Wherever you are in the building, the hypnotic chant of Buddhist scripture finds your ears. Tibetans of all ages crowd along the corridors waiting for their next class, bowing and smiling as others pass. This is not, however, Tibet.
HSYWE (The Himalayan Society for Youth and Women Empowerment) is in Boudha, an area of Kathmandu, Nepal. It is a charity providing free lessons in English and Buddhist scriptures to the local community of Tibetan refugees.
It is exactly fifty years since China absorbed Tibet, and institutions and schools like HSYWE are becoming increasingly popular. Manasarover Academy is one of these schools.It too is situated in Kathmandu and was founded by three women, including Tsultrim Sangmo.
“Tibetan people need education’, she says. ‘We cannot fight the Chinese with weapons, and we cannot express our plight if we are uneducated”. The Director of HSYWE agrees, adding that education is vital so the Tibetan people have “representatives to engage in talks with the Chinese government, it is our only chance.”
However, they are Chinese-controlled schools, and a member of the Tibetan Government in Exile spoke of their inadequacy. “Chinese schools teach a distorted history, and only the Chinese language. We’re going to lose our culture, our identity. People are saying ‘Our children have become mute’. As Palden Gyatso, who at 73 remembers the Chinese invasion, says, “To stay Tibetan, Tibetans have to leave Tibet.”
Despite school being compulsory, it is made extremely difficult for Tibetan children to attend. ‘Miscellaneous fees’, and teachers demanding ‘gifts’ from only Tibetan students, have led to a 60% illiteracy rate among city dwelling Tibetans, compared to only 9% in the Chinese population.
The literacy rate is even lower in the rural regions, home to 80% of the Tibetan population – government funding is concentrated in urban areas instead, home to a predominantly Chinese population. Schools in the exiled communities, however, such as Kathmandu, boast a literacy rate of 98%.
But thriving schools like these are the result of a hard struggle. Tsultrim Sangmo remembers two brothers she met shortly after her escape to a school in Dharamsala, India, in the 1980s. ‘They were sent by their parents to get an education, and climbed the mountains to get to India. They had gotten frostbite, and lost their feet.”
Every member of the exiled Tibetan community has a story to tell about their families’ escape. They sombrely speak of the struggle to live with the knowledge that while they are free, so many left behind were imprisoned or killed.
Stories of specific – and horrific – incidents, such as people being buried alive, are common. Miss Sangmo spoke of her citizenship, Tibetans remain highly restricted. They are unable to attend university, get a government-funded education, or go abroad except by road, bribing their way across borders.
Many feel that because Nepal is sandwiched between such powerful nations, the government is careful to please the Chinese, thus becoming stricter on Tibetan communities.
This has only increased since the bloody protests in Tibet in March 2008, marking the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising. The Director of HSYWE said of this further restriction on freedom: “We used to be allowed to celebrate His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday openly; there was a Tibetan Welfare Officer here who made sure that we weren’t beaten too brutally in protests – now all these things have been stopped.”
A more recent threat has been posed by the Nepalese Maoists who, since losing power, have been warning that they will resume the People’s War. The Chinese Government are also posing an increasing threat, highlighted by Miss Sangmo’s words- that “if you’re not educated, it’s easy to get a visa – I think they’re scared of the educated.”
There are constant strikes in Nepal, but despite the closure of all local schools during these, Miss Sangmo keeps Manasarover Academy open. “Every day of learning for these children is important, and so we try to stay open’. She admits that when the telephone rings on strike days, she is terrified that it is the Maoists. When asked what would happen if the Maoists realised the school was open, she says “They would come in and smash it up from top to bottom.”
The majority of Tibetans in the exiled community have never returned home and remember vividly the day they left. A group of young Buddhist monks recall The 25th September 2003. We were separated from our family at nine o’clock in the morning, and we haven’t seen them since” For others, many more years have passed since they left. Palden Gyatso has not been back to Tibet in 54 years, and yet, like most, he remains hopeful; “I refused to apply for a refugee card here in Nepal, because I know Tibet will be free and good soon.”