Better than most, Richie Bryan, coordinator at Rogpa Baby Care Centre (BCC), recognizes the immediate need for child-care and work opportunities among Tibetan refugees in Dharamshala, the hub of Exile Tibet; "every week a dozen people come to ask for a job or a place for their kids". He is neither bragging nor complaining but merely stating the facts as he sits in the cosy but cramped office at the BCC. 30-year-old Richie from England has volunteered for the successful NGO Rogpa, on and off, for the past five years and is a great example of the many motivated and engaged volunteers who contribute to provide free day-care to low-income Tibetan families 6 days a week.
At the nursery, in a rented house behind the main streets of McLeod Ganj, there is barely enough room for its 45 toddlers who are being looked after by 7 trained staff, all of whom are from the local Tibetan community, and a number of international volunteers. What the BCC lack in terms of space, however, it makes up for with a professional and compassionate approach:
"A lot of people come here knowing nobody, having no family connections, maybe all their family is in Tibet and they are here on their own. There are a lot of single parents here as well, particularly for them it is a life-line to have someone pick up your kids for you", Richie told TPI Reporter Cornelius Lundsgaard during an interview a few days after the well-visited 7th annual Rogpa Festival on May 14 which raised around Rs 22.000 (approximately $490) for the organization.
The festival program featured an inter-cultural array of performances and activities including traditional Tibetan music and dance, children's workshops and playground, jam sessions and an exhibition by the traveling photo laboratory Proyecto Infancia (www.proyectoinfancia.com) with pictures taken by students at the Upper TCV school and developed with help from the Spanish/Italian project.
Throughout the day, hundreds of people participated and the narrow staircase leading down to the school yard was constantly congested by smiling faces. Many were dressed in elaborately designed traditional Tibetan clothes and the support from the Tibetan community was clear from their engagement and help with everything from organizing and entertaining to manning food-stalls and information points. Artists from the international community of the surrounding hill-areas were literally queuing up to contribute with their acts and the mutual respect between all performers showed in the enthusiasm with which all the shows were applauded. The many children presented a humorously shared task for both locals and foreigners who took turns playing with and taking care of them as the afternoon progressed. It was, after all, an event to support the kids at the, locally much appreciated, Baby Care Centre
Behind the BCC is the Rogpa Charitable Trust which was established in 2005 by a Tibetan/Korean couple. Rogpa is a Tibetan word that means "trusted friend and helper" and the name seems aptly chosen. In the 6 years passed, Rogpa has grown from an inspired idea to now include a women's handicraft workshop, a paper-workshop for rehabilitated substance abusers, a vocational training centre in the form of a café and handicraft sales-outlet as well as the baby care centre which is at the heart of the organisation's activities. Key to all Rogpa's programs are the notions of independence and self-sufficiency as they strive to create sustainable solutions to the challenges of Tibetan refugees in Dharamshala.
"This is a very transient town, people usually don't stay long", Richie explained of both Tibetan refugees and foreign volunteers. "To ensure continuity and familiarity with the kids, volunteers need to be able to stay for at least 3 weeks in a row, unless they join for the 4 weekly baby trips to nearby locations such as the Dalai Lama's main temple of surrounding nature areas", said Richie and added that on these trips, volunteers are assigned a baby each as it takes a lot of hands to make an excursion of 40 or more kids safe and relaxed at the same time.
One benefactor from the Rogpa BCC is 24-year-old Tsering Youdon who works as a nursery teacher and gets a monthly salary of Rs 3000 (approximately $67)). "My daughter is also in the baby care centre where I work as a teacher. Because of Rogpa I am able to earn a livelihood and raise my child at the same time", she said between changing nappies at the centre. Employment for Tibetans in Dharamshala can be hard to find, especially the much-sought-after jobs in the Tibetan community are hard to come across and often presents a challenge for new refugees arriving at residence of the revered Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama.
Currently the Rogpa Charitable Trust employs 20 people but by the sound of it they are looking to expand their activities to include even more staff and programs. "Every Sunday a group of us go to the upper TCV for two hours to do art and creative writing and music workshop with the children. Our idea is to expand that and make a mobile children's library. Ideally we'd have a bus or a van for that use, but obviously it needs funding, so we are looking for that", said Richie and added "we are looking for donations of good quality art materials, or books that particularly promote peace, art, music and education - not Disney and that kind of thing..."
"For a country whose language is endangered it is really a good time to promote creative- and story-writing amongst Tibetan children so the emphasis is on writing in Tibetan" he explains. The idea behind is to eventually start a high-standard publishing company to fill in the gap of children's books written in Tibetan, as he said "There are lots of Buddhist, philosophical and political books but nothing much for children, most children books that you find in a Tibetan school are in English".
However, Rogpa's visionary scope doesn't end here. On the drawing board is also a home for elderly Tibetans to be called the "Tibetan Silver Community", the idea being to provide both housing and employment for the seniors, of whom most fled from Tibet in 1959 together with the Dalai Lama.
Another plan is to build a stone-housed "Rogpa Village" in order to gain more self-sufficiency for Tibetan families with plots of farmland, solar energy, a craft centre, a baby centre and accommodation for volunteers too. "At the moment there is not enough money for accommodation to volunteers or anything like that. We want to become more sustainable because renting everything costs a lot of money" said Richie and explained how the land-lord so far is ignoring the dampness of the building despite the high rent, "at the moment we haven't even got water here, it doesn't feel like we have got any rights" he said, echoing the plight of the many Tibetan refugees in India.
Judging by the scale of involvement from the local community and the immediate needs the organisation is meeting, it seems that Rogpa is indeed occupying a firmly grounded space. Whether Rogpa will eventually move to a more sustainable country-side location, only time can tell, but one thing is for sure; to Richie and the Rogpa foundation, success is not a pillow to rest on, rather it is an incentive to dream up even bigger schemes to meet the needs of the Tibetan community and build bridges between cultures in the years to come.
If you want to know more about Rogpa or how to support them, visit www.tibetrogpa.com or search for "Rogpa Charitable Trust" on Facebook.