After Living Here for Decades, Tibetan Refugees Still Believe They'll Return Home

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After Living Here for Decades, Tibetan Refugees Still Believe They'll Return Home

China's grip on Tibet has only tightened, while international concern has waned. But for refugees in India, going home is only a matter of time.
July 28, 2016, 12:00am

Jampa Tenzin at the TRSHC in Darjeeling. All photography by Paul Gregoire

"Now the world's thinking it's too late for Tibetans, but our struggles will never be finished," says Jampa Tenzin with gentle defiance. The 68-year-old is sitting in one of the wooden craft workshops he's been working in since the late sixties at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre in the Indian city of Darjeeling. Today, he's the duty manager of the centre. And he speaks passionately about the dyeing techniques he pioneered, when he used to work in carpet production.

The Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre Orphanage

Over recent years, international attention has waned on the issue of Tibetan independence. Back in the late nineties, it was the cause célèbre. The Beastie Boys organised the Tibetan Freedom Concerts around the world, while a younger Richard Gere professed he was a Tibetan Buddhist. And the then-leader of the Australian Greens Bob Brown riled Chinese authorities when he made an unauthorised trip into Tibet to see the situation for himself.

Weaving at the centre

But for the 400-odd Tibetans living at the centre now, being displaced, while others back home face brutal repression, is a daily reality. They spend their days producing traditional handicrafts—such as woodcarvings, paintings and carpets—which the centre sells to sustain itself. The TRSHC was established in 1959, which was the same year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, leading to a mass exodus of about 85,000 Tibetans.

As I stroll through the centre watching the artisans at work, I notice that most are elderly. These are the refugees who made the dangerous journey across the Himalayas into India when they were just children. And they've been living in limbo at this transit camp for about half a century now.

A photo of the original refugees when they arrived

Khedroob Thondup, president of the TRSHC, explained the centre works to rehabilitate refugees. And over its 57 years of operation, thousands of Tibetans have learnt skills that have enabled them to leave the centre and "stand on their own feet." But while the majority have moved on, some have never left. "Now we have many older people," Thondup explained. "Even though their children have gone to the west, they still want to stay there and consider that their home."

Unlike many of the other elderly refugees, Tenzin's four children live at the centre and one of his sons works there. Tenzin still has early memories of Tibet when it was an independent country, before the Chinese began their invasion in 1950. "They slowly occupied Tibet," he recalls

Prayer flags outside

When I ask him whether after living in exile for so long, he still believes Tibet will regain its independence and refugees like himself will return, Tenzin replies, "Definitely I can say Tibet will be returned." And explains he thinks that like Soviet Russia, Communist China will collapse.

Yet with the thriving Chinese economy this hardly seems likely. Indeed, China's rising power is one of the reasons there's such a lack of international outcry on the Tibetan issue.

Dharamsala is in the foothills of the Himalayas. It's foggy and cold in the mornings.

The Central Tibetan Administration is the Tibetan government in exile stationed in the north Indian city of Dharamsala. Their representative Lhakpa Tshoko paints a grim picture of the situation inside Tibet at present. He said the region has been turned into a "huge prison" and is under constant martial law. Because of the migration of Chinese into the region, Tibetans have become a minority and are "treated as second class citizens in their own land."

Around the capital of Lhasa, locals are monitored by CCTV cameras and there are checkpoints everywhere. "There is no freedom of speech and movement," Tshoko told me. Extreme environmental degradation is also occurring due to mining.

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Last Wednesday, the Chinese government began demolition work at the Larung Gar academy, the largest centre of Buddhist teaching in Tibet. It's part of a plan to cut down the academy's population by half, due to overcrowding concerns. But Tibetan activists see it as part of an ongoing campaign of cultural genocide being carried out by the Chinese government.

And with the Dalai Lama having turned 81 this month, Beijing is now planning to intervene after his death and make their own choice of which child is his reincarnation. In response to these current suggestions the Dalai Lama has said he may consider not reincarnating.

Lobsang Wangmo painting

Tenzin takes me into another room of the workshop and introduces his wife Lobsang Wangmo. Like her husband, she too believes Tibetan independence is coming. In her opinion, it relies upon the support of the United Nations and the international community.

She then goes on to say that because this support is not forthcoming "there are now many self-immolations and I'm feeling very sad." Since February 2009, 145 Tibetans have set themselves on fire trying to draw attention to the plight of their people under Chinese rule. The last was on March 23 this year, when Sonam Tso, a mother of five, burnt herself to death near a monastery in China's southwestern Sichuan province.

Wangmo's story is a little different from the other elderly refugees at the centre, as she was actually born in India. But she's adamant that one day she'll go to the homeland she's never known. "Yeah, yeah, I feel I will. I hope. I pray also," she said with radiant eyes. "I live in India, but my heart and everything is for Tibet."

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