Achiterdene “Achka” Gankhuyag was abandoned by his mother at age 6. He was introduced to the missionaries when he was 15 and eventually began working and living with them. His conversion to the LDS faith led him to BYU, where he graduated in civil engineering, forged a new family and found a new life.
Gankhuyag was born in the rural area of Choibalsan, Mongolia. He was raised by one of his aunts who was a single mother in extreme poverty, after he was abandoned by his mother.
He left his aunt’s care to hunt prairie dogs to help provide for his family when he turned 15. He slept in a pipe under a railroad track. He lived off of the food he hunted and saved the skins to sell later on.
“I didn’t have anything,” Gankjuyag said. “I was there for three months (during the summer) and I didn’t have anyone to talk to so I just started to think a lot. I guess I was so young at the time that I started to miss my mom. I would start to think ‘what if there is a God?'”
Gankhuyag said he began to pray without knowing that he was praying. He said he would lie on the ground, look at the sky and just talk.
“Like a crazy person,” Gankhuyag said. “Because back then I didn’t know anything about church, because we were all Buddhist. I just started talking and talking. I would ask if there is a God, ‘Where are my parents?’ and ‘Why are they gone?’ I would ask for help.”
He returned home to his aunt after three months in the countryside and sold the skins to help support them. He said it was then that his prayers were answered.
He realized the missionaries were the answer to his prayer after another aunt sent the missionaries to his town.
Gankhuyag was only the sixth member The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his town and he wanted to share what had helped him. He began going out and teaching with the missionaries.
Eventually the missionaries asked him if he would like to serve in another area in Mongolia far from where he lived at the time. He agreed and began living with the missionaries and doing missionary work everyday. He did this from age 17 until he was almost 19, when he found out he could serve a mission of his own.
He received a mission call to the Las Vegas, Nevada mission where he met his future adoptive mother, BYU assistant professor Wendy Birmingham.
“I was impressed with him right from the beginning when we first met him,” Birmingham said. “I was impressed with his testimony, with his ability to walk away from a country that’s all he ever knew and come to a country where he didn’t know the language, he didn’t know anybody. He literally came with just the clothes on his back and said ‘I’m going to do this.'”
Birmingham said she wanted to adopt him because she was afraid if he went back to Mongolia he would just disappear despite all that he had to offer. Birmingham and her family adopted Gankhuyag after he completed his mission and returned home to Mongolia.
Gankhuyag came to BYU after his adoption, where he met his future wife and graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 2014.
He said it was a blessing to find his wife, Khasbaatar “Kai” Mashlai, because she was also a native Mongolian. She was attending BYU-Hawaii when they were first introduced by Gankhuyag’s roommate and they had a long-distance courtship for a year before she moved to Utah.
Mashlai said meeting each other wasn’t a coincidence. Although her husband had a difficult childhood, she believes it helped make him who he is today.
“Whatever path you had, it makes you who you are,” Mashlai said. “Achka is a really good guy. He has a really good heart. Whenever there is a chance to, he always tries to help other people.”
The couple now plays a big part in helping those in poverty in Mongolia with 1Mongol Charity, sending clothes and supplies to children and families in need.
“BYU was one of the best things that happened in my life and helped me to find my capacities and abilities when I thought I never had them in me,” Gankhuyag said. “The biggest thing I learned at BYU was we could do anything as long as we believe in ourselves and God.”