Mumbai, India – For many years, 34-year-old Kunsang Tenzing has been thinking about leaving India.
His family did years ago. Most of his closest friends have also moved.
Over the last seven years, the Tibetan refugee community in India has dropped by 44 percent, from around 150,000 in 2011 to 85,000, according to Indian government data.
Tibetan authorities say most are going to countries such as the United States, Canada, Germany and Switzerland.
Some are returning to Tibet.
Across 40 countries, the Tibetan diaspora stands at 150,000, Tibetan authorities say.
This month, the community celebrates 60 years in India after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in March, 1959.
If the emigration continues, what will remain of the community in India, the country where its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama sought refuge and made his home?
“It is very difficult to make money here. There are barely any jobs here,” Tenzing says.
Tibetans are not officially recognised as refugees in India. Instead, on paper, they are designated as “foreigners”.
India has refused to sign the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees.
“As a result, Tibetans are not allowed government jobs. Sometimes, even universities don’t admit Tibetan students,” says Sonam Norbu Dagpo, the spokesman for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile, which is based in Dharamshala, India.
Dakpo says the number of incoming Tibetans fleeing Chinese rule has plummeted, from around 3,000 annually to about 100 last year.
Economic concerns are central; many Tibetans say that buying property and accessing bank credit are difficult, leaving them with few options.
In addition, India’s dithering over its support to the Tibetan cause makes people nervous.
Last year, the government issued a directive prohibiting bureaucrats and leaders from attending events organised by the CTA marking 60 years in India.
The directive came on the eve of an informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
An embarrassed CTA was forced to cancel eventsfeaturing the Dalai Lama and hold them outside New Delhi.
In the streets of McLeod Ganj, a small hill town in northern India which is the de-facto capital of the Tibetan community and the home of the Dalai Lama, almost everyone has a story of painful separation.
Yangzom Tsering, 29, was smuggled to India from Tibet by her relatives soon after her birth. Both her parents passed away soon after.
Tsering has always yearned to go back to Tibet to see her siblings who still live there.
“My brother kept telling me that I should come back home. I checked out all the options but it [going back to Tibet] was very difficult.”
Last year, his brother passed away.
Guilt-ridden, he now feels the need to take more responsibility for his family and plans to migrate to Canada.
“But it isn’t easy to go anywhere, being a refugee. No country wants us.”
An identity beyond politics
Tenzing is trying to capture the stories of people like him – refugees from Tibet escaping Chinese occupation, seeking a new life in India while trying to not lose hope.
“Stories of Tibetans” (SoT), a recent social media initiative, has managed to reach about 16,000 followers across several platforms.
SoT was designed to explore Tibetan identity away from the political struggle.
“There is so much more about us – our everyday lives, struggles, and joys and the ways in which the struggle has shaped us,” says Tenzing.
“We are changing very rapidly as a society and there is an urgent need to chronicle our current existence before it becomes extinct.”
One of the characters featured on the feed is 23-year-old Tenzin Chokyi’s, a cancer survivor.
Cancer is seldom discussed among Tibetans.
Chokyi only discovered her father had passed away due to cancer a month after he died in 2012.
“I wanted to change that,” says Chokyi.
Her post has been viewed more than 45,000 times.
“People wrote in saying they didn’t know cancer had entered the Tibetan community too.”
Tenzing recently highlighted the story of a 24-year-old anonymous Tibetan who walked alone to India because of an abusive father.
Another post focuses on a man who gets nostalgic about his friends who have emigrated, each time he sees the “hope” tattoo they had all got together.
Yeshi Choedon, a professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that the initiative might serve as a vital collection of oral histories.
“Hardly anything about the Tibetan refugee community has been documented so far,” he says. “Most times, the focus is only on the political struggle. An initiative like this will enhance the understanding of the ordinary Tibetan, in exile.”
SoT is now branching into documentaries.
Its latest is the story of two Tibetan brothers who were reunited after a decade. They were separated when one brother managed to escape from Tibet to come to India, while the other was arrested in Tibet twice while attempting the journey.
Tenzing says his work in the community helps overcome his own loneliness.
“I need to give back to my community,” he says, “at least for a few more years. But after that, I might migrate too.”