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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Paying it forward: a Christmas story

December 27, 2007

The Globe and Mail
December 22, 2007

It is the perfect Christmas story for the New Canada.

It includes several languages, different faiths and takes place in
Tibet, northern India, Germany and plays out in Calgary, in a small
coffee shop appropriately called the Good Earth Caf?

It is the story of Nima and Tenchoe Dorjee, father and daughter, and of
an elderly woman in a very small town in Germany who believed in nothing
more than sharing what little she herself had.

It is the gift of a future.

Forty-two years ago, Nima Dorjee was born in a refugee camp in northern
India, his parents having fled with thousands of other Tibetans
following the Chinese invasion and the launch of the Cultural Revolution.

He was one of the lucky ones. Most children didn't have two parents,
many had none, and a great many died young without knowing anything of
the world beyond.

His parents, Ngodup and Dechen, worked looking after a household of 25
children, mostly orphans, for the Tibetan Homes Foundation in Mussoorie,

Ngodup, unfortunately, died himself of one of the "refugee illnesses"
when he was barely into his 30s, leaving behind a 22-year-old widow with
two young boys, Nima and younger brother Lobsang, to raise on her own.

"It was a handful," says Nima. "It was not easy for her."

Fortunately, there was some help to be found. Lore Zeilman, a woman
living in Widdern, in southwestern Germany, made arrangements through
SOS Kinderdorf to sponsor a refugee child.

She sent her first monthly cheque 34 years ago, when Nima was eight
years of age.

Though he spoke Tibetan and Hindi, he wrote in the English he was being
taught in the school and someone then translated his letters into German
for Zeilman.

The cheques eventually came to an end. When Nima was 15, his mother
remarried, this time to another Tibetan, Gedun Dorjee, who had already
settled in Calgary. He brought Dechen and her two boys to begin a new
life in Canada.

The cheques stopped but the letters did not. They remained in touch, the
boy from Tibet and the old woman from Germany, sending regular letters
and photographs back and forth over the years.

When Nima was in Grade 11, a teenager, he made a journey to see the
woman who had helped out and was surprised by what he found when he
reached the small town of Widdern.

"You have this sense," he says, "that there is some rich family out
there and that they have lots of money so they're able to help out."

But it was nothing like that at all. The woman he knew as "/Tante/"
("Aunt") was a widow living in a small gatehouse-type building set off
from a larger residence.

"She didn't even have a proper bath," he remembers. In order to feed her
dog, she would walk and feed other dogs in the neighbourhood, her own
eating for free when the others fed.

"This was a real eye-opener for me," Nima recalls.

He also found he was a curiosity in the isolated little German
community. Different skin. Different language. Different perceptions.

"I think there had been this view that she was crazy to send money away
without knowing where it was ending up," he says. "I think some of them
were surprised to discover these sponsorship things do work, that there
are real people out there."

He was, of course, very real to Tante Lore Zeilman. She had devoted a
wall in her home to his photographs - "right from when I was a
dorky-looking eight-year-old."

She had followed his successes - president of the students' union at
University of Calgary, graduation as a professional engineer - and
embraced his children as if they were her grandchildren.

"I have a full set of German family now," he laughs.

Over the years, Nima returned again and again to visit Tante Lore - now
well into her 80s - and her small village. He became so close to many of
them that, next year, the mayor of Widdern is travelling to Calgary to
stay with the Dorjee family.

The mayor, Michael Reinert, is Tante Lore's nephew. He writes to say
that the painting Nima gave her last Christmas, of a Tibetan woman and
her child, now hangs in the village bakery and, "There is no person in
Widdern who hasn't seen the picture - whether they want to or not."

A short while back, Nima's 15-year-old daughter, Tenchoe, landed her
first job, working in a small city coffee shop. She is an ambitious
young woman, so keen to know her larger world that she has been to peace
conferences in the United States and visited Ottawa with the Forum for
Young Canadians - but she is also a 15-year-old girl.

Her father happened to ask her one day what she would do with her first
paycheque from the new job.

"To be perfectly honest," she says, "I was thinking about what I could buy."

She thought of clothes for herself. She thought of Christmas gifts - the
Dorjees are Buddhist but celebrate the Christian tradition of giving.

And then she thought about Tante Lore Zeilman.

"Without her," she says, "we wouldn't be here."

Her first cheque went to SOS Children's Villages of Canada. "I guess
it's just giving back," says Tenchoe before heading out to spend her
most recent paycheque on a New Year's present for a seven-year-old
Tibetan boy from India, who has lost his father.

But who now has family to spare. <>
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