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A Story We Know Only Too Well

October 28, 2009 – 12:19 pm19 Comments

longsho

By Keren Tuch

As I sat sipping chai in a tea shop in the Indian town of McCleod Ganj, home to the Tibetan government in exile, I contemplated how it came to be that I could be so ignorant of the details of most conflicts in the world except the one which is closest to home, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We Jews can often be so absorbed by our own struggles and history that we tend to forget others. Do we not have a duty to be engaged with other people’s persecution stories as well?

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of self-imposed Tibetan exile, led by the Dalai Lama. Since March 10, 1959, it has been unsafe for Tibetans to practice their religion and celebrate their culture in their own homeland. Tibetans are routinely imprisoned and tortured. Peaceful protest and demonstrations are prohibited. Persecution, exile, religious restriction – it’s a story we Jews know only too well.

McCleod Ganj, also known as Little Lhasa, is a scenic and quaint town in North India, located at the chilling altitude of 2000 metres. The mesmerizing Himalayas loom majestically in the backdrop. It is a home away from home for approximately seventy thousand Tibetan refugees. The narrow streets are lined with colourful Tibetan prayer flags. The musky smell of Tibetan incense pervades the handicraft shops. Elderly Tibetans dressed in traditional attire fervently clasp their rosary beads and mutter ancient mantras. The trendy younger generation, dressed in jeansnepal and sporting fancy haircuts, meander the streets aimlessly – they have no jobs. Buddhist mantras re-mixed with trance beats are repetitively played from shop windows, while “Save Tibet” beanies and t-shirts fill up the shelves of the souvenir shops. But of the six million Tibetans in the world, only 150 thousand of them may wear these t-shirts – in Tibet, it is illegal to even whisper the words. World media and international organizations report that the Chinese are imprisoning Tibetans merely for peaceful protesting and teaching Tibetan history. In many cases, incarceration also leads to torture. Over the past fifty years of the Tibetan struggle, it is estimated that 1.2 million Tibetans have died at the hands of the Chinese government. To my Jewish consciousness, this staggering figure brings up many images of our own suffering through history. This is another story we know all too well.

It is for this reason that thousands of Tibetans risk their lives every year to flee to Nepal or India. Parents and families gather huge sums and go into debt in order to send their children with mercenary Nepali guides, who promise to lead them through the perilous Himalayas. They do not know if they will ever see them again. The refugees walk at night for a month out of fear of being caught by Chinese patrols. Some develop frostbite but continue anyway, as the only other option is death, which often catches up with a few people along the way. Once across the border in Nepal or India, they are taken to a Refugee Centre to be medically treated and fed. Again, this reminds me of our own stories – of destitute columns fleeing across Europe to escape Nazi persecution.

In the past fifty years, the Tibetans in exile have done an incredible job of establishing a new home. Despite the looming obstacle of assimilation, they have managed to retain their Tibetan culture, language and sense of humour; but who knows what the situation will be in another fifty years. The children refugees are sent to a boarding school called a Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). No matter how old they are, and despite what grade they are coming from, all the children start from grade one again. They are assigned a ‘home mother’ – a substitute figure who cooks and cares for groups of thirty students. They are nurtured, disciplined and given a top Tibetan education, which is one of the main reasons for emigrating.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to meet 27 students from three different TCVs. Because of my previous experience as a madricha (Jewish youth leader), I was able to help lead at a Tibetan Youth Movement called Longsho (meaning “Rise Up”). In 2000, a British woman named Kalela Lancaster established the Tibetan Jewish Youth Exchange (TJYE). Kalela saw that the Tibetans faced the same problem that Jews in exile have been facing for 2000 years – loss of cultural identity, and the challenge of how to preserve it in exile.

The aim of TJYE is to enhance the cultural identity of both Jewish and Tibetan youth through informal education, mainly through a summer and winter camp each year.  Tibetan leaders are sent to England to learn how Jews successfully run youth camps; promoting culture and religion while uniting the community. When they return to India, they then bring their knowledge and skills to the Tibetan community. As part of the exchange, Jews who are traveling through Mcleod Ganj and have attended Jewish youth camps can help out and contribute their expertise.

The camp turned out to be a replica of the camps I have grown to know so well throughout my years of involvement with Hineni. All I had to do was substitute the Jewish content and context for the Tibetan equivalent. Surprisingly, they even chanted the same songs that were so familiar to me, including the one about a senorita going to a fair in Netanya. The students, fiercely proud of their identity, all shed tears at the end of the ten day camp, realizing what a special experience it was and the importance of retaining their culture.

By the end of the camp, I realized that for we Jews, this is one small way we can help another people in need.  We may not be able to directly convince the Chinese government to give autonomy to the Tibetans, but we can support initiatives such as TJYE, which are beneficial to both parties and put our years of expertise to good use.

For those interested in reading more about TJYE projects, check out www.tjye.org.uk.

Keren Tuch is a Sydney-based physiotherapist, former Hineni madricha and intrepid world traveller.

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