Working on Tibet’s Future, From India

New York Times Weekly

August 2, 2013

DHARAMSALA, India —  In a spacious classroom in this northern Indian hill town, 20 young Tibetan men and women sit in front of computers as the summer monsoon rains fall outside.

A woman instructs them in Tibetan on how to use Microsoft Word and Gmail, while other students practice typing by following a keyboard graphic on their screens. They are attending a free computer course at a Tibetan Career Center, opened last year on a busy hillside road in Dharamsala, the exile home of the Dalai Lama and about 12,000 other Tibetans.


The center prepares young Tibetans for jobs through career counseling, mock interviews and résumé writing workshops, and by linking them to potential employers.  The program is run by the Tibetan exile administration, which is based in Dharamsala, to foster job readiness and entrepreneurship among Tibetans ages 16 and up. Jigmey Tsultrim, head consultant at the center, said: “Some Tibetans don’t realize they have these hidden qualities. We’re trying to match them with job opportunities and bridge the gap.”

Tibetans take a free computer class at the Tibetan Career Center in Dharamsala, India.

Tibetans take a free computer class at the Tibetan Career Center in Dharamsala, India. Photo: Amy Yee

The program is important, considering that up to 22 percent of exiled young Tibetans in India and Nepal are unemployed, according to a 2009 survey by Technoserve, a United States-based nonprofit advising the project, which is financed by the United States Agency for International Development. The unemployment rate among young Indian adults is only about 10 percent.

This little-known but important work is overshadowed by the stream of deadly news out of Tibet. Since 2009, at least 120 Tibetans have died  by  self-immolation to protest repression of religious freedom and basic rights by the Chinese.

China began a crackdown in the region in 2008 after violent protests ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Chinese takeover in 1959. Just last month, two Tibetans were reportedly shot and at least eight others seriously wounded in Tawu, a Tibetan area of Sichuan in southwest China, after the police fired on an unarmed group at a picnic on the Dalai Lama’s 78th birthday.

The spate of suicides includes more than 70 self-immolations in the past year.  Most recently, on July 20, an 18-year-old monk, Kunchok Sonam, set himself on fire in eastern Tibet. His death followed the self-immolation of a Tibetan nun in her 30s on June 11 in Tawu.

Memorial services in Dharamsala, like the one for Kunchok Sonam, are a grim reminder of China’s fatal force in Tibet. Banners and posters with faces of those who have set themselves on fire dot the steep streets of this town in the foothills of the Himalayas. The small Tibet Museum in Dharamsala mounted a special exhibition on the self-immolations. One panel displays portraits of Tibetans who have died in flames: young and old, monks and laypeople, nomads and city dwellers.

Programs like the one at the Tibetan Career Center are not a cure for the social problems of exiled Tibetans. But they are a reminder that the 120,000 refugees in India and Nepal can shape their futures  and create new hope for  those in Tibet.

With a small population of about six million in Tibet, its future depends on lifting up its young people.

The Karmapa, the highly respected head of one school of Tibetan Buddhism living in exile in India, said of the self-immolations in 2011: “Most of those who have died have been very young. They had a long future ahead of them, an opportunity to contribute in ways that are now forgone,” he said, adding, “Every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet.”

Or as Tsering Choedon, a bright 27-year-old law graduate and counselor at the Dharamsala center noted: “For a nation to be strong, we need to have a strong, independent youth. If we are unemployed and doing nothing, then I don’t know the future of our country.”

Although Tibetans can enroll in free Tibetan schools across India, many graduate without practical job skills. Others lack confidence and motivation to persist in job searches in India, where the competition is intense. In Dharamsala, young men often hang out or play cards or other games all day. Many Tibetan young adults live off their parents or remittances from relatives overseas.

So far, 470 Tibetans have been trained through seven career centers across India, from Dharamsala to Bangalore and the large Tibetan settlements of Bylakuppe and Mundgod in the southern state of Karnataka, as well as in Katmandu in Nepal. More than 200 have been placed in jobs in call centers,  beauty salons, hotels and restaurants.

Rinzin Lhamo is a graduate of a skills and communication training workshop in Bangalore. “I am a changed person now than what I was before this training,” Lhamo said in a survey for the center. “It’s a life achievement for me, and I thank the trainer and his lessons, which helped to overcome my nervousness.”

Helping one young Tibetan stand independently may seem a small thing in light of the crisis in Tibet, but it has greater meaning. As Mr. Tsultrim in Dharamsala said, “Youth can play a bigger role in keeping our culture and identity intact.”



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