I would like to bring in the New Year by offering you the story of Tsering, a woman we met in Dharamsala last year. We met her through another friend and I interviewed her in February of 2015 in our room at Pema Thang Guesthouse. Of all the Tibetan refugee stories I have edited over a period of six years, Tsering’s is, in many ways, the most moving one. Although she was so young at the time, the events of her early life and escape to India are still very fresh in her mind. She is now 26 years old.
I have no parents; I’m an orphan, from the province of Kham in Tibet. When I was nine years old, in 1999, a kind neighbour and an uncle helped me leave my abusive life in a Tibetan town and escape across the border into Nepal, then on to India.
In my early years I didn’t get a chance to play like other kids because of my difficult situation. In our family I’m the second youngest of five children; I have two brothers and two sisters. Everyone was busy at their own work I was alone in the house.
After I was born my mother was sick and I lived with her for the first year of my life only. Then I was sent to my mother’s eldest sister to live in town, where I worked very hard and never had time to play. By the age of five I was looking after the cows. Even though my aunt was a blood relative, they didn’t treat me like their own child, but like a servant, a maid.
My aunt came from a very poor family of nine girls. She married at an early age, an arranged marriage I think. The family became the richest family in the town. She had money and power, but never gave anything to her family members.
When I was seven I had a chance to meet a Rinpoche and told him everything about my situation and my family. Through his help I was accepted as a day student at a boarding school one hour’s walk from home. I studied there for two or three years. But they would call me back from school to work at my auntie’s house. Her husband drank and he beat me all the time. He never wanted me to spend a single day like other kids. By the time I was nine, he forced me to work for other families, nomadic people who also had farms.
Neighbours noticed how badly I was treated, and said “You don’t have to stay here, you’ll never be happy”. So one of the women took me in the night, and we walked to Lhasa. It took us about fifteen days to get there, journeying during the night and resting in the daytime, so my auntie’s family would not find us. We went to the home of my aunt, a young woman in her twenties. Later my uncle came to see me and tried to send me back home. He said the family promised to treat me well, but I knew they were lying. I told him, “If you send me back I’ll run away.”
My uncle came back again after Losar, the Tibetan New Year, after I had been in Lhasa for two or three months. He took me to the border of Nepal, where he left me in the hands of two Nepalese boys, not much older than me, would be my guides from the border to Kathmandu. I had no Nepalese language, but they knew a little Tibetan. We walked most of the night every night. When I was tired they carried me on their backs. Sometimes we slept on the ground.
One night the boys left me, one going ahead as a lookout to check if Chinese soldiers were in the area. The other boy thought I was following him, but I was asleep under a tree. When that boy caught up with the first boy, he asked him where I was. They came back for me, both crying. In their limited Tibetan they asked, “What are you doing here, why are you sleeping?
We reached the Reception Centre in Kathmandu, Nepal after about fifteen days. The trip was slow because we stayed hidden during the day. I knew no one at the centre. After about a month I was sent to the Delhi Reception Centre, then here to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, on my own the whole way.
At the Dharamsala centre I was the youngest person, all the other refugees were either families or monks. They treated me well. It was here that I met a young monk who helped me. After a while he went into a monastery, but came to visit me sometimes. I’ve lost touch with him and don’t know his name. I’ve tried to find him, asking many people about him. He was a tall man, that’s all I remember. Maybe he’s in a South India monastery now.
After a time at the Reception Centre I was sent to the Tibetan Children’s Village, or TCV school, where I boarded and studied for almost eight years, until the tenth grade. Because I was good at my studies I skipped a grade and was sent to TCV Gopalpur, a half hour’s distance from Dharamsala. Many of the children there were without parents, they were orphans or their parents had sent them to India from Tibet to have a better life.
“You remember so much”, I said to Tsering. “I have seen so much.” came the reply.
In 2011, when I was in my early twenties, my auntie’s young brother-in-law came to India, to the Kalachakara teachings in Boddhgaya, North India, where the Dalai Lama performs special Buddhist initiations. While I was there some monks told me he was looking for me, to take me back to Tibet. I told them not to say I was there.
Tsering survived her difficult early years with her abusive family, and received the best education the Tibetan government in exile could offer her at TCV Schools. She now has a very good job in a large Tibetan NGO in Dharamsala, where she helps other refugees.
When she speaks to her brothers and sisters in Tibet by telephone, this younger sister always tells them, “Don’t ask anyone to help you, you know what they’re [the family] like. You’re healthy, you can do everything yourself.”
I asked Tsering if there was anything else she would like to tell me. She replied that she appreciates westerners who have so much feeling for Tibet causes, who learn about issues like self-immolation, and work hard to help. Some Tibetans have much less feeling about Tibet, she told me. Tsering ended our conversation with: “I thank you for your kind consideration for Tibet and the Tibetan people.”.