Watch CBS News

The circus saved this woman's life. Now she's repaying the favor

Joining the circus saves a St. Paul woman from abuse
Joining the circus saves a St. Paul woman from abuse 07:03

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The expression of "running away with the circus" is known to many, but for one St. Paul woman, it was a literal lifeline to escape a life of domestic abuse. She's now on a mission to help others in her home country of Mongolia do the same, but she needs your help to do so.

Chimgee Haltarhuu is a circus performer and coach at Circus Juventas and she is extending an invitation to the public to share in some food for thought.

 She keeps a taste of her childhood home close with the help of her yurt in her backyard.

"I grew up in a house like this," she said.

On nice days, she trades in her traditional American kitchen for her wood-burning stovetop inside her yurt.

"I love cooking," she said. "Seven, eight, I'm already helping my mom."

For her, cooking is a reminder of the good times but also the hard times.

"I could say, 'Yes, happy,' but also, 'OK childhood,'" she said.

Growing up in Mongolia, Halterhuu fell in love with gymnastics.

"I loved it and I liked to do all of the tumbling," she said.

She said that love fueled a passion to perform.

"I said, 'Yes, I want to go, I want to be a circus performer,'" she said.

She beat out hundreds of applicants to be accepted into the Mongolian State Circus College and graduated at the top of her class. Soon she was travelling internationally living out her dream. However, behind the smile and colorful costumes was a dark family secret.

EXTENDED: How the circus saved Chimgee Haltarhuu from domestic abuse 14:27

"I grew up watching domestic abuse," she said. "I was in the situation."

She said the cycle continued into her first marriage.

"Seven years," she said. "So I had some damage, [he] broke my jaw, some big issues."

READ MORE: Domestic violence survivors often left unprotected from forced debt racked up by abusers  

She said like many, because of the shame and stigma attached to domestic abuse, especially in Asian cultures, she didn't talk about her situation for a long time. Then in 1991 -- a way out. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus hand-picked her act to join them under their big top in America, giving her a chance to run away with the circus.

"The circus saved my life and completely changed my life," she said.

She left her husband behind, took their young son, and never looked back. Together they toured with the famed Greatest Show on Earth. She eventually found her way to Minnesota, remarried and began teaching with Circus Juventas.

"I love my job," she said.

But she said something was always missing.

"Even [if] I came here to the United States and I have a great life, great husband, great job, I can't forget," she said. "I just have to do something you know."

She started her own nonprofit, Mission Manduhai, named after the great Mongolian female warrior.

"Amazing woman," she said. "I want to be like her."

The mission was to travel to some of Mongolia's most rural and underdeveloped communities to provide free circus shows featuring both American and Mongolian performers and raise awareness of domestic abuse.

"Before the show, just a quick short and sweet," she said. "I start it so, 'This is the show we're raising awareness of domestic abuse.'"

The performers then help reinforce that message during the show.

"We hold the posters [that say] abuse is not right so that all kinds of people can read," she said. "After [the] final bow we give information and hotline number."

Each trip packs dozens of free performances within several weeks, and after every stop, the phones light up at the Mongolian National Center Against Violence.

"When we're there, [it's like] power like, 'Hey, you know what people there to help so I want to talk,'" she said.

She's made 10 trips in the last 13 years, saving hundreds if not thousands of lives, but financing each trip gets harder and harder. Fundraisers with performances from Circus Juventas and Mission Mandukhai have helped, but now she's launching a new fundraiser ahead of her next trip in August.

She's inviting members of the public to come to her yurt for a lesson in dumpling making and a conversation that spans across cultures. The first event will be on May 15 and there are several opportunities to take part within the next couple of months. 

"Hopefully lots of people are interested to come and support," she smiled.

The hope is to spread some food for thought and make an impact around the world.

"[For the] rest of my life, I'm going to talk and I'm going to help," she said. "I don't want them to go through my life and I just want to do something."

Mission Manduhai will also hold a special circus performance on June 17 to help raise money for the trip. 

Women's Advocates

Crisis Line: (651) 227-8284

St. Paul & Ramsey County Domestic Abuse Intervention Project

Crisis Line: (651) 645-2824

Minnesota Day One

Crisis Line: 1-866-223-1111

Esperanza United

Bilingual crisis line: (651) 772-1611.

For anonymous, confidential help, people can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.