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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?"

Interview: From Tibet to India: a refugee's story

November 22, 2009

The year 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of a
failed uprising against Chinese forces in Tibet,
which led to the exile of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th
Dalai Lama, to India. He was followed at the time
by 80,000 Tibetan refugees, seeking a better
life. Among them was the family of Karma, who
describes her life’s journey and struggle for
survival in a land that is far removed from ‘home’
Jill Fordham
Guardian (UK)
November 20, 2009

My parents escaped from Tibet in 1959 and I was
born in India in 1962. During the journey, many
people became sick and many also died from the
heat, including my elder sister. When my parents
reached Nepal, they stayed there for two years
and then moved on to Shimla. In India they had a
language problem, which made it difficult for
them to work, and so they struggled to provide
food for the family. My mother found work in the
street, making roads, along with many other
Tibetans who were also working on the roads.

When I was seven years of age, we moved from
Shimla to Dharamsala, and we lived in a small
tent near the bus station. My mother and father
had no work there, so my father used to go into
the jungle to cut down trees. Then one day, the
Dalai Lama’s sister Jetsun Pema, was passing by,
and in seeing our condition she picked us up from
the road and took me and my younger brother to be educated in a school.

The school was like a Tibetan children’s village
for orphans or semi-orphans, meaning for those
who have parents who cannot support them, as they
don’t know how to live in India. At that time,
there were around 3,000 children in the village,
but now there are a lot more, and although I
don’t know how many, there are a lot more than
people know about. This school was the best thing
in my life because my mother was unable to make
the money needed to support us. Then when I was
twelve years old I became very sick and spent a
lot of time in hospital. On one occasion I nearly
died – I had malaria three times and then I had
tuberculosis. It meant that I could not finish my
studies, but the school looked after me, and then
when I was better, the principal decided to select some of us to go on courses.

I was to be sent to Delhi for a nursing course,
but my mother said that I was too sick and too
weak to go there, and so instead she selected for
me to do handicrafts.  For three years I did
tailoring in the handicraft centre, making school
uniforms and many other things, and then after that they sent me to Ladakh.

It was there that I met my boyfriend who was in
the Tibetan army, and then I became pregnant. I
spent one and a half years there, during which
time my first child was born. Although we had a
house and food, it was still difficult for me. It
was just too cold, and so we talked together and
decided that I should leave Ladakh for a warmer
place. So from there I went to Rajput, to a
Tibetan women’s centre, where I trained again in
tailoring, and worked there for three more years.

But my husband was not good with me - he was
always drinking and he started beating me. Then I
was pregnant again, and my sister was so worried
about me that she decided to help me start a
business. Although she could not support me
financially, she gave me some things to sell and
through that, I started the business .Then when
my younger son was five years old, my husband
died from alcoholism and I was left to struggle with two young children.

During the next ten years I moved to Ladakh, Goa,
and Kerala -- I was the first Tibetan to go
there. Then I started a business in Varkala,
Kerala, where I stayed for three years. But the
local people in Varkala were very bad – they were
always surrounding me and watching how much money
I was making. Then they started making problems
for me, by demanding money from me and telling me
that this was their place and I should not be there.

I moved to Kovalam, where at first there was not
much of a problem, so I moved my mother there.
Again, I have so many worries here with the
neighbours. The restaurant people beat my sons
for no reason and again I am living in fear.
There is no peace in my mind and I cannot
concentrate on my business because I keep
thinking about other things all the time. There
are a lot of disturbances in my mind, so I am
thinking of moving again, for the last time. I am
thinking it might be the same everywhere, but at
least you get peace for one year.  Maybe I will
move north to Maharashtra – I have heard that it
is a place where the tourists come.

I will move with only my sons this time.  Now
they are aged 20 and 24 years, and I want to do
something to help my elder son who is very
talented. He does Thanka painting which is very
demanding and I want to send him to Missouri to
do his studies. Otherwise he will have to do
business and business is not good. I am an
independent woman and I can work hard. Even if I
have a problem I don’t ask people – I have my pride.

We were born in India, but we have no Indian
citizenship. We cannot buy any land or property
here. We are not allowed an Indian passport and
so if we want to go abroad, we have to apply to
the Tibetan Government for an identity
certificate, which can take a very long time
(although some smart Tibetan people do have an
Indian passport, but I don’t know how).

Talking makes me feel good. You can’t always cry
alone, sometimes you need somebody to share the feelings.

* Karma was interviewed by Jill Fordham
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