Tag Archives: self help centre

Tibetans in Exile

I’m getting close to finishing my project on Tibetan refugees and the impact that being exiled from their country has on their culture, so I thought I’d share some more faces of the people I met. The work on the refugee centre in India is finished and now my focus is on finding Tibetans who have settled in Western countries to see if or how they are able to keep their culture alive. Luckily I found out that some of the people I interviewed in India have family living in Canada, so in the coming weeks I hope to round out the story with their perspectives.

For now, here are a few of the more interesting characters from the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre in Darjeeling, India.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

A view of the Tibetan refugee centre in Darjeeling, India as seen through some Buddhist prayer wheels, the Himalayas in the background.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Karma is around 80 years old, but doesn’t know exactly. He fled the Chinese army and crossed the border into India where he worked in the Refugee Centre’s dairy. After suriving such dangerous times as a youth and emerging unscathed, his finger was bitten off by a cow in India – an irony that is not lost on him as he humorously displays his stump. “My heart says we will get Tibet back, but my brain says otherwise,” he says.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Pema (82) walked from Tibet to India with her family flock of sheep. Her only child, a daughter, died of an unkown illness in the Indian state of Sikkim before they arrived in the refugee centre. She says she has no ill feelings towards Chinese people, only their aggressive government.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Passang (91), left Tibet at age 35 after watching Chinese soldiers arrest and torture people in her home city of Sakya. She walked with a friend for nearly a month before settling in Darjeeling.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling India

Tsewang Rinzin (42) is a first generation refugee, meaning he was born in exile. In hopes of fighting against the Chinese for the freedom of Tibet, he joined the famous 2-2 regiment of the Indian army and became a personal bodyguard of the Dalai Llama. He left the army when his mother (background) became ill, and Tsewang is now an amateur bodybuilder.

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling India

Tsering Chomphel (59) is better known as “Sap” to the Tibetan community. He escaped from Tibet on his mother’s back at age 3. Like many other Tibetans he joined the 2-2 regiment of the Indian army, hoping to fight back against the Chinese. Now, however, he believes that education, not fighting, is the answer to beating China

Tibetan Refugees in Darjeeling, India

Samdup (87) was a soldier in the Dalai Llama’s personal guard. He and his unit retreated from the Chinese invasion and joined the royal entourage as it crossed the border into Nepal.

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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.

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