Tibetans in Exile

I’m now a week or so into documenting the lives of the Tibetan refugees living in Darjeeling, India, and thought I would start to share some of the stories I’ve heard. The plight of the Tibetan’s has long since been a favourite sympathy for Western activists, but it wasn’t until I got here and started talking to the elderly refugees that I felt a personal connection.

What I’ve found in Darjeeling is a community of some of the most harmless and lovely people I’ve ever encountered in the world. It’s hard to imagine them raising their voices at one another let alone bearing arms against the People’s Liberation Army of China.

The people in the center are happy and well cared for, if not rich. They have built a business for themselves producing traditional handicrafts made from organic materials that funds their daily needs. It would not be a particularly sad place if it wasn’t for the tragic events that brought the people there in the first place. But it is sad. Behind their welcoming smiles are stories of hardship and a hope for a future political landscape that doesn’t seem likely.

Once quite a thriving and lively place, the center is turning into a ghost town. The young people have left, pursuing education and employment elsewhere in India or abroad. Apart from a few youths home on school vacation, only the infants and the elderly remain. What will happen to their culture and traditions when the old generation dies off? If China decided to return Tibet to the Tibetans, would there be enough culture remaining to rebuild what was lost? Would the young generation, well-educated and ambitious, even want to go back?

I’ll be shooting for another two weeks in an effort to understand these questions, if not answer them definitively, and will post a complete photoessay when it is finished. For now, though, I though I’d start sharing the personal stories in more detail than is possible in a two sentence photo caption.

Hope you find them as interesting as I have.


Nawang Chonzom, 83.

Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in the Tibetan refugee center in Darjeeling.

Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in the Tibetan refugee center in Darjeeling.

Sitting in her small room in the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center in Darjeeling, Nawang Chonzom seems much younger than her 83 years. She lucidly recalls being a young mother in 1959 when rumours of the invading Chinese army reached her. She had heard that the soldiers were capturing and torturing Tibetans, but it wasn’t until they tried to kill her husband that she decided to leave. He had been stockpiling a secret cache of wheat for his family, knowing that hard times were coming to Tibet, and when the soldiers discovered it they tried to shoot him. Somehow escaping, he returned to the family home and announced that it was time to go.

Because of the urgency of the situation, there was no time to liquidate any of the family’s assists or to collect their valuables. With no money to her name, Nawang tied her baby daughter to her back and set out on foot to Nepal. With one child on her back and two more following at her side, she survived the trek by begging along the way.

Crossing into Nepal and living on the streets in the small town of Walung on the Nepal-India border, Nawang heard that a refugee centre for Tibetans was being established in the Indian city of Darjeeling. She immediately led her family out of Nepal and into India, arriving in Darjeeling a few days later. Initially she had to continue begging on the streets, but she was quickly invited into the newly-established refugee centre and given a job rolling woollen threads into balls.

When I asked her how long she did this work for, she pauses and looks absently at her hands. “I don’t know. 40 or 50 years maybe. But now I have problems with my knees and it’s getting harder to leave the house.”

Now an old woman, she makes it to work when she can. He son died many years ago of a disease she cannot remember the name of, and her two daughters (including the one she carried on her back) live in New York City. They send money home to their mother when they can, but Nawang says she doesn’t need much money, that the refugee centre provides her with the things she needs to live.

“I don’t know about the future. I am old and don’t know anything about politics, but I want to live to see Tibetan independence,” Nawang says when asked about the future of her country. She prays to the Dalai Lama every day, along with nearly every other Tibetan in the centre, but says she can’t be sure her wish will come true.


Anyone interested in supporting these people, particularly the very elderly in the center who may not have a family to help them, can email me at lfphotographs “at” gmail.com, or use the contact form.  Without pointing fingers at any individuals, it has been made clear to me by certain people at the center that there are some avenues of donation that are much more effective than others. If you want your money to go directly to those who need it, contact me directly and I will point you in the right direction.


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