Nomin Dashdendov moved from Mongolia at age 14 with a single suitcase of clothes — though not for lack of resources. What started off as a family vacation to visit Disneyland, Las Vegas and family friends became a relocation effort from Mongolia to Arlington County, where one of the country’s largest Mongolian communities is based.
After family friends convinced Nomin’s father, Dashdendov (in Mongolian culture, children’s last names are their father’s first name), that Nomin should get an American education, the family hired lawyers to begin the green card process. Dashdendov returned to the family’s home in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, to send their things.
“I was sad because I didn’t get to finish what I had [happening] in Mongolia,” said Nomin, now 22. “I felt like I was trapped here. I was 14, so I couldn’t just grab my luggage and fly out to Mongolia.”
But, like most Mongolian youth who immigrate to the United States, she adapted quickly.
Currently studying social work full time at George Mason University and working a full-time retail job, Nomin is just one of 8,000 Mongolian immigrants in the Washington area, according to the Mongolian Embassy. As Mongolians began immigrating in the 1990s after the fall of socialism, their children quickly adapted to American life — much faster than refugees and immigrants from countries with a less robust educational system.
Mongolian parents take education seriously and will do whatever it takes to make sure their children get a good education, Nomin said.
For Nomin’s family, like many Mongolian families, that meant her father would continue to work in Mongolia, where he owns a timber business. He flew between the two countries regularly, and Nomin’s mother set up their household in Arlington, where Nomin and her brother went to school.
“I didn’t know what the teacher was saying,” Nomin said of her first day at Williamsburg Middle School. “But if she showed me, I knew what to do.”
Nomin’s determination exemplifies Mongolian youths in America. They tend to be model students, taking academics seriously and pursuing college degrees, say teachers at Arlington public schools.
When Nomin was in high school, for example, she either took English classes or worked every summer. During the school year, she took double doses of chemistry, biology and physics — by choice. She also kept up Japanese, which she began learning in Mongolia.
“They’re exemplary students,” said Suzanne Donohoe, a high-intensity language training (HILT) teacher at Williamsburg Middle School. “They learn English very quickly because they have good academic skills.”
Many have actually already learned some English in Mongolia, where the literacy rate is 98 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook, and many also speak Russian or Japanese, as Nomin does.
“Almost all the students are coming in from an urban environment with a solid, previous education,” said HILT teacher Christina Smith-Gajadhar, Nomin’s former teacher at Yorktown High School.
She said that in her experience, Mongolian students often learn English in about half the time of other HILT students.
Mongolian is the fourth most common native language in Arlington’s school district; 3.7 percent of students with limited English or having become proficient in English in the past two years are native Mongolian speakers, according to the district’s 2011-12 Survey of Limited English Proficient Students.
Ariel Wyckoff, a board member of Friends of Mongolia, a Washington area nonprofit group, said Mongolian is the second most widely spoken language in Arlington schools.
Nomin’s parents — middle-class professionals with master’s degrees — spoke very little English when they came to the United States, and they emphasized the importance of their children maintaining the Mongolian language.
“We had to speak Mongolian at home,” Nomin said. “That was the one rule we had.”
Nomin’s parents were hardly the only Mongolians worried that their children would forget their native language.
“I saw my kids were losing Mongolian,” said Munguntsetseg Frankosky, a Mongolian parent and leader in the Arlington Mongolian community. “I was losing Mongolian.”
So she founded a school.
Learning about home
Modeled after Arlington’s Escuela Bolivia, the Mongolian School of the National Capital Area serves upwards of 50 Mongolian students from toddlers to teenagers, teaching the Mongolian language, script, history and culture.
As children assimilated quickly, parents were noticing their kids preferred to speak English to Mongolian, which was disappointing to parents and grandparents, said Wyckoff, whose wife is a teacher at the school.
“Immediately they’re taking American names, they’re learning English,” he said. “That’s the nature of the Mongolian culture. They adapt very quickly.”
Frankosky and co-founder Nyamsuren Dash, who has since returned to Mongolia, opened the school five years ago, and it has become a thriving center of the Mongolian immigrant community.
“Eager teachers, helpful parents and joyful kids all mixed together for a successful school,” she said over a lunch of mantuu buuz (fluffy Mongolian meat dumplings) and niistel salad (Mongolian potato salad), which a volunteer makes for the kids at the school.
The school meets Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with some electives going later, and is staffed by volunteers who were teachers in Mongolia. As a nonprofit group, it runs on donations and a small tuition charge.
Nomin was there the year it opened. At 17, she was too old to be a student, so she volunteered instead. She called the first year “hectic” but loved helping out other Mongolian families.
“The thing that I most liked about being there was I got to see many Mongolian people at the same time,” she said. “It was very homelike to me.”
One recent Saturday, fourth-graders practiced vocabulary for vegetables in a classroom of the Wilson Building. In another classroom, younger kids learned to sing the Mongolian national anthem, hands crossed over their hearts. Older kids practiced writing, and across the hall, others learned Mongolian geography.
Sixteen-year-old Enkhzaya Nyam-Ochir was posting drawings of the youngest children on a bulletin board in the hall, which is covered in pictures of Mongolian festivals from years past and awards from the Mongolian Embassy and government.
Now a volunteer, Enkhzaya attended the Mongolian School for four years and even continued with Mongolian dance once she aged out of the school.
“I think [the school] is important because kids are able to get in contact with their Mongolian culture and heritage even if they were born in the U.S.,” she said.
Most of the youngest children at the school were in America, and if it weren’t for the school, they’d miss out on learning Mongolian reading, writing and history altogether.
Even Enkhzaya, who moved to the United States when she was 8, was eager to learn things about Mongolia she missed out on.
“I liked that we all got to get together and have a review of Mongolian culture,” she said, supervising a group of 6-year-olds on the playground, who were chattering in a mix of Mongolian and English. “It was a nice opportunity to learn what I didn’t get to learn in Mongolia.”
Coming and going
Enkhzaya lives with both parents and her brother in Arlington, but that is not the case for all Mongolian youth.
Often, parents will bring their families to the United States, get their children set up in school, and return to Mongolia, leaving the kids in the care of aunts or uncles or friends, said teacher Smith-Ganjadhar. This is especially true for high school-age students.
“When they hit their teens, they’re considered adults in their community,” she said.
“Mongolian people are really independent, so they expect their children to be independent and mature,” Nomin said.
Her parents and brother moved back to Mongolia two years ago, but Nomin stayed in the United States to finish her degree.
“I started here and wanted to finish it up so at least I get my B.S. from here,” she said.
After getting an American education, which very often includes a college degree, some Mongolian youths are pulled back to their country.
A booming mining sector and foreign investment has made Mongolia one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Proficient English and a U.S. education will get a young person far in Mongolia, Wyckoff said.
Nomin, for her part, plans to return — but only for a while.
“I want to go back,” she said. “Then I want to go somewhere else. I want to explore different cultures and open my mind more.”
This story is part of a partnership between The Washington Post and students from American University. To read more stories from this collaboration, click here .