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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

‘Lucky’ Calgarian leads effort to resettle 1,000 exiled Tibetans in Canada

October 10, 2011

Nima Dorjee, a Tibetan and human rights activist who lives in Calgary, is leading an effort to bring to Canada 1,000 displaced Tibetans now living in exile in northern India.

Nima Dorjee, a Tibetan and human rights activist who lives in Calgary, is leading an effort to bring to Canada 1,000 displaced Tibetans now living in exile in northern India.

Photograph by: Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald

CALGARY — Few would blame Nima Dorjee for wanting to forget the past.

After spending the first 15 years of his life in a refugee settlement in northern India, the son of Tibetan exiles came to Canada in 1981 for a fresh start — and then some.

He received his engineering degree at the University of Calgary while also serving as its Students’ Union president; after graduation he went on to lead the institution’s Schulich School of Engineering’s award-winning engineering internship program.

Still, the past is very much on his mind as he shows me Google Earth images on his computer of his ancestral home, deep in the mountains of Tibet.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” says the now 46-year-old father of two. “I was given the opportunity to reach my potential.”

Although he confesses to being “more Canadian now than Tibetan,” he has never forgotten the place and its people, a population that has been under Chinese rule after it was invaded more than a half century ago.

Since his early 20s, he’s been an activist for the rights of Tibetans both in the country and in exile, a life that has afforded him both the privilege of forging a close relationship with the Dalai Lama, along with a 1997 YMCA Peace Medal and a 2007 Calgary Freedom of Expression award.

It’s also brought him the burden of being an enemy of the Chinese government.

“I was very familiar with all that stuff,” he says of recent news stories of Chinese officials spying on individuals, organizations and governments, “a long time ago.”

The downside has done little to quell his passion for helping other Tibetans over the decades, as he helped to co-found the World Tibet Network News, along with serving as the president of the Canada-Tibet Committee and co-chair of the International Support Tibet Network.

These days, Dorjee’s passion for Tibet is burning even brighter as he talks about his most ambitious project to date.

As the chair of the Project Tibet Society (, he is overseeing the move of 1,000 displaced Tibetans, now in a settlement camp in a remote part of northern India, to Canada.

The seeds of the initiative were sowed in 2007, while the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, was on a Canadian visit and appealed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to allow for the resettlement of 1,000 Tibetan exiles living in an area virtually cut off from the outside world. They are people without any official status and their movements restricted to a small region deep in the forest.

Last December the federal government announced a temporary policy under a section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that would allow for 1,000 Tibetan exiles in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state to be given permanent residency status in Canada.

When Dorjee — who left his post at the Schulich School of Engineering three years ago to devote more time to the Tibetan cause — heard about the program, he knew he had to get involved.

“Like many others I am concerned that once his Holiness is no longer here, the world will forget about the plight of the Tibetan people,” says Dorjee, who for the past couple of years has divided his time between Calgary and the Dalai Lama’s private office in Dharamsala, India.

“So I decided I wanted to do something to help those in exile not lucky to be in a place like Canada.”

Dorjee has spent the past several months liaising with officials and volunteers in both Canada and India.

The selection process — “it is tough to choose only 1,000 among the 7,000 there, but we are grateful to get that 1,000” — is still underway, and he hopes that by spring the first of those selected will begin arriving in various parts of Canada.

Despite the fact that the lion’s share of Canada’s approximately 8,000 Tibetan exiles have settled in Toronto and its environs, Dorjee says he hopes to have at least a third of those under this policy come to Calgary.

“We want to see them become self-sufficient as soon as possible,” he says, “and Calgary’s economy is the most conducive to that goal.”

Over the next few months Dorjee and his contacts across the country will campaign for help in the form of fundraisers and a call for donations.

“We need financial help, people willing to accommodate the newcomers temporarily and job-search assistance,” he says.

With only around 350 Tibetan exiles now in Calgary, he notes that “we’re only going to be successful if we are supported by the community.”

The always upbeat Dorjee is confident that help will come.

“My success was in great part to this community,” says the man who has every reason to distance himself from his past, but instead revisits it often. “I am excited to see other Tibetans come here and be able to realize their potential.”

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