Finding a home away from home

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“It looks like the flights are delayed,” Karen informs the dozen of us standing in the small lounging area of Victoria International Airport. “It might be another hour until they arrive.”

Karen directs her attention to me. “Joel is writing an article about the project; would you like to ask some questions?” I smile. “Who wants an interview?” Pema accepts my invitation and we sit down in one of the comfortable airport lounge booths, across from a pleasantly decorated Christmas tree.

We are awaiting the arrival of three Tibetans en route from Delhi. They are arriving in Canada as part of the Tibetan Resettlement Project. The project, initiated in 2007 during a meeting between Prime Minister Harper and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, is bringing 1000 Tibetan refugees from the rugged Arunachal Prudesh region of Northeast India to Canada for resettlement. During a five-year period, which began on Mar. 17, 2011, Tibetans would arrive with landed immigrant status and be assisted in the resettling process by project volunteers. Funding for the project is all privately donated and used to help Tibetans integrate into Canadian society. Pema arrived on Sept. 12, 2014.  “That was my first flight,” she informs me. Upon arriving, she was greeted with flowers and welcoming scarves by mentors and the Tibetan community. “I felt very happy, shy, surprised,” Pema explains. “It was a mix of feelings.”

I got involved with the project after I took a mentorship course with Reverend Scott of the Anglican Diocese of Canada in December. The diocese is one of 85 sponsorship organizations across the country, and in this case sponsors the resettlement of Tibetans. The Diocese handles the donated funds, and uses them to support a resettlement model known as Project Tibet. Project Tibet Victoria currently has two apartments rented in Esquimalt that Tibetans rotate through before acquiring more permanent housing. The push is for Tibetans to become self-sufficient quickly, leaving space for others to arrive in the given time frame. To facilitate this process, Tibetans first find entry-level work and improve their English skills, hoping to draw closer to their field of expertise over time.

Some of the Tibetans arriving have university degrees or have owned businesses in India; however, a whole new standard of qualifications is required in Canada.  Pema received a five-year degree in Tibetan astrology and practical training in India. Unfortunately, although the field of Tibetan medicine (holistic healing, which is similar in ways to Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine) has developed to a small degree in the West, most Canadians have no idea what it is. “I have to start from zero,” she sighs.

Pema is currently working at Value Village. She recognizes that the job is not related to her Tibetan education, but I see her humility and resilience in the settlement phase. She takes the experience in stride with a sense of humour. “I got a technique [for] how to sweep a big store in two hours,” she says with a laugh, noting what she is learning along the way.

Pema has also been working for an ill elderly lady who requires help cleaning her home. I notice as Pema calmly discusses her experiences that she is naturally drawing closer to situations which reflect  her background as a healer. Pema has developed a connection with this lady; earlier in the day the lady had called her from the hospital where she had been transferred. The holiday season meant people were busy and there were not many visitors.

“I went to meet her and she was very happy.” Pema smiles, noting that when we feel sick we need personal connections. “I thought I would give her emotional support.”

Emotional support is also a gift that mentors offer to incoming Tibetans. Mentors are a unique aspect of private sponsorship (as opposed to government sponsorship) in that they are able to offer support when it is needed or requested, no matter the time of day. Each arriving Tibetan is matched with a mentor. “For me, my mentor is Carol,” says Pema, “and she’s been so nice. She is very caring for me. Even if I forgot my umbrella she would get her car [and] drop it off for me because she is worried I will get wet in the rain.” Mentors assist newcomers in a variety of ways, such as shopping, finding work, or learning how to use the bus system. After the first few months, Pema has been very appreciative of the kindness of mentors, and is particularly fond of the transit system.

“Wherever I go, I can read in a bus, I can drink in a bus, I can do anything in a bus,” she tells me with exuberance, “but if I’m travelling in my village the bus is very unsteady and the road is broken; I used to vomit in the bus.”

Tibetans have been living as stateless refugees in Arunachal Prudesh for over a half-century. In 1959,  thousands followed the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas after an uprising against the oppression of Chinese occupation. Today, in Arunachal Prudesh, nearly 8 000 Tibetans exist in an unsettling limbo, unable to return home to an occupied country, yet unable to fully integrate into Indian society. As a result of being stateless, Tibetans living in the area are not allowed to receive government work or go to public schools. At a young age, Pema was forced to travel several hours by bus over winding roads to a Tibetan boarding school. She was allowed to return home only once or twice a year. In this type of situation, family separation is a cost of education for Tibetans in Arunachal Prudesh. Cultural loss is another cost of growing up as displaced refugees. In Pema’s small village, there were only a few Tibetans, so she never spoke her native tongue growing up.

“When I was in my village I would never speak Tibetan,” she says. “My parents would speak in Tibetan, and I can understand what they are saying, but I never spoke [Tibetan] back to them because in my area my friends are all Indian or local peoples, so I have to speak in their language, or I have to speak Hindi.” Additionally, Tibetans are often not fully accepted by local communities. Despite living in the area for over 50 years, Tibetans are sometimes still seen as outsiders or intruders. Tenzin Lhundup, who arrived in Canada with Pema, arrived home from school one time having seen “lots of writing on the walls [saying] ‘go back refugees.’” In another instance they closed down all the Tibetan shops for four months. Arunachal Prudesh cannot be a long term solution for Tibetans, and as there is currently no possibility of returning home, resettlement is the only option.

Back in the airport I watch the mentors and project volunteers converse anxiously with other Tibetans as the flights are worked out. Despite the tense anticipation, spirits are high and I feel a compassionate presence surround us all. It is the same feeling the Dalai Lama emanated to the crowds at UBC during his teachings last October. Pema and I both attended His Holiness’s teachings along with hundreds of other Tibetans. Crowding in from the heavy mainland rain, many Tibetans were overcome with emotion seeing their spiritual leader for the first time. “He’s like our parent,” Pema tells me.

“When I saw him, tears were running from my eyes. I always try to follow his advice. Even in my phone I have his picture and it gives a peace of mind.” Another Tibetan newcomer tells me that “he is the one who has guided us since childhood.”

The Dalai Lama has always looked out for Tibetan people and continues his work to preserve Tibetan culture. “Wherever you go, whatever you do: keep your culture alive,” he requests. “Don’t forget, don’t forget that you are a Tibetan.” In initiating the Resettlement Project, the Dalai Lama has given Tibetans an opportunity to preserve their culture and learn more of what it is to be a Tibetan. Pema never experienced her homeland, and growing up amongst others in the same situation, she did not notice the issues of being displaced. However, after arriving in Canada she began to realize the state of Tibetan people.  In her ESL classes the teacher would ask students about their experience in their country. “Every time I was so numb,” Pema says softly, “I don’t have words to express how my country was. I used to say I’m originally Tibetan but I’m born in India, and every time I come out with these words it makes me very sad.”

Pema’s family left Tibet after the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Today, the People’s Republic of China continues to occupy Tibet and works to eradicate Tibetan culture. Having a picture of the Dalai Lama, speaking of human rights, or having a Tibetan flag could be cause for beatings, imprisonment, or torture. In 2007, Tenzin Lhundup went to Lhasa, the capital which used to be the home of the Dalai Lama. Now, there are often more soldiers than Tibetans, enforcing these limitations. “Lhasa used to be a holy place,” Lhundup tells me, “but now after Chinese occupation it’s a prison camp. Now everything is turned upside down. I think it’s time it should be changed. People must know.”

Tibetans landing at the little airport in Victoria and other areas across Canada are being given an opportunity to educate others about Tibet, including the Chinese.

At my home in Cordova Bay a Chinese exchange student named Alice stays with my family. In school back home she was always taught that Tibet is a part of China, never realizing the situation in Tibet. “All that I know comes from the textbooks” Alice points out. “There is no global news on the television, and the Internet is controlled by the government. We can’t even go on YouTube”. On an individual level, Pema was able to break down some misconceptions amongst Chinese people in her ESL class, which included students of Chinese ethnicity.

“At first when I went to class, I felt very scared because I had never interacted with Chinese people.” However, Pema quickly became comfortable as they asked of her feelings as a Tibetan and of the situation faced by Tibetan people. Pema acknowledges that Chinese people do not have access to good information but is quick in sharing with the Chinese students that “we have different culture, we have different language, different clothes—everything is different. I’m not Chinese—I’m Tibetan.”

The feelings of the Project Tibet community as we head into 2015 are those of apprehension. There are still a number of Tibetans due to arrive as part of the project, and there is just over a year left for them to land. In order for all of them to arrive and settle, donations must continue to assist the resettling model and mentors must be consistent in providing support. So far in Victoria, mentors, volunteers, and donations have been generous to make this happen.

In a widely privileged country such as Canada, there is an obligation to offer support to those in need, regardless of whether it is a local or international cause. “Everybody should be able to provide for their families, regardless of age, sex, or colour,” Reverend Scott tells me. When this is not happening, and if we are able, “we need to help. That’s all there is to it. We don’t let people be persecuted for who they are.” The Tibetan Resettlement Project is offering Tibetans from Arunachal Prudesh an opportunity to become self-determining and to freely express themselves.  In our comfortable airport chairs, Pema tells me, “Victoria is a small city with a big heart.” I hope that as a greater community of Victoria, this expression can continue. FEA_Figure_Emily Thiessen_web