Intellectual, motivated, passionate. Introspective, earnest, thoughtful. These are descriptors of the students of Dharamsala, young people who have left their beloved Tibet to find freedom in India. They are without question the best students I have ever spent time with.
I volunteered to teach English in McLeod Ganj, or upper Dharamsala, during my 2009 summer break from my ESL (English as a Second Language) position in a rural Hawaii school, with the purpose of sharing language learning methods and materials, and having a chance to visit the home of the Dalai Lama. While I had thought myself to be fairly up-to-date on the Tibet-China issue, in truth I had no idea what strife these young people had seen in their lives. I was clueless as to the extent of the personal oppression, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses that the occupying Chinese government has levied upon this peaceful people---this nomadic population that had been independent and in synchronization with Nature for thousands of years.
I am no stranger to the plight of a people who have been unjustly treated in the world. My Hawaii students are from Enewetak and Bikini in the Marshall Islands, site of the U.S. nuclear testing program of 1946-58. Having suffered the explosions of 67 nuclear bombs in those twelve years that has rendered several islands in their homeland radioactively uninhabitable, the Marshall Islanders migrate to Hawaii to find a healthy environment and hopefully avoid the rampant cancers that the nuclear age has foisted upon them. In fact, they are sometimes called Nuclear Nomads because they are forced to find a new place to live in order to survive.
Although I have had many excellent students around the world, I have never had students like those in Dharamsala. My Dharamsala students are unforgettable. Along with their keen intellect, they exhibit an amazing capacity for kindness, caring, and compassionate thinking. Their incredible generosity of spirit is a gift to all who come in contact with them, and their wholehearted faith in the future is inspirational. The intense effort they put into learning the languages of the world in order to communicate the condition of their homeland and find their way through exile is the epitome of dedication. Words can barely express my admiration for each and every one of these young heroes and heroines.
To you, each and every student who unfailingly and graciously stopped to greet me in the marketplace, to the sweet girl with an unending smile who tells of hunger and frostbite during her dangerous Himalaya escape, to the nuns and monks endeavoring to keep Tibetan religious culture alive, to the ex-political prisoners who have endured and survived hideous torture---you are all heroes, superwomen and supermen, champions of all that is good. Thank you for teaching me.
Your stories of your lives and your thoughts on the future of your country are expressive and beautiful sketches of the Motherland, a frank recounting of tragedies for those left behind; they are brutal narrations of terrifying escape over dark snow mountains, and yet they are also forgiving and lovingly bright visions of the future. You, even in exile, are holding fast to a dream. You will see freedom. It will come. Free Tibet.
And to you, European, North American, and Australian Westerners who are in possession of daily freedom so integral that you may not even realize its worth---if you are able, go to Dharamsala and engage these eager minds by volunteering your time and your heart. Prepare to be moved, to become emotionally involved, to change who you are. Listen to their stories, assist them in becoming who they can be, and in the process, allow your own being to evolve onto a higher plane.
In the following examplar student writings, names are withheld due to possible repercussions:
"I was born in a holy place called Shangri-La, surrounded by high mountains near the city of Lhasa, on a lucky May day in the Water Dragon Year. At that time, Tibet was put into economic crisis and most of it's culture was destroyed because they, the Chinese, wanted to control the people and occupy the land completely."
"As a child, I was forced to learn Chinese culture with my friends. They wanted us to forget our culture and regard China as our Motherland. My family was completely disappointed by these troubles and with the greatest of despair, was forced to work in the Chinese government."
"As I grew up, I began to realize the situation of our country's crisis. As time went on, I was able to learn our own culture. Then I was sent to India with a lot of hope of my parents. They hoped that I would become an educated person."
"Now I use my precious time to learn our language and understand thousands of years of our culture. I realize Tibet has an ancient civilization and culture. My dream is to be a famous educated person, helping others. Then I will be proud of and satisfied with myself."
"I was born in the east of Tibet on a summer day, the 19th of June, 1991, near the green mountains and clean water, where colorful flowers were blooming everywhere. Some call it a Heaven on Earth. Some say it is the Roof of the World. But others call it a Hell on Earth. Whether it is a heaven or hell, I don't know, but I only know that the situation is deteriorating."
"At that time, Tibet was already occupied by Red China and they killed thousands of Tibetan people and also destroyed hundreds of monasteries and holy mountains. They annihilated millions of animals-yaks, horses, sheep and dogs, and countless wild animals."
"As a child, I lived as a nomad, and followed after the yaks, horses and sheep, but one day I was sent to a Chinese school by my kind parents. I enjoyed school, but I wanted knowledge that is not taught in that school. Therefore, I realized that my results would come to no good, so I left the school."
"My family were nomads. They lived in a black tent and their lives depended on domestic animals. They worked not only to feed their stomachs, but also for our country and nationality. As I grew up, I began to think about everything."
"As time went on, I wondered about world affairs and I almost wanted to give up. Everyone said how very difficult it was. Then I escaped to India on foot because my parents sent me to India, not only for the sake of my own education, but also for our nationality and country. Now, I am studying English, besides learning about Tibetan culture, history and language because I am a son of Tibet."
"My dream is to be a simple teacher of both English and Tibetan in Tibet because in my small village, there are many children who are illiterate. I want to change the color of their lives, and then I will feel satisfied to be a Tibetan who followed the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the great Buddha."
"I am a common Buddhist monk. I was born in 1985 in August in a small village near the forests and lakes. My hometown is in the Kham region of Tibet. There we have natural and beautiful houses, and many animals. My favorite days are in the summertime, when everybody can see all of Nature everywhere."
"I used to be a nomad with my parents. We went into the mountains to move our many animals. We stayed in the mountains for three months a year. At that time, my parents told me the story of how we lost our country. I'm the youngest in the family and my parents always hoped that I would become a monk but I didn't have a chance to go to a monastery in Tibet.
One day I left my hometown to escape to Lhasa. When I arrived in Lhasa, I met some of my countrymates. We bought food, blankets, and clothes, but there was not enough food. We walked to Nepal for 29 days. Midway, the food was all finished, and we walked without food for two or three days. We crossed many mountains and went through forests on the way. Sometimes we walked in the nighttime and we slept in the daytime because some of the places were very dangerous. We could not make tea as we had no firewood, so we just ate snow. We had to hide at some borders if we saw the Army. They would have arrested us and put us in jail for months, or forever, nobody knows."
"I thought at the time that I had one hard life. I was trying so hard. It was difficult for me to understand my life on the way. We walked on the snow-covered mountains for days without any food. We had frostbite. Later we had a chance to learn many things in India. But when I arrived and for months after, I missed my family and home very much."
"The future of Tibet is peaceful, because Tibet is a special religious and non-violent country in the world. Moreover, Tibetans have developed their good manners, justice, and have accumulated merit. And also we are simply a good nationality."
"In many generations, Tibetans would like to do good things in an independent country. All Tibetans have the same main aim, which is to protect our environment, culture, and religion in peace, as His Holiness has said. All Tibetans would like to have a peaceful place and neighborly society."
"A long time ago, Tibet was a self-reliant country. Each king confirmed their territory and had relations with neighboring countries, and developed its own religion, good manners and culture, and was proud of their history and accomplishments. Unfortunately, Red Chinese have reached Tibet and invaded our Motherland. The beauty of Tibet has been split apart. Besides that, a lot of people have been killed and tortured for our wanting a "Free Tibet.""
"Right now it is a dangerous situation. The Red Chinese are killing Tibetan people day by day. And we don't have human rights in this world. So many Chinese have moved into our Motherland year by year. They have dug up our resources and used our precious animals for export to China. Disappointingly, the Chinese want to destroy our Motherland and we cannot live in this world. So many countries are frightened of the Chinese, and therefore the situation in Tibet."
"I will become a good educated person and declare the dangerous situation of Tibet to all of the world. It is the responsibility of every Tibetan. We need our Motherland and we need equal human rights in this world."
"I hope all the countries will support our situation in Tibet, because Tibet is a precious place. When we attain our beautiful day of freedom, we will go back to Tibet and it will once again become a heavenly place. It is my dream for my Motherland, my Tibet."