Thirty-five-year-old Alem is many things. She is a wife. She is a mother of three. She is a nurse of fifteen years. She is the family breadwinner. As a nurse, Alem earns roughly $203 CAD per month—not enough to sustain her family, even when combined with her husband’s sporadic seasonal wages. Alem—with her gentle blue-green eyes, ready smile, soft-spoken but open manner—eagerly shares her story of struggle and success.
Alem is a member of the Nutgiim Us Cooperative, established by ADRA and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFG), which does commercial-scale gardening in her community in Mongolia. Alem lives in Bayan Ulgii Province, called “The Highest Province” due to its elevation in the Altai Mountains. Snow-capped peaks surround valleys of dry, rocky soil. In some places, the soil is classified as “dead.” Conditions are harsh, opportunities are limited and knowledge about proper nutrition is lacking.
Before ADRA arrived, offering education and assistance, “We thought only potatoes could grow,” Alem says. The most common meal was meat, noodles, soup, and potatoes. When ADRA set up an agricultural project nearby, Alem was curious. Most believed growing food was impossible because of bad soil; short, hot summers; and long, frigid winters. But ADRA staff explained gardening was indeed possible and offered training to do so. Alem decided to try.
Through the first project, Alem learned about nutrition, a balanced diet and how to grow her own garden. She built a greenhouse and root cellar. She learned to preserve vegetables. Her family’s health has improved and Alem sells her surplus produce for extra income. When Alem and others wanted to learn and grow more, a second project taught them about commercial-scale gardening, helped them register as a cooperative and taught them to run the business. Early on, there were many challenges, but, as Alem says, “year by year, we learn, get better.” Now, in the project’s third year, they are growing cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets, onions, sunflowers, among other standard and experimental crops.
Everyone is looking to the future. Alem wants to grow lemons and sea buckthorn, a highly-prized berry. She plans to “make a larger greenhouse. And not stop gardening.” The coop wants to make jam and start pickling. They are developing a brand for their pickled products, which they will sell, along with hand-sewn crafts, to tourists passing through the region.
Alem is grateful for ADRA and CFGB’s training and support. Without it, “I would maybe not have so big garden. ADRA is a big helper to many people.” Now, no one worries as much about what to eat and if it will be enough. This is worthy of celebration.
In light of International Women’s Day, Alem, too, deserves to be celebrated. She says it best: “I can be a mom, work as a nurse, have a home garden, and work at a cooperative. I have hope in my future. God blesses us. We will be healthy and live.”