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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibetan exiles see a chance to force change

April 8, 2008

"This is the right time . . . to press China for meaningful dialogue," one emigrant said.

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post
Sun, Apr. 6, 2008

WASHINGTON - At sunrise, one day late last month, Namkha Tenzin placed
two cups of tea and seven bowls of water at an intricately carved shrine
to the Buddha in his Falls Church, Va., living room. He prayed from a
silk-wrapped book, then hopped into his car with the "Friends of Tibet"
license plate he had helped persuade the Virginia legislature to
approve, and rushed off to plan a protest.

Tenzin and his fellow Tibetan exiles in the Washington area are a pocket
of impassioned anachronists. Isolated from their mystical Himalayan
homeland and living in suburban obscurity, they cling tenaciously to a
cause that has become a casualty of China's emerging status as a world
power and major U.S. trading partner.

Now, world attention is focused on Tibet after weeks of widening
protests and repression by Chinese authorities, all of which has come as
China prepares to host the Summer Olympics.

Suddenly, these exiles see a rare chance to bring attention to their
cause, perhaps making up for the hardships they and their families have
suffered to keep the fading dream of Tibet alive.

"The moment has come for us. This is the right time for Tibetans, and
for freedom lovers all over the world, to press China for meaningful
dialogue and to press their own governments to take a stand," said
Tenzin, 49.

He is a former lawyer and legislator in the Tibetan exile government in
Dharmsala, India, who emigrated to the Washington area in 2000 and is
president of the Capital Area Tibetan Association.

All immigrants live in two worlds, and many make wrenching choices
between them, but Tibetans have endured unusually tortuous lives of
multiple uprootings and long family separations.

Their homeland, a 2,000-mile swath of majestic mountains and ancient
Buddhist traditions, was occupied by China in the 1950s.

Many Tibetan exiles barely remember the land they fled as infants,
crossing the Himalayans to India on their parents' backs.

Most grew up in the cocoon of Tibetan exile society in Dharmsala, then
unexpectedly landed in the United States in the early 1990s when the
administration of President George H.W. Bush offered a one-time lottery
immigration program for 1,000 Tibetan refugees after the Tiananmen
Square massacre in Beijing.

The winners came alone, as young adults, and were temporarily settled
with U.S. host families in far-flung locations such as Salt Lake City
and Minneapolis. It has taken years for them to form communities and
sponsor even their closest relatives for settlement in the United States
on family reunification visas.

Today, their numbers are still tiny compared to the established
populations of Vietnamese, Koreans and other Asian Americans. Only
12,000 Tibetans live in the United States. Most speak limited English
and work in low-paying jobs such as child care, although some are
employed by Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded agency that broadcasts to
Tibet and other Asian countries.

"We came here to be ambassadors for Tibet, not just to live a nice
life," said Sonam Lahmo, 41, who lives in Fairfax City, Va. Her parents
fled Tibet when she was a young girl; she remembers riding a donkey
through frozen mountains in Indian Kashmir and seeing the bodies of dead
sojourners being burned.

Lahmo and her friends have long been fixtures at protests outside the
Chinese Embassy on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington. Last
month, they stood there for several hours, holding up posters and
chanting, "No more killings in Tibet! No more torture in Tibet!" Drivers
honked and waved.

Tibetans say few Americans know much about their distant, isolated land,
but many know the Dalai Lama as a revered Buddhist figure and
anti-communist icon.

Many exiles have no personal memories of Tibet, yet they are fervent
guardians of a culture and religion they view as being under siege by
the Beijing regime. Some lost their Tibetan language skills during
decades in India, but they send their children to weekend language classes.

Many of the exiles yearn to visit Tibet, but they said it is difficult
for them to obtain Chinese visas. The few who have managed to visit said
they were dismayed to see that in just a few years their childhood land
of monasteries and tinkling bells had been transformed into a
utilitarian society dominated by ethnic Han Chinese, who are officially
encouraged to emigrate to Tibet.

Yan Chin Dolker, 43, a hospital housekeeper in Fairfax County, Va., grew
up in a bygone Tibetan era of grace and privilege, the daughter of a
respected lama, or Buddhist priest, from a high-born family.

Last year, she said, she went back for the first time in a decade and
was horrified.

"Tibet looks like China now," Dolker said. "The signs all have big
letters in Chinese and small letters in Tibetan. My friends told me to
keep away from them, and I could see they were afraid."
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