santa Monica" as his primary destination for study. (The ELS program provides intensive English instruction for international students in this country.) Unsure of what to do, Toodoi phoned a friend of his brother's who is a graduate student at UCD. The friend's advice was to come to Denver: ELS has a location at Regis University, he noted, and Denver has the largest Mongolian community in the nation. A welcoming community and a familiar face sounded ideal to Toodoi, so, he says, he called an ELS official who approved his transfer. A few hours later, nervous but thrilled, he boarded a Greyhound rolling toward the Mile High City. He was blissfully unaware that because he failed to attend the first school listed on his I-20, immigration officials would later say that he violated his student status -- even though there is no ELS program in Santa Monica.
Since 1989, when the first two Mongolian students landed at Stapleton Airport to attend the Colorado School of Mines, hundreds of students have come to this city, which now has an estimated 2,000 Mongolian residents. In 2001, at the behest of the Colorado-Mongolia Project, Denver and Ulaanbaatar became sister cities. "There are striking similarities between the Colorado prairie and the Mongolian steppes, the Rocky Mountains and the Altay [Mountains] of Mongolia, the animal life, the climate," says Jim Wagenlander, a Denver lawyer who is one of three honorary consuls for Mongolia in the U.S. "Mongolia is very dependent on agriculture, tourism and mining, and those match very well here in Colorado."
But it still wasn't a smooth transition for Toodoi. On his way to register for school at Regis University, he got hopelessly lost while riding the bus, and what should have been a thirty-minute trip lasted several hours. Then, when he finally made it to campus, he encountered what he calls a group of "rough-looking" young males. Toodoi's only concept of American street culture came from Hollywood movies, where "everyone carries guns" and homeboys shoot first and talk shit later. He thought they were going to kill him, even though they were probably just undergrads hanging out between classes.