Choglamsar, India – Education is bringing Tibetan refugees in India together and is increasingly seen as the key to tackling high unemployment in a community whose unclear legal status limits job opportunities.
The schooling of younger Tibetans is regarded as crucial for the future for the community of about 7,300 refugees in the mountainous northern Ladakh region.
Initiatives aimed at improving the education of a new generation of refugees have become an important link for Tibetans across the country.
“Education is the key to development,” said Tenzin Norbu, head of the Tibetan Youth Congress. “For any lasting change to happen, society has to change in terms of behaviour, attitudes, and values. It is the responsibility of the youth to educate people about current societal problems, and to keep Tibetans abreast of the current geopolitical situation in Tibet.”
The dusty streets of Choglamsar, 10km outside Leh in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and one of the northernmost settlements for Tibetan refugees, smell of burning garbage and sour milk.
It is the main site of Sonamling, the Tibetan refugee settlement of 20 “camps”, which include Agling, a suburb of Leh, and portions of the remote Changthang region.
While officially founded in the 1970s and now home to 5,000 Tibetan refugees, little is really known about the people who live here. Most outsiders simply know the refugee community by the tents full of Tibetan artifacts and handicrafts in Leh’s main market.
Education is the key to development.
Near Choglamsar’s main bridge, where Ladakhis and Tibetans gather, taxis compete for space on the road and several young Tibetans climb into a cab.
Tenzin Dhasey, 27, is an English teacher at Siddhartha private school whose personal story mirrors that of many Tibetan refugees.
While teaching is viewed as one of the most reputable jobs within the Sonamling community, the unclear legal status of Tibetans – who are not citizens and whose status as refugees is complicated by India’s failure to sign the 1951 UN refugee convention – continues to limit their employment prospects.
Dhasey’s parents left Tibet when they were young and crossed the Himalayas on foot carrying a sack of roasted barley flour.
“There are so many stories about those crossings,” Dhasey explained. “The conditions were difficult, and most people left everything behind. Now, because of that, Tibetans know that things can come and go, so we don’t hold onto things.”
Her father and mother owned a small garment shop in Leh that earned enough for them to support Dhasey, her older sister, and her younger brother.
But Dhasey’s parents lacked one important life skill: literacy – a shortcoming that has been the focus of a key initiative aimed at helping the Tibetan refugee population.
Thanks to Jetsun Pema, sister of the 14th Dalai Lama and fondly known as “Amala”, the SOS Tibetan Children’s Village School (TCV) has extended across India to ensure all Tibetan refugees receive free and equal opportunities for education.
Its curriculum covers both traditional Tibetan cultural and educational practices and modern Indian requirements, and it has become a key link for refugees. In Choglamsar alone, 2,000 children from Leh and the Changthang plateau are enrolled in TCV.
“What binds the refugee community together is education and Buddhism,” said Dhasey.
After her father’s death, her 25-year-old sister took care of the family, eventually moving to New Delhi to open a shop. Dhasey was staying in the TCV hostel when her father died during her exams in 10th grade, and it was the school that kept her going.
In New Delhi, Dhasey gained a degree in English and landed a job at a call centre where she worked the night shift, earning 9,000 rupees ($142) a month.
But the difficulties her sister faced running her shop in the capital while caring for her children who were at school in Choglamsar, meant Dhasey had to return to Ladakh.
“Childcare is a big problem for Tibetans, and it’s also a problem for Ladakhis,” said Dhasey.
“Mothers need to work, but when they have small children they have to stay at home because there are very few daycares. They become unemployed.”
It is a view echoed by Sangay, president of the Tibetan Women’s Association in Ladakh, who recently commented on the unique challenges faced by women in Sonamling. “Many women from prior nomadic settlements lack the educational skills to work jobs other than manual labour. They face daycare problems because they have to depend on their daily earnings,” Sangay said.
Dhasey’s ambition is to give back something to her community and she now plans to study for a PhD in education.
Unclear legal status
Dhasey’s friend, Damdul Topden, 35, pulls out a sheet of paper and reads a list of issues faced by the Tibetan refugee community in Ladakh, at the top of which is unemployment.
One of seven children, he grew up looking after his family’s sheep and yak in Changthang, the remote home of the Drogpa nomads.
“Life was hard,” he said. “In winter time we were cut off, completely isolated.”
But for Damdul, the chance to go to school was a way out, and after sixth grade he moved to Choglamsar to attend the TCV.
Damdul gained a degree in mathematics from University of Delhi then taught briefly at Siddhartha school before landing a job with a Delhi-based NGO providing Tibetans with life skills training.
He recently left his job to find a better way to serve his community, “because we are not just country-less, we are legally homeless”.
Despite the decision of some Tibetans to register to vote after voting rights were granted to the children of refugees born in India, most are wary of applying for or claiming full Indian citizenship. The process is arduous, refugees must obtain approval from the Tibetan Government in Exile, and many fear applying will indicate disloyalty to their national identity.
When it comes to accessing higher education, Tibetans are also hampered by a lack of documentation, which stems from the fact they are not recognised officially as refugees but as “foreigners” who must obtain a registration card from the Indian government.
Tibetans who have graduated in journalism, law and some technical subjects are unable to obtain jobs in those fields, and are barred from owning property.
However, young Tibetans such as Dhasey and Damdul are quick to endorse the Indian government’s treatment of their community.
“We are grateful, you know,” said Dhasey. “We just want to feel like we have civil rights.”