Tag Archives: refugee

Tibetans in Exile: Topgay

Topgay, 77, sits in a workshop where he rolls woolen threads into balls. He escaped from Tibet on foot, traveling accross the Himalayas on foot and settling in Darjeeling, India.

Topgay, 77, sits in a workshop where he rolls woolen threads into balls. He escaped from Tibet on foot, traveling accross the Himalayas on foot and settling in Darjeeling, India.

Topgay is a 77 year old who is clearly the joker in the room of five men. They are sitting on raised platforms above a wooden floor and wrapped in thick wool blankets to deal with the winter chill. While all the men are more than willing to talk about their past, Topgay seems genuinely excited to share his story.

On a June night more than 50 years ago he decided it was time to leave Tibet. He had recently witnessed the shootings of some of his fellow Tibetans, and the threat of capture and torture was constant. When it became clear the main force of the invading Chinese would reach him soon, he simply walked away from his house and into the Himalayas. He left behind almost all of his possessions, including four yaks and over two hundred sheep.

The fact that he walked to the border of India and Nepal in just five days is more of a testament to the hardiness of the Tibetans than the difficulty of the journey. The air is so thin that, for the unacclimatized, walking up a flight of stairs can be exhausting. Topgay did it with a week’s worth of food and water on his back.

He stayed in Nepal for nearly ten years, working as a casual labourer, until he heard that the Tibetan government in exile had settled in India. Along with his parents he crossed into India, where he was granted refugee status. Initially intending to head to the southern city of Bangalore, Topgay changed his plans when he heard that a centre had been established for Tibetans in the nearby city of Darjeeling. He has now been there for more than forty years.

When asked about the future of Tibet, Topgay says that he believes a “sun of joy” will shine on Tibetans and they will be free again. He admits that some of the younger generation seem to have moved away from their cultural traditions, but feels that the Dalai Lama is doing such a good job of educating the world about Tibetan issues that the culture will persevere.

This is the second in a series of profiles about Tibetan refugees.


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.

Posted in Blog, India, Tibetan Refugees Also tagged , , , , |

North Korean Refugee Protests in Seoul

A protestor outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul

An elderly man protests the Chinese repatriation of North Korean refugees on a chilly day in Seoul.

The international media loves North Korea. It seems like a perfect example of a place of repression where life is tough and the hardships are never ending. So it is not surprising to read accounts of people so desperate to get out that they will risk not only their own life, but the lives of anyone they have any sort of close relationship with. Since three armies (South Korean, North Korean and American) fortify the Southern border, the only way out of the world’s last truly closed country is North, into China. Would be escapees must swim across the Yalu/Amnok river and hope to be accepted as refugees on the other side. The punishment for getting caught, to the best of my knowledge, is summary execution.

If they are successful in getting into China, the refugees then begin the laborious process of trying to start a new life. Many head to South Korea where they are given instant asylum and citizenship. Some resettle in South East Asia, and some relocate to whichever Western countries are willing to take them. But what if these people go through the harrowing ordeal of sneaking past security forces and swimming to their perceived freedom only to be seized by Chinese authorities and unceremoniously shipping back to North Korea to face their almost certain death?

This is the most recent challenge facing North Korean defectors, 31 of whom were apparently “repatriated” in secret this month. And since the 100-days of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-Il is still in effect, Kim Jong-Eun, his son, has mandated that anyone guilty of attempting escape during this period will be punished by having three generations of their family exterminated.

This has caused an outcry among human rights groups and North Korean refugees around the world, those in Seoul being no exception, against the Chinese policy. These images are from a protest outside the Chinese embassy where several activists are camped out on a hunger strike. One man I met had gone 22 days without eating and was barely able to stand up.

They were very welcoming and pleased that I was interested in their cause, and it looks hopeful that I’ll be able to do a more in depth project about the lives of North Korean refugees. More to come.

Ju Wual Choi, a North Korean refugee, camps outside the Chinese embassy, six days into a hunger strike. He gives me a surreal business card that states his title as the president of "The Association of the North Korean Defectors"


Posted in Blog, Protest Also tagged , , , |