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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Nepal earthquake causes tremors for Tibetans in Toronto

May 25, 2015

By Joe Fiorito

Toronto Star, May 21, 2015 - We come to Canada from all over the world, which means that anywhere in the world is here. It also means that what happens to those who live there is also happening to us here.

And so it was that some 200 Tibetans — landed immigrants and Canadian citizens alike — came to a meeting room at the May Robinson Apartments the other evening, because they have family in the region of the earthquakes.

The Tibetans? They have transformed my west-end neighbourhood with lively shops and restaurants. They have filled our schools with kids.

They are us, and they need help.

They came to hear Peggy Nash, their Member of Parliament, Irena Nikolova, an official representing Citizenship and Immigration, and Toni Schweitzer, a lawyer with Parkdale Community Legal Services.

Before the meeting, I sat next to a woman named Chokey who said, “My husband is in Kathmandu. Our house was damaged. He’s living outside. Many people are outside in tents, eating there, sleeping there.”

I think anyone there who has a tent is lucky. My hunch is that her husband is living under a tarpaulin. How does she keep in touch? “We send texts.” Is she worried? “Of course.”

Here’s the kicker, and it has nothing to do with the earthquake: she has been waiting to be reunited with her husband for the past four years.

When the meeting started, Peggy Nash said there are major problems getting people out of Nepal, and a pressing issue is often with documents.

Toni Schweitzer said her office is collecting information about all the problems people are having, so that they can find the best ways to use the special measures adopted by our government.

And Irena Nikolova said she had brought information sheets and that the government of Canada had set priorities — to help those who have lost spouses or children, to help those whose property has been damaged and also to help those who applied to come to Canada prior to the earthquake.

There is a call centre set up to provide information, and the telephone number is 1-888-242-2100. There is also a website with email addresses:

Ms. Schweitzer said her legal clinic needed to gather specifics in order to assist those who need help. For example, where are people in the earthquake area living; do they have food and water; do they have washrooms; their schools are closed, so what are the children doing; and are families getting any aid at all?

And I have been to a lot of meetings where the people have brought their grievances or sorrows, and I know those crowds can be urgent and loud or aggressive. This crowd was polite, and it broke my heart.

An older woman said, by way of a translator, “Most of us are seniors. You are kind. Please continue to help us. Many of us are not able to write. Please take that into consideration.”

You know what she means about reading and writing if you have ever filled in a government document. But I’m guessing that you have never filled out a government document when the lives of those you love were at stake.

A man in a ball cap said, “Thank you, government, from the bottom of my heart, for offering assistance. I am from Nepal, from a village. In our area, we have suffered a lot. The schools are closed. Everyone is living outside under plastic sheets. Now it is summertime, very hot. There are a lot of health and sanitation problems. We have no medical facilities. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

That man is me.

His relatives are mine.

He said, “Food is a problem. We survive by selling trinkets to tourists. There are no tourists. Help us as soon as possible.”

A woman said, “I have an ongoing application. I have not seen my husband and daughter for three years. Nothing is happening. I am ill. Why is it stuck?”

One of the problems may be that the postal situation in Nepal is miserable. If mail gets lost or is undelivered, our government will pull that application. Another problem may be that documentation is often not as precise as it might be. Some people might only have one name, spelling might vary and so on. And, yes, another problem might be that Nepal is slow to help Tibetans because who wants to upset China?

None of which is a comfort to her.

After the meeting, Tsering Dolma said, “I have three children. My twins are 10 years old. They are in Kathmandu — no school, living outside, no washrooms. They can’t wash themselves.”

She has tried to get travel documents for them from Nepal, but there were mistakes. One of her twins is recorded as being from Nepal, the other is recorded as being from Tibet. She said, “We have tried to explain since 2009.”

Ms. Schweitzer said, “Her kids have passed their medicals, they have police clearances, the DNA testing has been done. Her kids could be landed on arrival.” Tsering Dolma had tears in her eyes.

Imagine if those kids were yours.

And Nyima Richoe said, “My greatest fear? Our travel documents are about to expire. If they do, it will be very difficult. I have two kids, a son aged 16 and a daughter aged 20, in Kathmandu — they are physically okay, but very scared. The phones don’t always work. Every time we talk, they cry. Water is a problem. Toilet is a major problem; my daughter gets scared.”

Okay, stop right there.

Imagine if your neighbourhood was destroyed, and your daughter was sleeping on the sidewalk, and so was everyone else, and she had to go into the lane to relieve herself.

Nyima said, “There are only three months left on the documents. New Delhi won’t issue the visas. All they say is, ‘It’s in process.’ It has been in process for two years.”

Put yourself in her place.

It is our place.

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