Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tibetan Refugees in Pokhara: Part Two

For the previous installment of this post, see Part One.

Pokhara is the closest thing Nepal has to a resort town. During clear weather, snow-capped Himalayan mountains loom over green hills and reflect on a blue, placid lake. Pokhara also serves as a base for trekkers heading into or returning from the mountains. I last visited the city during the monsoon in 2008 and glimpsed the surrounding mountains only briefly as the clouds parted during a fortunate sunrise. During my visit last week Himalayan views would once again elude me, as I arrived to an intense rain that pounded the city periodically during my brief stay. Even with precipitation, Pokhara and its lake are beautiful and make for a welcome respite from the chaos of Kathmandu.

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I hope to return in the fall when clearer views are guaranteed and look forward to writing a more detailed post about Pokhara from a more touristy perspective. On this trip, however, I was seeking more than fresh mountain air and trekker-friendly steakhouses.

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The floor-to-ceiling glass walls provided a stunning view over Chicago's skyline. There I sat, in ergonomic chair at faux-marble conference table, listening to Sonam (name changed to protect identity) as she recounted her story through an interpreter. Our sleek corporate surroundings and my coat-and-tie costume felt incongruous as she led me through a tale that spanned decades as it wound from a forced exodus in Tibet to military operations in the moonscape of Mustang, from a Tibetan settlement in Pokhara to a prison in Kathmandu, from a covert departure in Nepal to an uncertain arrival in Chicago.

Sonam's parents fled Tibet in the late 1950s after the Chinese People's Liberation Army invaded their homeland. Her father had renounced his vows of non-violence as a monk to take up arms against the Chinese, but their outdated weaponry and smaller numbers were no match. After defeat, he led his family and 400 others to Nepal to avoid torture or death at the hands of their invaders. Upon arrival to Nepal, their resistance continued, and Sonam's father sought to reclaim his homeland as a member of the CIA-backed Mustang Resistance Fighters. Unsuccessful, he settled in the Paljorling Tibetan Refugee Settlement in Pokhara, Nepal, where Sonam was later born.

Sonam became politically active in the Free Tibet movement as a young adult. Her participation in peaceful protest marches allegedly led to beatings, detention, and sexual assault at the hands of the Nepali police. Sonam was convinced that as a known political activist she was marked for deportation to China and, fearing the fate that awaited her there, she fled to the United States and sought asylum. Her future remains uncertain as she waits for her hearing late this year where an Immigration Judge will rule on her case.

In Pokhara, I met with Lhamo (again, name changed), Sonam's aunt. She generously acted as my tour guide as we visited Tibetan settlements and Sonam's family. I was grateful for her excellent English-Tibetan translations as well as her willingness to share stories about her family history and life as a Tibetan in exile. Lhamo first took me to her home in the Tashiling Settlement. She was very young when she fled Tibet in the late 1950s and has only snippets of memory from her homeland. She remembers arriving in Nepal and the initial years she spent as a young girl in the settlement, first under the cover of trees, then under tents provided by the Red Cross, and finally in modest structures also built with support of the Red Cross. While outside groups provided some funding for materials and building expertise, her community provided all labor for building the settlement. She resides today in the same home she grew up in that her parents helped build. It once housed more than ten people in two small rooms. It has since been expanded, and she lives there now with her sister-in-law, a Buddhist nun, and her 16-month-old granddaughter, whom she is raising as her son and daughter-in-law set up their lives in Canada as refugees there.

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A row of homes in Tashiling Settlement


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Goats outside a home in Tashiling Settlement


We toured her settlement and I learned about life there. A large source of support for Tibetan refugees in Nepal entails selling handicrafts and carpets to tourists. Tibetans are famous for their woven rugs. Women produce them on the settlement grounds.

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Wool, later hand-spun into thread


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Carpets are woven by hand


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Next, we went to Sonam's home, Paljorling Settlement.

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There I met her family: her two sisters; a brother; her father, the former resistance fighter; and her husband, whom she has not seen since she fled Nepal in 2008. They live together under one roof in a modest home within the settlement walls. Sadly, Sonam's mother died about a year ago. I discovered this during one of our meetings in Chicago when she was particularly emotional. Unable to return home, she could not take part in the grieving rituals for her mother or take comfort and find consolation in her family.

Sonam's family generously treated me to a lunch of delicious momos, Tibetan dumplings. They were stuffed with seasoned buffalo meat, a common stand-in for beef in a country where a majority of residents consider cows sacred. The bowl of momos seemed bottomless -- each time it neared empty, Sonam's siblings filled it again to the brim, encouraging me to eat, eat, eat. Momos are one of my favorite foods here, so I had no trouble obliging them.

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I even had my first taste of Tibetan butter tea, traditionally made from tea, yak butter, and salt.

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Claudine and no shortage of outsiders hate the stuff, an affliction worsened by the tradition of Tibetan hosts continually topping off a guest's cup. It is certainly an acquired taste, my hosts admitted, before I took the plunge. They chuckled as they poured and watched intently as I slowly brought the cup to my lips, bracing myself. I really didn't mind it -- it tasted like drinking a cup of soup broth. I was informed that the brew is often lighter in taste and texture in Nepal than in the colder climate of the Tibetan plateau, so perhaps I got off easy. My highly-anticipated trip to Tibet this summer will help me confirm.

After I partook in warm hospitality, Sonam's husband gave me a tour of the small settlement. Like in Tashiling, homes in Paljorling are densely constructed in a motel-style row.

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In the meeting hall, elders worshiped at midday, spinning their handheld prayer wheels while chanting prayers.

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A goat joined them, either enraptured with religious fervor or seeking relief from the beating sun.

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Months after meeting Sonam, I have left the corporate conference room in Chicago and relocated to Nepal, her home country. Meanwhile, she remains in my abandoned city, hoping for a chance to stay. On the surface, it seems like we've completed some cosmic switcharoo, trading places across the planet. Yet, after forsaking my coat-and-tie costume and walking a day in different shoes, I see vividly that our worlds are not so easily interchangeable. Sonam, repelled by persecution, escaped her home, a place she and her family don't actually consider "home" at all. In contrast, freedom and opportunity in my country are generally so vast that they include the ability to leave it voluntarily with the home fire ever burning, welcoming a return.

Our concept of home is individual and varying, yet something universal that preoccupies us all. It is a house, a city, an origin, a sanctuary, where our heart is, a place to lay our heads. And for some, home is a destination, one worth seeking.

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