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Long trek to freedom

December 6, 2011

“WE walked for one month and fourteen days in the deep of winter across the Himalayas. We could manage the cold but many people were not prepared for snow blindness and frostbite,” Dolma (name changed to protect her identity), a young officer with the Tibetan government based in Dharamsala, said. Dressed elegantly in the native Tibetan dress, the chupa, it was hard to imagine this gentle woman making the trek across one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. But Dolma not only survived the harsh conditions. She did it when she was only 12.

For her, the decision to leave was less an emotional than a financial one, given the limited opportunities she faced in Tibet. Both she and her sister saved up for months before they were able to afford the fees required by their “guide”. “We could walk, so it cost less. Children who had to be carried cost more,” she said, adding that she paid traffickers about RMB700 (RM349) at prices some 15 years ago. “We had to go in the winter because that was when there were fewer border guards. As girls, we were able to shield our eyes with our long hair but it was much harder for the boys. Some of them have permanently damaged eyesight.

“I remember we were cold and hungry because we did not bring enough food and we couldn’t ask others for help because they too had barely enough for themselves. Once we reached Nepal, we sold our shoes and clothes for food,” she recalled.

Like thousands of other children who made the perilous trek across the roof of the world, Dolma entered Nepal and with refugee status secured from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there, found her way to Dharamsala where she enrolled in the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), a home and educational community founded by the Dalai Lama 49 years ago to cater to the needs of children in exile.

Met at the TCV’s main centre in Dharamsala, general-secretary Lhundup Dorjee said the school started soon after the Dalai Lama’s exit from Tibet with an exodus of about 85,000 Tibetans. “Conditions were very bad then and 51 children ended up in Dharamsala. They were entrusted to the care of His Holiness’ elder sister. She died in 1964, so his younger sister took over,” he explained.

Since the TCV’s establishment, 33,000 children have passed through its care. Today, the school has several branches across India catering to more than 16,000 Tibetan children. According to Dorjee, children who enrol in the TCV community form two separate categories – those whose parents cannot afford to care for them because of financial constraints; and children who have come directly out of Tibet.

“On an average, between 700 and 800 children arrive every year. However, the number has fallen to about 300 to 400 a year in recent years because of tighter border security,” he said.

The priority at the school is to provide the children not only with an education and awareness of their Tibetan identity but also a home and family environment, TCV education director Sonam Sangmo said. Indeed, during our visit, the school chirped with the sounds of children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, at play. At the nursery, children were enjoying their tea break of milk and bread in the yard outside their bright and cheerful rooms. Older children are assigned to home units headed by married couples who for all intents and purposes become their foster parents.

“Most children here are happy, although there are some who need counselling. Sometimes, we receive older children who have never gone to school,” Sangmo added.

After graduating from the TCV, most students leave the village to continue in vocational schools or universities. The community is raising funds to build a new campus for the Dalai Lama Institute of Higher Education. Testament to the system’s effectiveness, students graduating from the TCV have included Tibetan government officials such as Dolma and the new Tibetan Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay.

The concern now for the Tibetan government is less children in the care of the TCV than those in Tibet. “Tibetans believe that values form a cul­tural cushion and as Asians, we must treasure these values even if we gain a Western education,” Sangmo said. As security is tightened at the border areas, fees charged by traffickers have gone as high as RMB20,000 (RM9,876) per head, reducing the number of children who can be sent over to India.

According to Dolma, some Tibetans who escaped were forced to return through pressures on family members. Officials in Dharamsala surmised that it could be because China is keen to limit damage to its external image by a vocal Tibetan community outside of its control.

This may yet brew future complications for the community. “Many (young Tibetans) suffer from cultural and identity confusion. They all have national aspirations,” Dorjee said. Unless there is a way to address these areas, the health of the community will be further put at stake.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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