Refugee. Exile. Displaced person. I didn’t understand the permanence of those labels until my group of volunteers walked into the old folks’ home in Jampaling, Nepal, and saw the elderly Tibetans at prayer.
Jampaling is a Tibetan refugee camp, not far from Pokhara, a city to the west of Katmandu.
The place looks like a rural village – small cottages and one-story rows of tiny apartments, scattered among trees beside a deep river gorge. About 700 Tibetans live there, on land set apart for them by the government of Nepal.
When we arrived, the old people were sitting around a small, grassy courtyard, fingering Buddhist rosaries, spinning their prayer wheels and repeating – in a low, throaty rumble, like the drone of bumblebees – Buddhism’s great mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum – oh, thou jewel in the heart of the lotus.
Without missing a bead or skipping a syllable, they looked up at us with welcoming nods and wide, warm, face-crinkling smiles. It was at once one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen — and one of the saddest. It made we choke up, and I turned away to hide the tears.
Their faces have been in my mind and heart ever since — and never more than now, with pro-Tibetan demonstrations around the world and violent retaliations by the Chinese in Tibet.
These old men and women were young when they left Tibet half a century ago, following their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile after a failed uprising against the country’s Chinese overlords. Like him, they became part of the Tibetan diaspora, a culture in exile.
(The Office of Tibet in New York estimated Wednesday that there are about 150,000 Tibetan refugees worldwide. Of these, about 100,000 live in India, 20,000 in Nepal, 9,000 in the United States and 3,000 in Minnesota.)
Team of volunteers
When they left, they lost their families. They lost their roots. They lost home. And they lost it all forever. They are now too old to believe they will see their homeland before they die. That is what “refugee” means. How, I wondered, can people live with such sadness? Let alone smile?
But smile they did. So did the younger Tibetans we met, and there were many of them in camp: Some had been little children when they escaped from Tibet, others had been born and raised in Nepal, where they too remain refugees, not citizens.
Quite often, the Tibetans smiled not just at us but because of us. Our varied team of nine volunteers came from Minnesota, Maine and California and ranged from a 23-year-old just starting her career in business to a psychologist/artist in her 70s. We were going to work for two weeks on a construction project the Tibetans had chosen.
Putting it mildly, the skills we brought weren’t exactly useful in Jampaling: The project didn’t need computer programmers, office managers or former newspaper reporters. We didn’t even bring much money to donate — just enough to cover materials.
The Tibetans planned to renovate a communal kitchen, a little stone building used for major festivals, when as many as 1,000 Tibetan refugees from around the region gather at Jampaling and have to be fed.
The crew chief was Dawa Tashi, a stocky, energetic guy in his early 40s, built like a football player, who liked to crack jokes and was renowned for making the strong, salty concoction called butter tea – a staple at every Tibetan gathering.
Dawa and four younger Tibetan men did all the technical work – replacing the kitchen’s roof, fashioning a new chimney out of sheet metal, rehabbing the big interior hearth, building a cement sink inside and a new cistern outside. Their work was precise and professional.
Our contributions were more basic: We helped clean out the kitchen; we lugged away sheets of old roofing and helped carry in the new, and we whitewashed the sooty interior walls — over and over, six or seven coats in some places — until I began to suspect that that was all the good-natured Dawa could really trust us with.
We spent our free time exploring, making friends, learning a few Tibetan words — please and thank you and the one we practically wore out: Tashi Delek — good day.
We tagged after Riksang, the kindly Tibetan woman assigned to cook for us, when she went to buy groceries — following her across the roaring river on a swaying footbridge and climbing 280 steps up the riverbank to a Nepali village where the main street was lined with food stalls.
We got comfortable giving the public prayer wheels a spin whenever we passed the gompa, the yellow cement temple that is the heart of the community. Dawa and the others smiled when we did it. Once we were invited to a funeral for a village leader, and even there, people smiled at us.
One afternoon, we toured the school — 200 students, aged 4 through 17 — where most subjects, including physics, are taught in English. Another day, a couple of us dropped by the clinic, where a doctor of Tibetan medicine sees patients twice a week, “listening with six fingers” to their pulses, as his assistant explained it, and prescribing herbal medicines.
And one emotional day, we went back to the old folks’ home and talked — through a young man who offered to translate — with two of the oldest residents.
Both had been monks in Tibet, and both became resistance fighters after they fled in 1959. The translator explained: Although it is a religion of pacifism, “Buddhism says you can fight for a good cause. You can kill one person to save 1,000.”
These men, like many in Jampaling and the other refugee camps around Pokhara, were members of the Lodrik Warriors, a force based in Mustang, in northern Nepal, and they kept up the resistance for 14 more years, until the Dalai Lama asked them to make peace.
Pema Dorjee, 82, tall and dignified, with a thin white beard, said that when the Chinese took over Tibet in 1950, “they didn’t destroy right away. They deceived.” They did things they have done ever since, “building roads, moving more people in, bringing more troops.”
What followed is the “cultural genocide” that the Dalai Lama talks about. The estimate I’d heard is that a million people died, and of more than 6,000 monasteries before the Chinese takeover, only about fewer than 20 were functioning 15 years later.
By 1959, Tibetans feared for the Dalai Lama’s life and urged him to leave the country. Pema Dorjee left at the same time. He talked of “hiding sometimes, moving sometimes, day or night,” depending on where the Chinese troops were. “The Chinese attacked from the sky, on the ground, any time of day,” he said. Of the 45 Tibetans who left home with him, only five survived to reach Nepal. His eyes grew teary, talking about it; so did mine, listening.
Lobsang Thubten, 80, told a similar story. When he fled Tibet, he left his mother, sisters, nieces and nephews behind. He never heard anything about them again. A monk since he was 12, he had been taught all his life “not to harm — not to fight.” He learned how to do both in Mustang.
What can we do?
We asked the men if there was anything they needed? Anything we could do to help?
Nothing for themselves, they said, but all for Tibet: “Eating, sleeping, all good,” the translator summed up. “But the inner man is not happy. He wants to see the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.” There was a pause. “And he wants to return to Tibet, too.”
At the end of our two weeks in Jampaling, the kitchen project was finished, and regional Tibetan officials came to inspect it, and Dawa and his men beamed with pride.
That afternoon, we gave a farewell party for the community. Everybody — from toddlers to school kids to residents of the old folks’ home — gathered in front of the temple while we served Dawa’s butter tea and store-bought vanilla cookies. I expected that would be that. But the Tibetans turned the party around, making it a celebration in our honor.
First there were speeches. Then a man went into the temple and brought out an armful of long white scarves. Called kata, they are signs of respect and honor. We had seen them often, in the temple and in people’s homes, draped around pictures of the Dalai Lama and above scenes of Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. Now, local leaders draped them around our necks, in gratitude.
Not for the work we’d done. Not for the money we’d brought. But simply for showing up. We had come, in person, all the way from the United States. That was what mattered most.
“Thank you,” people said as they told us goodbye, taking our hands, touching their foreheads to ours. “Thank you for not forgetting us.”
As if we could.
Catherine Watson is a former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her second book, “Home on the Road — Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth” (Syren, 2007), is a finalist in the Minnesota Book Awards.