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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."

Resettlement team welcomes its last stateless Tibetan to Ottawa

November 6, 2017

By Erin McCracken

Ottawa Community News, November 3, 2017 - Excited cheers went up, and banners were hastily unfurled as Kunsang Lhundup took his first steps toward a new life in Ottawa.

One by one, his well wishers approached to drape long, silky white traditional scarves, or khatas, around his neck in greeting.

Lhundup’s arrival at the Ottawa International Airport the evening of Nov. 2 marked a major milestone in the Tibetan Resettlement Project in Ottawa, a volunteer organization that formed in 2012 to sponsor 97 of 1,000 Tibetans permitted by the federal government to come to Canada.

“It feels surreal,” said Old Ottawa South resident and project chair Cornelius von Baeyer. “After five years, this is the 20th ceremony at the base of these stairs.”

Lhundup is the last to arrive under the Ottawa project. The 41-year-old’s reaction after finally arriving in his new homeland was a blend of exhaustion and deep emotion after travelling for more than 14 hours.

“He’s left people behind, his mom, but it’s also new surroundings,” said Samphe Lhalungpa, a Tibetan who now resides in Overbrook and who has been volunteering with the resettlement team.

Lhundup’s dreams for a fresh start are simple despite the enormous change he faces.

While living within a large Tibetan community in a remote part of northeast India near the Myanmar border, he worked for India’s Special Frontier Force, a paramilitary group deployed along the Himalayan border.

“At the moment, he says anything he’ll do,” Lhalungpa said, translating for Lhundup. “And that’s how it works. The people will come and do anything, and they learn. When you come in, you come with very little employment history.”

Those who have already settled into life here have taken language courses to develop their English. They’ve also been paired with mentors to help them secure work, in addition to receiving other assistance from their sponsors.

DALAI LAMA’S REQUEST

The resettlement initiative was spurred by the federal government at the request of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, during his 2007 visit here. Tibet’s government-in-exile, based in India, selected those who would come to Canada based on a lottery system and other requirements.

While there are thousands of Tibetans in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver who were ready to welcome the newcomers, just one- to two-dozen lived in Ottawa which was the reason why the project was launched.

“They couldn’t just go to an existing Tibetan community (here) and say, ‘Absorb 100 people,’” von Baeyer said. “We had to create a new community sponsor, a particular type of organization for immigration.”

The project team has generated $150,000 since 2012 and drawn support from hundreds of people who contributed in-kind donations, such as house furnishings and other supplies.

The Tibetan community has since flourished around Donald Street and St. Laurent Boulevard in the Castle Heights and Cyrville communities, not far from where Pema Choedon now lives.

She was in Lhundup’s shoes almost four years ago when she arrived at the Ottawa airport from India.

“I was really nervous because it was my first time,” she recalled.

But she isn’t worried for Lhundup’s future.

“We have lots of people here so we can help him find a job or make a resume,” said Choedon.

“It’s like a family,” she said, adding that she and Lhundup were neighbours in India, as are many of those already here in Ottawa. Resettling Tibetans in the same Canadian cities who knew each other in India is one of the unique aspects of the program. “I call him my brother.”

Today, Choedon spends her mornings learning English before heading to her esthetician job at an east-end salon. She has her eye on studying to one day become a registered massage therapist, and dreams of sponsoring her fiancé to come to Canada.

It is the generosity of the Ottawa volunteers who are making a real difference, said Jurme Wangda, one of Ottawa’s original Tibetans, having arrived here with his Canadian wife in 1991. He too has been volunteering on the sponsorship committee.

“The Canadian friends have been really wonderful,” the Hunt Club Park resident said.

 Hamilton-area Conservative MP David Sweet joined the welcoming committee in his role as vice-chair of the Canadian Parliamentary Friends of Tibet.

“We created the vehicle for them to come,” said Sweet, who also sat on a governmental sub-committee for international human rights that has been championing the rights of Tibetans.

“It’s rewarding to see the community happy (that) it’s happened,” he said of the sponsorship program, led nationally by the Project Tibet Society. “This is just a small part of it. We still have beautiful dreams one day that Tibet will have an autonomous relationship with China.”

The goal is for the Chinese government to recognize the cultural identity of Tibetans and their right to self governance, Sweet said.

Language freedoms are a critical ingredient, said Lhalungpa, since the Chinese government continues to place restrictions on those and other rights, as well as repress the population.

“Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) is the city with the largest amount of CCTV cameras and they programmed the algorithm to such that if more than four Tibetans gather near certain points, it triggers an alarm, and the police are down,” said Lhalungpa, who was last there nine years ago and saw police dressed in riot gear patrol a spiritual gathering.

 

“The last 20 years, their language, their religion especially, have been pirated,” said Sweet, adding that many Han Chinese have been relocated to Tibet to disperse the population and their cultural identity.

STATELESS

Tibetans who fled to nearby India, beginning in the 1950s, are considered stateless, meaning they cannot hold a passport, must report to police once a year, and are not to hold a government job or vote in elections.

“It is being a second-class citizen,” said von Baeyer.

The joy on the faces of those welcoming a new member of their adopted family is evidence of the importance of new beginnings.

“There’s a whole lot to happen yet,” said Valerie Swinton, a west Ottawa resident who has been involved in the resettlement project since its creation.

It hasn’t quite sunk in that the last of the arrival ceremonies is now complete, said von Baeyer.

“That’s obviously very rewarding,” he said of the committee’s contribution in improving lives. “It’s difficult to conceive of a project that affects people’s lives like this has.”

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