Nestled under the eastern Himalayas rests the sleepy city of Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim in North Eastern India. This is tea country, home to hot dumplings, Buddhist prayer and more than one rogue yeti sighting. However, for one small community, their lives here are the results of less peaceful beginnings. They are Tibetan refugees, whose families fled from the persecution of the Chinese army in 1959.
Two generations later, a small Tibetan refugee community is still thriving in Gangtok. In 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting one member of this community. Tashi was an intelligent and plucky high school boy who enjoyed World of Warcraft. Four years on, Tashi’s success story is the ideal for any refugee community. He currently attends the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Medical Science and hopes to one day become a doctor. I recently asked Tashi about his experiences as a Tibetan refugee in India.
L: How and when did your family come to India?
T: According to my grandmother, they used to live in Gyangtse where they owned a small shop. Later, they moved to Shigatse. My great grandmother used to come to Sikkim to work as manual labourers and help in the construction of roads. After the invasion, my great grandmother and her daughter along with her eldest son (my uncle) and daughter (my aunt) fled to Sikkim.
L: There aren’t many escape routes into India, and we often hear of refugees risking frostbite and exhaustion to make the perilous journey through the Himalayas. Did your family face similar struggles when they fled?
T: Since my great grandparents used to come regularly to India I think it was relatively easier for them than it was for others. Still, they did have to cross the mountains and find their way into Tibet, leaving all their belongings and whatever land they owned. My grandmother told me they had to hide behind rocks so that the Chinese soldiers wouldn’t see them.
L: Do you feel like your community in Sikkim faces discrimination from Indians?
T: Yes, there is discrimination although I have never heard incidences where somebody was hurt. Some people do still treat us as refugees, however, the majority of the people are very nice. Recently a lot of issues have been raised regarding this matter, and people are protesting against this all the time.
L: What do you think are the major challenges your community is facing?
T: I think the major challenge my community is facing right now would be the unemployment crisis. There are very limited job opportunities in India, and since not everyone gets the best education students have a tough time with finding employment. This is also the reason why people opt to go to other countries like the US, France or Germany.
L: Do you consider yourself Tibetan or Indian? What do you feel a stronger connection to?
T: Although I am Tibetan, India is my home now. My grandparents and parents always urge us to speak in Tibetan, learn about our culture, and preserve it. I feel that we can be outside Tibet and still do our bit in maintaining our culture and heritage. I do feel like have a certain degree of responsibility towards my native place and that in the future I should do something to help the people still living in Tibet, however, I also owe it to India, and I need to give back to the community.
Tashi’s outlook is optimistic but reflects a nuance in the experience of third generation refugees and that of their grandparents. While Tashi’s grandparents struggle to prevent the erasure of their culture, Tashi must perform a difficult balancing act; one between an onus to his heritage and a duty to his country. Undoubtedly, this struggle is not unique to the Tibetan refugees of Sikkim.
Tashi’s story begets questions closer to home. In the face of terror, the Tibetan people faced a rugged mountain range. The Syrian people have faced vast seas. India welcomed the former with open arms. Has Australia done so with the latter? How many Tashis, our future doctors, are wasting away on Nauru? The world’s refugee conversation must be a personal one.
Refugee policy is a policy that affects people first and statistics second. Drafting good refugee legislation is complex because the nature of conflict is complex, but in our efforts, we must not lose sight of people like Tashi. The Tibetan people crossed the Himalayas, the world’s largest wall, to obtain asylum. Let us not build yet larger walls elsewhere.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting another Tibetan refugee settlement in the Nepalese town of Pokhara. Tibetan school children skipped past me, joking in their native language. The parents smiled cheerily, but they speak with a more solemn tone. ‘What do you want most for your community?’, I asked a portly grandfather. His response echoed the prayers of the world’s 65 million displaced persons.
‘We just want to go home.’