Tibetan Exiles: A Generation in Peril

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Altaf Qadri / AP

A Tibetan Buddhist nun walks with a Tibetan flag in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile

Three years ago, on a desperately cold day in the Himalayan winter of 2006, Tashi and his two friends reached Lhasa after a long trek from their nomadic settlement in Tibet's Ambdo province. From there, they telephoned their families to tell them they were going across the border, to Dharamsala in India, to see the Dalai Lama and get an education. The families were worried — in addition to the risk of being caught fleeing Tibet, the boys faced an even more arduous, monthlong trek through innumerable snow-covered passes. Each was barely out of his teens and had paid 3,000 yuan (about $440) to a "guide" to take them to Nepal, where they would be received by the Refugee Reception Centre run by the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Despite the hazards, the three young men were able to reach Dharamsala, meet their revered spiritual leader and enroll in a special school for exiles 18 and older. But that is not where the story ends. After three years, all three of the boys have dropped out of school. They have been unable to find jobs and are living on the dole. Their circumstances reflect a half-century of Tibetan-exile existence in India: self-segregated by exile leaders fearful of its losing its cultural identity, the community has not assimilated into India. Many among the younger exiles can't wait for the first opportunity to return to Chinese-ruled Tibet — or a chance to move to any country other than India. (See pictures of Tibet's traditional culture being besieged by Chinese consumerism.)

Tashi, who asked to be identified by only one name to protect his family back in Tibet, still speaks just Tibetan and some Chinese. He had never been to school in Tibet, and in Dharamsala, he says, "I only managed to study for two years ... I struggled with languages. And now, since I don't know Hindi or English, I can't find a job."

Even Tibetans born and raised in India — second- and third-generation refugees — find the going tough when it comes to finding work. According to the Tibetan Demographic Survey carried out by the Central Tibetan Administration, unemployment rates are as high as 75%. "I know many people without jobs," says Theton Jigme, 31, an employee with the Central Tibetan Administration who found his present job three years after completing an undergraduate degree at a university in Chandigarh. "We have some 1,250 Tibetan students graduating each year, but we can only provide government jobs to 5% of them." (See pictures of exiled Tibetans struggling to preserve their culture.)

The unemployment problem has roots stretching back to the first wave of migrants — about 80,000 of them — who followed the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. Many of them were unschooled, unskilled nomads who found only low-wage jobs in road construction. A few thousand were allotted uninhabited jungle land in southern and northeastern India and given training to become farmers. Later, some received subsidies to help market traditional handicrafts. But the vast majority of migrants settled in Dharamsala along with the Dalai Lama. The local economy was unable to absorb them. A mere lucky few found odd jobs or set up business in roadside stalls.

Back then, the new migrants didn't mind the difficulties too much. They were used to a harsh life and thought they would all go back to Tibet soon. Fifty years on, however, the situation is very different, because the expectations have changed. Thanks to a rigorous commitment to education, the literacy rates of the community, which now numbers about 130,000, have been rising constantly (the rate among 19-to-25-year-olds is 99%). Some go to university but then find themselves competing with the more numerous Indian graduates. Many end up, at best, working in beauty parlors, restaurants and tourism-related industries.

"There is immense competition in the job market, but there are also opportunities which Tibetan youngsters have failed to utilize," says Karma Yeshi, an MP in the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, who also runs the Voice of Tibet radio station. "There is demand for translators from Chinese to Tibetan and back, for example, but few students have the guidance to know this. Is there a single Tibetan who has studied Chinese policy? International law? U.N. mechanisms?" he asks with more than a dash of criticism, adding, "Enthusiasm and intentions are necessary, but good education is also needed."

A deep sense of alienation from Indian society has developed among young Tibetans. "Many Indians see Tibetans as parasites," says Jigme. "They look down on us. I tell such people that Tibetan forces fought alongside Indians in the 1971 war [against Pakistan] in Kargil. They are present on the Siachen glacier [facing off against the Pakistani military.]" Jigme says he feels a sense of pride in the fact that his grandfather worked with a secret military force under the Indian government, but adds, "I still feel like we are people of nowhere."

See a story about the generation gap in Tibet's royal family.

See pictures of the Dalai Lama at home in Dharamsala.

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