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Tibetan refugees come to Canada with dreams of dentistry

May 9, 2016

By Debra Black

Toronto Star, May 4, 2016 - Brothers Khamsum Wangdu and Kunsang Namgyal came to Canada from Nepal with big dreams — to continue their studies in dentistry and become certified to practise here.

With Canadian accreditation, the Tibetan refugees hope to pay it forward, helping Tibetans both here and in Nepal with their dental needs.

They also feel it’s important to be an example for others in their community to encourage higher education. “We are the first members of our family to go to school,” Wangdu said.

“If we achieve something it will inspire other Tibetans. It will give them an opportunity to see things outside the box,” he said. “My parents used to say no matter how much hardship you face through the process you should always get an education because this is the most important thing. So we work hard.”

But the road to that dream has been long and arduous. Wangdu, 26, and Namgyal, 24, must compete with hundreds of other foreign-trained dentists in Ontario for a coveted spot at either the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry or Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. At U of T, there are only about 25 spots. At Western, another 20. “I know it’s very difficult to get into the school and even get the license,” said Wangdu. “But we are always optimistic that if you work hard there’s always a way.” His brother nods in agreement.

For the past 10 months the pair have been taking English classes and studying for the entrance exam for dental school which they will take in August. They exude determination and confidence.

Over a traditional Tibetan dish of momos at a restaurant in Little Tibet in Parkdale, the two young men describe their journey to Canada and the earthquake that devastated Nepal last spring. Both were in Kathmandu when the quake struck. Wangdu was home doing laundry. Namgyal was at a nearby hospital volunteering. When the hospital building began to shake Namgyal looked up to see the ceiling fan swaying and he quickly placed a bucket on his head. Describing it now, he laughs. For days after the earthquake the two men volunteered at the hospital, helping move the injured and the dead.

It was in the aftermath of the quake that they got the call from the Canadian Embassy in New Delhi, India that they were cleared to go to Canada and had to pick up their visas. At the border between Nepal and India, they said they were stopped because they didn’t have anything other than birth certificates. As stateless Tibetans, they had no passport to travel between countries. A border guard asked them for money, they said. They refused, turned back and with the help of a young girl who was herding goats nearby managed to cross the border into India and continue on their way to pick up their visas.

Polite and soft-spoken, the two brothers finish each other sentences. They are equally passionate about becoming dentists. Their motivation: their grandfather died in Nepal from an infection after having a tooth extracted by an unqualified dentist. The likely cause of the infection was non-sterile equipment, they said.

The two young men came to Canada last June along with their mother, two sisters and a brother, joining their father Kelsang Richoe, who came to Toronto five years ago. Richoe had fled Tibet with his own parents after 1959 when China annexed the Himalayan country. They settled in a border town in Nepal, hoping one day to return to Tibet. But that day never came. And after years of living and working in a Tibetan refugee village, Richoe sought asylum in Canada.

Wangdu and Namgyal, who were born in Nepal and grew up in a small village about 225 kilometres from Kathmandu, went to primary and high school nearby. After high school, they moved to Kathmandu to study dentistry. They said they had no idea they would face problems upon graduation.

After five years of study, they said they were surprised to find out that because they had no status in Nepal — even though they were born there — the government wouldn’t let them take their licensing exam to qualify to practise their profession. “It was quite difficult to accept,” said Wangdu. “We had equally worked hard as the local students. It’s a long journey … and we’re told it’s not possible, it’s very sad … it’s very disheartening.”

This wasn’t the only discrimination they experienced in Nepal because of their heritage and their stateless status, said Wangdu. “We always felt some discrimination there,” he said. His brother nodded his head in agreement. “Not just us, but all Tibetans,” he continued.

They don’t feel the same here. “Ever since we came here, even right at the airport, we felt it was different,” said Wangdu.

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