I had to wait a long time – almost ten years, to travel back to India and the Tibetan community there. This February we finally had everything in place. It is difficult to find correct words to describe both our excitement and anxiety. We had thought and talked about the return to India so many times over the past ten years, yet when the hour was finally at hand, it seemed we had a hundred unanswered questions!
We landed on a spanking new airport at New Delhi around mid night. It did not catch my attention because it looked as clean and spacious as all the others on this journey. Still it seemed an enormous airport and it took several minutes for us to reach the escalators that would take us down to immigration. We finally did and my first peep down from the escalator took me by complete surprise – the sheer number of people crowded in that massive hall.
Soon we stepped into the welcome arms of loving relatives. I talked about the changes to the airport – from design to size, it compared with any other international airports that we had traveled. Yet from the time we stepped on the tarmac at the Indira Gandhi airport at New Delhi, it seemed that nothing had really changed. The winter air at Delhi was as cool and refreshing as I’ve always remembered it. I know friends had talked about the increased pollution and noise – but I noticed nothing of that at all. It was heavenly to be surrounded by the sound, smell and general feel of a country that I had lived in for over forty years. Despite the brand new pavements and drive ways outside the airport, there was a soothing familiarity of chaos as taxis hooted, people trundled insane amounts of luggage tried to find their way home in that chaos. All my questions were answered in those first few minutes – nothing really had changed in India for us!
I spent the bulk of my time with the children at Kyitsel-ling Tibetan Children’s Education Center that TCEF helped to found. The center is situated within the Tibetan settlement at Clement Town in North India. The children were absolutely beautiful – in every sense of the word. They welcomed us among them with every smile, hug, handshakes and an occasional toffee. They also just loved my i phone and loved the way that their images could be zoomed in and out. They all seemed remarkably happy and adjusted at Kyitsel-ling. In particular, there was this group of young girls aged 7 to 10 I would guess, who were absolute dolls. I don’t know whether it was because they were Tibetans or not, but in all honesty I spent some of my happiest hours on the tour just sitting with them and letting them fool around with my iPhone!
As I sat with them over many days, behind their loving smiles and hugs were many stories of pain and challenges overcome. The vast majority of the children here are from the poorer segments of the Tibetan community and they have this wonderful opportunity at education only because of the kindness/ compassion of TCEF sponsors. A few of them have traveled all the way from Tibet to study here. Others come from broken homes, or homes where the parents’ poverty and illiteracy made Kyitsel-ling an absolute boon. For sponsors, who sponsor children at Kyitsel-ling I’m so delighted to write that I’ll follow up with photos and short updates on the individual children that they support. For sponsors of children at Sikkim and other places in India, my apologies. Despite my best intentions, I just could not make it to Sikkim this year – but I know that Valerie and the TCEF service team did make it there.
There were only five children at Kyitsel-ling that Gensang and I knew from ten years back. Two of them were graduating class 12 this year and in fact during the time that we were there they had their heads seriously buried in their books as they were in the middle of the All India Senior Secondary School Examinations. Both of them are sponsored children and in the days that we spent with them, I was gratified to find out that both of them have grown up into exceptional young man – kind, thoughtful, responsible and friendly – young men who earned wholesome praise from all those that we talked to. It made me feel good to know that children who had spent ten plus years at Kyitsel-ling have turned into such fine young men.
Not all children will spend ten years at Kyitsel-ling. I saw that both admissions into and withdrawals from Kyitsel-ling are fluid. During the period that I was there I saw two withdrawals and three admissions.
If the children made us smile and laugh, the elders touched our hearts and almost made us cry. Almost every elder that we sponsor came to visit me with a traditional ‘khatak’ or greeting scarf along with ‘something’ – a couple of bottles of juice, a dozen eggs or even a bottle of beer, so as not to come empty handed. But more precious than that, they would sit and talk with me as Gensang or Namgyal ( my sister in law) dutifully made tea for every visitor. More often than not, these talks would be about challenges they face, of family losses, personal sickness and loss of sight/ or hearing etc. The elders that we know have aged and how. Urtse, Jinpa, Ayi Dolma, Tenphel and many more can hardly see now – some of them can hardly see or hear.
But all of them folded their hands in gratitude, told me how precious the sponsorship funds were to them. From their stories, it seems that much of it spent on medical expenses, some on food but a surprising amount on prayers. Urtse is now pushing a hundred years, he cannot hear and can hardly see. He told me that when he gets the sponsorship funds, he divides it into two equal parts, one part for him to meet his living expenses and the other half to offer butter lamps and prayers for his sponsor!
Then I had other Tibetan elders come to meet me – again with khataks and tears. These were elders who so far have no sponsors but came with folded hands and hope to request for help. Some of them had such compelling needs it made me feel why we did not hear of these needs sooner. I have over 20 sponsorship requests and so we have our work cut out to find sponsors for all of them.
Last Summer TCEF had one of its most important board meetings – a ‘visioning’ session to take stock of where we were and what our focus was going to be in the years ahead. One of the most important resolutions to come out of the meeting was to focus on programs that the Tibetan themselves identified as being vital and important. To follow up on this important question, I took a 36 hour long train from Bihar to Dharamsala to meet Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the recently elected Kalon Tripa or prime minister for the Central Tibetan Administration in exile.
Dr. Sangay is an inspiration to many Tibetans including myself. A self made man he earned a Fullbright scholarship to Harvard in 1995, the year I myself completed my masters from there.
Since taking over the prime ministership last August, he has been outspoken and passionate about the education of Tibetan children in exile. To emphasize his commitment to this cause, when he distributed the portfolios to the other kalons or ministers, he retained the Education portfolio himself.
With the background of our ‘visioning’ meeting mentioned earlier, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask Dr. Sangay – what were the greatest needs of the Tibetan education in exile now and how can a small non profit like TCEF best serve the Tibetan people. Dr. Sangay was equally clear in what the needs and priorities were. Although there were many needs, he had no doubt at all that college education was the number one priority for his administration at this point of time. He explained the need:
Over one thousand Tibetan students graduate from around 90 Tibetan schools in exile in India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Department of Education at Dharamsala( DOE) and other Tibetan organizations, notably the Tibetan Children’s Village or TCV is able to provide college scholarships to some students, there is a pressing need to increase the number of college graduates. He is keen to ensure that they build on the 12 plus years of education children have already received in Tibetan schools. Dr. Sangay has a motivating vision of producing thousands of professional Tibetan graduates during his tenure over the next five years. His vision includes a massive push for college funding appeals and contacting businesses and banks to offer student loans. Both he and Mrs. Chimey Tseyang the Joint Secretary, DOE Sponsorship Section that I met with emphasized that college sponsorships was their top priority at this time.
Another important topic that Dr. Sangay and I discussed was improving English acquisition and literacy in Tibetan schools. Both of us agreed that we owed our personal successes to our education and English literacy and he suggested that this could be an area, a niche that TCEF specifically might be able to contribute towards Tibetan education in exile.
Our meeting lasted for well over an hour . With our common background it was any easy dialogue and our conversation only ended when Dr. Sangay got an urgent call to inform that Tenzin Yeshi a young Tibetan had self immolated himself in New Delhi. The concern on his face was palpable. In that instant, I was reminded not only of how desperate the situation is for Tibetans but also how heavy the burden is on someone like Dr. Sangay.
Throughout this trip, in the background was the stories of continued self immolations both in Tibet and in exile. Tibetan communities everywhere were holding candlelight vigils and prayer sessions. As a Tibetan, these stories made us all sad – yet at the same time, they gave us hope, hope that things cannot continue this way, that sooner or later, the international community would be outraged and show Tibetans the support we so desperately need. I returned from the trip realizing with sadness how hopeless the Tibetan situation seems at the present and how great the need is – for the elders to be supported, for the children to be educated and for our youth to go to college and thereby provide some hope for Tibet in the the future. I also saw confirmation of what I always knew to be true – that although many Tibetan families have thrived and done well, there are still many that continue to be desperately poor and need our support.
I went to India full of excitement at visiting my community again. I return with a bagful of their hopes in the shape of case histories of children and elders for sponsorship and special project requests from the Department of Education, Gu Chu Sum and other Tibetan organizations. Even with the Buddha’s blessings, I don’t know whether we’ll be able to achieve all of them, but I certainly intend to try – and this appeal is one of the first steps towards achieving all these goals.
I know that many of you are already sponsors, some supporting multiple children, others supporting multiple children and elders, while there are others that pool resources for a single sponsorship. Yet, I have to make this appeal today:
I know that many of you are already sponsors and it is difficult for me to request further obligations – but I do want to request everyone to please at least forward this appeal to whoever you feel might be interested. If you can write a few personal notes that would be very powerful, but even if you can just hit the forward button, I’d be very grateful. Friends and well wishers have for years been impressing on me about the power of networking – so let us make the internet work for Tibet!
Much of our work thus far has been possible by traveling continuously and extensively all over the country. We know we’ve just got to do it. Having just returned from India with all the fresh memories and stories, I feel extra motivated and ready to ‘hit the road’ so to speak – there seems so much to tell and so much to achieve. I believe that one of the most practical and powerful ways to help Tibet, to help the Tibetan issue is to help with a TCEF event in your town. If you think that you can help coordinate an event or even point us in the direction of someone who might be, please send me an e mail at firstname.lastname@example.org We’ll follow all leads.