Refugee Stories

Revised May 31st, 2012

In the article The stories of Tibetan elders in exile, J.M. Brown writes about the oral history project work by clinical psychologist Marcella Adamski in recording the stories of Tibetan elders in exile. Adamski’s work was spurred directly from a request by the Dalai Lama, whom she met in Dharamsala in 1999. After reading this article I was reminded of some of the stories I have heard from my own “elders in exile” when I was younger. I thought I’d patch together and share some of these stories so that people can read them and then maybe share their own stories as well.

I can remember most clearly my mother’s account of why her family fled from Tibet in late 1959. My mother’s family lived in the  small farming village of Namdha, about a half hour walk from the town of  Khangmar in the district of Gyantse. Her family was the wealthiest of the village and her father was well respected for the kindness he had shown to the poorer villagers and the loans he gave to those who needed it

My late grandfather and I
My late grandfather and I

One particular villager had a lot of respect for my grandfather. My mother cannot recall his name, but for the sake of the story I will refer to him as Tenzin. Tenzin was the father of one of the poorest families in the village, with many children to care for. For this reason, many of the villagers took pity on him — especially my grandfather. My grandfather had always helped Tenzin by giving him food and clothing for his children. On one occasion Tenzin had persuaded my grandfather to lend him money for a business venture he wished to engage in. However, rather than using this money for the business venture, Tenzin ended up gambling all the money away.

Out of shame and fear of coming back to face my grandfather, and his own family, he hid somewhere nearby. But, due to the absence of their father, his family began to suffer. Thus, my grandfather went to the where Tenzin was hiding and told him to forget about the loan and come back to the village to take care of his family.

When the Chinese communists invaded Tibet in the 1950s, they began to implement social reforms within many Tibetan communities. Many of the poorest Tibetan villagers were placed as the head of their respective communities. When the communists arrived in my mother’s farming village of Namdha, they did exactly this. The communists proclaimed that Tenzin, the same man who had gambled away my grandfather’s loan and was pitied by most of the villagers of his village, was now to lead as head of the village.

 As the new head of the village, Tenzin was present at many of the meetings the Chinese communists held in the region. During one meeting he overheard the communists’ decision to arrest my grandfather under the charge of being a “feudal serf lord”. He quickly went to my grandfather and told him of the decision to arrest him. He urged my grandfather to quickly flee before the communists would surely come to arrest him. My grandfather, heeding to Tenzin’s warning, fled with his wife and children south towards India through the Himalayas.

The Himalayas

One side-story from my grandfather’s flight to India that I can also recall comes from my late uncle, who was my mother’s eldest brother. A snowstorm had picked up during the family’s escape through the Himalayas. When the storm settled my uncle had found himself in a tough situation. He looked around and could not find his parents or siblings anywhere. He was all alone. The storm had separated him from his family and, worst of all, he was lost and had no idea which direction he should head in order to reunite with them. 

My uncle started to look around for any sign or clue that might help him find his way. Suddenly, in the distance, he noticed a bird flying high in the sky. This was no ordinary bird; he had recalled how his father had told him how this particular bird was sacred and it’s sighting considered auspicious. In my uncle’s mind, this had to have been a sign of some sort. He began to head in the direction of the bird. After walking for some time a snow storm picked up, once again he found himself covered in wind and snow.

Suddenly, my uncle noticed a silhouette of a figure walking towards him in the distance. It was difficult to distinguish who, or what, this figure was, but my uncle quickly concluded that this was surely a Chinese soldier who had caught his entire family and was now looking to capture him too. He turned and began to run, but the Chinese soldier pursued him. He kept running, but soon his legs began to tire. Eventually the shadow of the Chinese soldier approached from only a few feet behind him. Exhausted from running, he turned and faced the soldier.

As the Chinese soldier approached and put his hands forth to grab him, my uncle tried to slip past — but he was too slow. The soldier blocked him from running around and then grabbed onto him. My uncle tried to wrestle free from this man’s grip, but couldn’t get loose. He finally looked up and examined this stranger closely, he realized that he had not been captured by a Chinese soldier afterall — it was his own father who had been searching for him.

Tibetan Mastiff

Lastly, I can recall another story from my second eldest uncle. During the family’s flight to India, My uncle had begged to take along the family’s Tibetan mastiff dog. My grandfather quickly objected to my uncles pleas, he realized it would be too dangerous for the family if the dog was noisy.

And so, the dog was left behind. However, shortly after leaving their village and walking for some time, the dog could be seen in the distance running towards the family. After a short while the dog had finally reunited with his owners. Somehow he had managed to break free from his leash and find the family. The sight of the liberated dog made my uncle very happy (perhaps to the dismay of my grandfather); the two friends could make the long trek together after all. It seemed the dog had escaped his own chains to now help (as we’ll later see) his owners escape their own chains of repression.

After weeks of travelling the family had reached the Tibetan border. Many starving Tibetan families, who had made the strenuous trek through the Himalayas, approached farmers in these borderlands with gold, jewelry, and other valuables in attempt to make exchanges for food. My grandfather’s family was one of these Tibetan families, the harsh conditions during the trek had led to the death of two of his sons. He hoped that these farmers would be kind enough to provide food for his family to prevent the loss of more of his children.

He approached a farmer and offered their most valuable jewelry and belongings for food. The farmer rejected his offer since he had already amassed plenty of jewelry and gold from other fleeing Tibetan families before them. However, the farmer had taken a liking to my uncle’s Tibetan Mastiff. And so, regretably for my uncle, the dog was exchanged to the farmer for food to nourish the family.

Sometime after my mother’s family arrived in India, my grandfather received a letter from the Chinese communists informing him that the crops from his land had been sold for a sum of money which he should come back to claim. Rightfully suspicious, my grandfather replied that he did not want to come back to claim the money, rather, the Chinese should distribute the money out to the people of his village.

I’m not certain whether the Chinese communists followed out my grandfather’s wishes, but it gives me another reason to someday go to Tibet and see the village my family once called home.


6 thoughts on “Refugee Stories

  1. Dawa

    Thanks for sharing the story with us. There are many skeptics out there who think Tibetans’ claim to what China did is not credible (Melyvian Goldstein for one, Barry Sautman for two and the likes) just because we didnot have video camera in those days to show for it, even now, what use is video camera when no foreigners (locals are restricted as well) are allowed to go in there in the first place during certain tense times like the recent events. I have heard worse stories and we definitely need to keep it alive, not for raising anger in our minds against the Chinese but to know what our forefathers have endured and to be humbled by their experiences and to work towards what hopes they might have had for us.

    The people from the East (Kham and Amdo)had especially horrible times as they were so far from Nepal and India. One of my friend who is in Toronto now walked for 28 days! Another friend of mine in Toronto lost his younger brother in the snow while crossing the mountains in late 1990s. His younger brother escaped Tibet with another person and only the bones of the two were remaining. I couldnot help crying on the phone when he told me but he was calm-I cannot imagine how he really handles it. There are countless sad and for many unbelievable things that have happened to Tibetans and we need to document it for ourselves and for our future generation. Never before in Tibetan history have Tibetans left Tibet en mass as this.

    Another elderly lady told me she had to decide between leaving her dying mother on her own and move West towards India/Nepal or risk being captured by the Chinese. Others have seen their family members being shot right infront of them.

    My own grandfather died shortly after being released from Chinese prison. My uncle had to escape as they were coming for him as the eldest and only son of my grandfather. He escaped to Nepal where in the border area, he worked as domestic helper for a Sherpa family and gradually moved down to Kathmandu Valley where most Tibetans moved eventually.

    I think one of the reason why many of us Tibetans find it hard to swallow the Middle path as led by His Holiness is the huge grievances that we have against China that are ingrained in our family history, how can I forgive and be part of the same family as the ones who killed my parents. You have to be His Holiness himself or other Bodhisattvas to have such kind of forgiveness. Though pragmatically, we might agree to middle path but emotionally, I cannot see myself being under Chinese rule. I am learning to have more Bodhisattvas like understanding and loving kindness, ofcourse it will take long..long..very long..


  2. BarbM

    Thanks for your story.If the people had it as good as the Chinese claim,they would not be risking their lives to escape .

  3. Tenzin

    Your personal stories were very touching and made me very sad as I don’t have such stories to tell my future kids. In any case, I wanted to compliment you on your writing! It produced a picture in my mind that was very vivid and lively. Have you ever thought of going into writing novels? Or histories of the exile Tibetans in your area? If you ever do, I’ll surely buy your book! 🙂

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