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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?"

Dissident Tibetan Monk Finds New Life in Charlottesville

July 17, 2008

    Refugees from around the world have come to Charlottesville,
escaping oppression and persecution in their homelands. Many have found
a home working for the University of Virginia and making valuable
contributions to the U.Va. community. This is the first in an occasional
series looking at the lives of some of these refugees.

UVa Today
July 15, 2008 — "Charlottesville is like dreamland," said Rabten
Shatsang, a Tibetan refugee who now works as a housekeeper in Clark Hall
at the University of Virginia but cannot forget that his homeland is
occupied by China.

     In his 40 years, Shatsang has been a nomad, who became a monk, who
became a fugitive, who became a refugee.

     Shatsang grew up in a nomadic herding family, not receiving his
first schooling until he entered a Buddhist monastery at age 16. He
learned how to pray and meditate, and also how to read and write.

     He then read the history of his country. "I realized that the
Chinese took over Tibet and then everything was different," he said.
"After 1959, they killed 1.5 million Tibetans, and there is no freedom."

     His newfound knowledge haunted him, in part because so few of his
countrymen seemed aware of it. He felt the need to educate them.

     "So many of the younger ones did not know Tibet's history, and the
older ones who know it are aware that if they talked they would be
killed or imprisoned," he said. "We were losing our culture and our
religion."

     Shatsang's own family had already run afoul of the authorities,
with his father imprisoned and tortured for 14 years and an uncle slain
by the Chinese army. Other family members are currently in jail.

     Shatsang first took action in 1993, writing a paper about Tibetan
history and posting it around a teaching monastery where about 45,000
students were gathered. He knew he would be in trouble with the Chinese
if they caught him.

     He was betrayed to the police for money by someone who was familiar
with his activities. The police came to his monastery looking for him.

     But Shatsang was already away, visiting family in a nomadic region
of Tibet. Informed that he was a wanted man, he fled by horseback and
escaped because a pursuing police car broke down on the rough roads. He
hid for a week and then returned to the nomadic region.

     While he roamed, the Chinese police continued to visit his parents
and his monastery looking for him. In 1994, Shatsang traveled to Lhasa,
the Tibetan capital, and secured from friends the guide he needed to
cross the border into Nepal.

     Shatsang walked for 20 days, hiding by day and traveling at night,
to get to Khatmandu, where he stayed a month at a United Nations refugee
center. From there, he went to Dharamsala, India, home to the Tibetan
government in exile, and studied in a monastery for two years.

     Shatsang wanted to come to the United States, but found it was
difficult to get the required papers from the Indian government.
Finally, some American and Canadian friends helped him secure a visa.

     "These guys made me feel human," Shatsang said of his benefactors.
"I didn't feel like a human being in Tibet."

     In 2000, he flew from New Delhi to New York City, where he
eventually gained refugee status and found work as a laborer. He learned
English by listening to others.

     The former nomad had a difficult adjustment to New York City. "It
was a different world," Shatsang said of the overwhelming concrete
structures and the caverns of people. "It was like a dream."

     At times, he longs for his old life, herding sheep horses and yaks.
"I miss riding a horse all the time," he said. "It was quiet in the
mountains, fresh air, clean water, a fire to cook food. I was used to
that. It was very nice.'

     He moved to Charlottesville in 2005. He had Tibetan friends here;
he had married a Tibetan woman and saw Charlottesville was a better
environment in which to raise children. "I was a monk, and monks like
quiet places," he said.

     But while his life here is peaceful, Tibet remains in his thoughts.

     "The situation in Tibet is bad," he said. "I feel bad, because I am
in a free country, but the Chinese are too strong, they won't listen."

     He said many people ignore Tibet because of business interests with
China. He tries to avoid purchasing Chinese-made products.

     Shatsang said he enjoys working in housekeeping at the University.
"In the monastery we learned it was healthy to clean up after people,"
he said. "This is a nice place to work, because it's very relaxed,
especially in the summer."

     "He was a very good worker who went above and beyond," said Doris
Vest, Shatsang's former supervisor at Medical Research Building 4, where
Shatsang worked before recently transferring to Clark Hall. "He got on
well with people and I think he made a few friends."

     "We have come into a free country here," Shatsang said. "Whatever
we want to do, we can do here. We are not rich, but life is good."

     He would like to return to Tibet, but said he would be arrested at
the airport. His father is 89, his mother is 78, and they are too old to
leave.

     Part of a small local Tibetan community, Shatsang is afraid his
culture is being lost, at home and abroad. He talks to his children in
Tibetan, but knows they will speak English in school and they are
immersed in American culture.

     After nearly eight years here, Shatsang still has some adjustments.

     "Sometimes my heart stops when I see a policeman," he said. "I have
to remember that over here, the police are on my side. That is a really
big change."

     -- By Matt Kelly
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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