Existing in Exile in northern India.
"Skin and nerves", is what Ama Adhe remembers of herself during her 28 years inside a Tibetan prison. Her reason for being there: simply standing up for her country. She physically illustrates her memory by pinching the top of her hand, trying to pull away skin from the bone. Her voice cracks and Choezin, one of the members of the Tibet Women's Association translating the interview, removes her glasses as tears begin to roll.
Growing up as a mixed race female, I've always been aware of my privilege and my oppression. I remember comparing it to others as a young child. I tried to process where I fit and didn't have the words to explain. I didn't even have a mature understanding of what it meant to my growth moving back and forth between a white, Jewish household after my mother converted when I turned 8, and a marginalized black household which often changed every 6 months depending on which jobs my father was bouncing to and from. Sometimes it wasn't my father at all that I would visit. Often I would be delivered to my second aunt's home on scheduled weekends with my father, or my uncle's girlfriend's apartment. I remember having a joke with my best friend Charlotte about how I really did live a double life where depending on if I was with my mother or father, I would identify with the race and community of which they were associated to. I never had pride in my heritage, but mostly because I didn't know anything about my father's family history until I was in my late teens (and was just surprised with a new discovery recently that I am not Antiguan but actually Montserratian). My mother's side is a mix of Canadian ancestry with Irish, Scottish and even French and Spanish roots (another surprise that my Nanny mentioned recently). How was I suppose to learn about all these origins and understand my place within their communities? As I grew older, I realized that race and identify don't need to go hand in hand. If someone asks me where I'm from, I say Canada. What else would I say? Canada has raised me, given me free education, provided me with free health care, given me opportunity regardless of my social economic background, and a passport that gives me access to almost every country in the world. Of course I'm a proud Canadian.
When I met Ama Adhe, I don't think I had yet tapped into my raw and vulnerable feelings towards those living in exile, and in general, the Tibetan people. I was open and inspired by their stories, intrigued about a country that has been so abused for centuries and continues to be fought for by the Tibetan people around the world, with great pride for their heritage. What I was truly unaware of was how severe and inhuman the treatment of Tibet had and still is by China, wrapped in a tightly knit, controversial bow as large organizations such as the UN, and first world, Western countries continue to provide no proper assistance or resources due to strong economic ties to the monster that China is. The violence and massive crimes against humanity that had been cast upon the Tibetan people by the Chinese has for too long been ignored. How can we continue to let so many people suffer? Yet, the answer is clear when I look to Canada and the United States on why they have done nothing for Gaza. Money over humanity. Man kind is disposable.
Ama Adhe is an 86 year old Tibetan women who was one of four women to survive prison in Tibet after being stuffed in as one of 400. She now lives in McLeod Ganj, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides. She has witnessed her brother-in-law shot and killed right before her eyes, lost her son to the violence put upon her community by the Chinese in Tibet, and is unable to contact her daughter as any communication between them, let alone anyone trying to communicate with the people still residing in Tibet, would put her daughter's life at great risk. As I quietly sat next to her, listening to her story while Cheozin translated from Tibetan to English, I watched as tears rolled down both their faces before the English translation could even be processed. I couldn't hold it in anymore. I broke down - every inch of her body was a vivid sensory memory of the torture she had faced both physically and psychologically. Ama Adhe's voice would crack from the stress of having to visualize such brutality once again, holding back emotions that are still so prevalent and raw. Her hands would shake and her head would sway, her left ear as close to Cheozin as possible, as her right had been damaged from the torture she received in prison, taking away her ability to successful receive sound. When she could no longer go on retelling, I wanted to grab her hand and hold her. I wanted so badly to do something to make these memories of hers disappear, memories she can feel within all five senses every time she retells them. Instead, I removed my glasses and wiped my tears, unable to shake the feeling of such brutality and to physically reach out as I had seemed to go into a slight shock. I felt a sort of déjà vu, remembering my experience walking through the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, stepping on years of blood, sweat, and human excretion from thousands of African prisoners being thrown into tight quarters unable to obtain a single basic human right in their own country. And again when I was stopped by some unknown and dark force while walking the sleeping quarters of Dachau, learning shortly after this had in fact been where my brother's great uncle had been murdered during World War 2. What leaves me truly speechless is that even a marginalized country of people, such as the Chinese, felt they needed to oppress a community so close to home whom share(d) the same religion and values. Was this simply a foreshadow of some of the community-based violence we know see within the Western world? Cue The Blacker the Berry.
Nirvana and I presenting Ama Adha with a khata that she instead put around us to show her gratitude for listening to her story.
The "khata" is a white scarf that symbolizes purity and compassion. It is worn or presented with incense at many ceremonial occasions, including births, weddings, funerals, graduations and the arrival or departure of guests.
My time here in McLeod Ganj is in gratitude to my incredible position as a Program Leader for Operation Groundswell, a backpacking and activist organization (backpactivism as we like to call it), leading the 40-day Gender and Religion program alongside my co-leader Nirvana from Kathmandu, Nepal. The trip takes us to Delhi, McLeod Ganj, Amritsar, Dehradun and Rishikesh with 9 participants, and 10 during our second program in July and August. Here in McLeod, we have been so grateful to learn the stories of Tibetans and the incredible organizations, movements and initiatives being executed here, across India and even the world, to help free Tibet and provide political, economic, environmental and community support to those living in exile. Every day my mind is expanded and my heart is struck as I continue to actively listen to the stories of the wonderful Tibetan people who traveled by foot through the mountains, some for more than 30 days as young as the age of 6, to reach India, in hopes of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama and finding refuge within the Tibetan communities of India. For the most part, India has welcomed the Tibetan people with open arms, but building their own communities within the country is what has helped fuel their motivation to continue to fight for their country and their loved ones still living in Tibet.
Something of great relevance to my fight for environmental sustainable is learning that the Tibet Plateau is actually referred to as the third pole; its ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions. Unfortunately this was taken advantage of quite quickly by the Chinese; Tibet's fresh waters that come from the mountains, its beautiful forests and the rich minerals available within the country's soil. Since China took control of Tibet in 1950, waterways have been dammed to reroute water to overpopulated urban areas of China, forests have been chopped down with all lumber being driven out of the region, and the ground has been torn apart to mine lithium. The result: large communities of Tibetans being pushed off their land, out of their homes and into large cities. Many Tibetans live a nomadic lifestyle because of this, and coming from rural areas that they have inhabited for generations, being pushed to cities results in severe poverty due to lack of education or relevant skills to obtain employment.
If you've ever travelled to China, you'll know the extreme censorship over access to information, especially on the internet. Even celebrities like Selena Gomez and characters like Winnie the Pooh have been banned from China due to simple actions that the Chinese Communist Party deemed inappropriate and disrespectful to the Chinese people; Selena for taking a photo with the Dalai Lama and Winnie the Pooh because of a meme that went virtual comparing the cartoon bear's face to that of a specific Chinese leader…ridiculous, right? Even if Trump banned every single person that made a meme of this sleek hairstyle. China has its own versions of social media, even Whatsapp, so control of information remains within the governments hands, although this was easy to bypass through a VPN (virtual private network) app. However, I'm unsure of how easy it is to track Chinese phones using VPNs. The situation is even more severe in Tibet, denying any access to information from almost anywhere except China, and absolutely zero communication outside of China, therefore leaving loved ones who've been left behind without access to their loved ones in exile.
However, there is hope and the Tibetan people have faith. I see it in their eyes, I hear it in their voices, I feel it in their actions. I've been witness to it all week visiting various NGOs across Dharamsala as they take the lead on the revolution that will come. Here's a few I thought were absolutely necessary to be aware of:
Tibetan Youth Congress
This powerful group of young 20 and 30 somethings take a bit of a more radical approach to activism, but without them, there would be an extreme void. The TYC, an organization seen as a terrorist organization by the Chinese government (HA!), aims to bring freedom and independent to the three provinces of Tibet: U-Tsang, Do-toe, and Do-med. The organization is over 30,000 strong and one of the most active NGOs in the world fighting for Tibet's freedom. Although the organization focuses on mostly lobbying for crimes against Tibetan people, they also do a lot of community driven work and projects such as implementing sanitary facilities and hosting adult education classes.
Gu Chu Sum Movement
This incredible organization provides resources and support to ex-political prisoners who were detained in Tibetan prisons. They also house a museum of incredibly beautiful and disturbing old photographs from Tibet during protests in the early 1950s when China occupied Tibet. Their website is an up to date record of Tibetan activists who seem to constantly be going through the revolving doors of Chinese controlled prisons in Tibet.
Students for a Free Tibet
SFT is a seriously inspiring organization of youth people around the world standing in solidarity with the Tibetan people fighting for freedom. The organization empowers young people to be leaders in social justice advocacy, through camps and workshops, and takes a non-violence approach to protest. I was intrigued to learn that one of the cases they chose to take on was fighting for the Tibetan identify of the character Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange, who has historically always been a Tibetan. I was appalled to read that Doctor Strange screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, replied to the concern with a disturbing statement: “[Ancient One] originates from Tibet. So if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls—t and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.” It leaves me simply speechless that China's power over Western economies is one of the biggest challenges the Tibetan people are facing in getting the assistance they deserve from countries like the United States of America.
Stories of Tibetans
This incredible organization is bringing the inspiring and progressive stories of Tibetans living in exile here in India and around the world to the forefront. Founder and documentary filmmaker, Kunsang Tenzing, was inspired by Humans of New York and in response launched his incredible organization to simply share the stories of empowerment within the Tibetan community. The stories Kunsang has covered and the documentaries that go along with them can be accessed on the organization's Facebook page. My favorite: the story of Mariko, a Tibetan transgender woman living in Dharamsala. Kunsang runs an adorable cafe in McLeod where they screen their documentaries every evening at 6pm. Chai and food is served daily and all proceeds go their cause.
Tibet Women's Association (TWA)
TWA promotes social, political, and economic equality of Tibetan women while addressing human rights violations, including sexual violence, against Tibetan women still residing in Tibet as well as in exile. The organization leads and participates in various campaigns with a focus on showcasing to the world the importance of saving the Tibet Platueau. TWA has been a major part of Operation Groundswell since the inception of the Gender and Religion program and their team plays a huge role on our access to various resources and organizations. My favorite quote on their website: "All Tibetan women would, without exception, answer “yes” to the question “Today Tibet is free, do you want to go home?” – Dolkar Lhamo Kirti, Ex-TWA President".
Tibetan Children's Village (TCV)
I have been very fortunate to stay within the grounds of TCV located near Dal Lake above McLeod Ganj in the House of Peace and Dialogue, a guesthouse run by the local Tibetan community. The Tibetan Children's Village is one of the most beautiful organizations I've ever come to know, offering free education, housing, food, and communal support to Tibetan children living in exile. Over 16,000 children have been through TCV, and given love and care from the dedicated House Mothers who live onsite and have gone through TCV school themselves in their youth. If you are looking for a new children's organization to donate to, I highly recommend looking into TCV. Stories of Tibetans dedicated a beautiful film to the House Mothers that work and live onsite at TCV for Mother's Day and I simply had to share it here with you to truly understand the selflessness and unconditional love that these women give to these children.
Tibetan Career Centre
The Tibetan Career Centre focuses on providing Tibetan youth with the tools and resources needed to succeed in the workforce, including changing youth attitudes around financial stability and helping design career paths. The centre runs an awesome little salon in McLeod Ganj near Tibet World where you can access affordable hair styling and manicure services while supporting youth Tibetans living in exile.
Environment Settlement Hall
Although not necessarily an organization focused on environmental sustainability, the Environment Settlement Hall, located on Bhagsu Road in McLeod Ganj, is filled with educational resources on why the future of Tibet is so important to the environmental sustainability of Asia. You'll also find tips on how to be a sustainable traveler and how to properly sort your trash accordingly. This is obviously my favorite space in McLeod.
Although there are many stories to share, both of triumph and torture, two of the more prominent cases each organization has a large focus on include the controversy of the 11th Panchen Lama, and the story of Tibetan entrepreneur and activist, Tashi Wengchuk.
The story of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as selected by the 14th Dalai Lama currently living in exile here in Dharamsala, is quite a mysterious one. Due to the Dalai Lama living in exile, the Chinese government took over the selection of the next Panchen Lama working with a few hand selected Tibetan monks to assist in the process. During this process, the Dalai Lama interrupted the search when he announced his predecessor, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Of course, the Tibetan community were thrilled to hear of the selection while the Chinese feared what would come of a Panchen Lama who would soon be on his way to also living in exile in India. Before this could happen, the Chinese captured Nyima (as the story goes), ensuring their selection of Gyaincain Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama would be the only choice available. Although he is loved by many Tibetans, the selection process goes against traditional Tibetan Buddhist ways, and the unethical taking of Nyima stands as a mystery with no hard evidence to prove his whereabouts. But the hope and faith of the Tibetan people remains, with a belief that Nyima is simply being held a prisoner, with rumors that he is now studying from his location. The only photo the world has of Nyima is of when he was 6 years old, just before being captured by the Chinese. He is now 28 years old and the world awaits his freedom. Just days before arriving, Students for a Free Tibet hosted a silent protest here in Dharamsala where they asked everyone to shut their lights and to light a candle in the evening to show the world just how much hope remains within the Tibetan community for his safe return.
Tashi Wangchuk's story is one of extreme oppression and power. Tashi was recently charged with inciting separatism and sentenced to 5 years in prison, with a release set for 2021. His crime: fighting for Tibetan language to be taught in schools.“He has been criminalized for shedding light on China’s failure to protect the basic human right to education and for taking entirely lawful steps to press for Tibetan language education,” Tenzin Jigdal of the International Tibet Network, a coalition of groups supporting Tibetan self-determination, said in an email to the New York Times. Although Tibet has been under Chinese control since 1950 when the British government acknowledged China's suzerainty over Tibet (ugh, those Brits!), they were still sanctioned to provide space for Tibetans to practice their own culture and language. After Xi Jinping came to power of the Chinese Communist Party, this space (notice how I'm not saying "rights"?) were taken away.
Wangchuk has been celebrated as an exceptional entrepreneur, running a local shop in Yushu, China. He studied in a Buddhist monastery and taught himself and his brother Tibetan language. His reasoning behind fighting for his language in schools was simply to preserve his language and culture within communities of Tibetans that were slowly beginning to lose their unique culture, their heritage being washed away by Jinping's aim to turn China into one Chinese nation. The controversy of Tashi's story comes from having been written about in the New York Times quite a bit over the last few years, including having his story featured in a nine minute documentary that seemed to have been the edge of patience for the Chinese government, as his arrest occurred shortly after its online premier in 2016.
My biggest take away from this experience so far is just how resilient the Tibetan people truly are. I feel so honoured and grateful to be able to learn from the incredible Tibetan activists, monks and filmmakers here in McLeod Ganj that represent a small part of the global Tibetan community, yet have such an incredible impact on the Chinese Communist Party's confidence and the freedom of Tibet that is in the near distant future (I say with sincere optimism). Their intentions in sharing? That we will stand in solidarity with the Tibetan community.
As I reflect on my heritage and Canadian patriotism, I can't help but wonder how I would fight for my country if such a disgusting act was to occur. I don't that I've ever even referred to Canadians as "my people" or even fully felt a connection to the various communities at home that I "belong" to. African Americans and Canadians fought (and continue to fight) for rights in North America because its all they had (have) after the abolishment of slavery. Many Jewish communities continue to stand with Israel, and not necessarily the country they are residing in in the Western world. The Armenians aren't fighting for Lebanon, Turkey and Syria where they fled to after the Armenian genocide. These communities fight for their home countries. Their culture, their language, their history. Would I fight for Canada? A country built on stolen land. Or is this my privilege talking having been raised in a free country as multi-cultural as the world itself, never having to fathom the idea of such a genocide?
Ama Adhe has presented me with a very open challenge to my identity, something I've been battling in silence since I was a teen.
As we all continue to fight our own battles, learning, discovering and challenging our own identities and who we think we are, there is one thing I know we have to do: we need to stand with Tibet, just like we need to stand with Syria, Palestine and the indigenous communities within our own Western countries like Canada, the US and Australia. If we don't, we are all China.
You can read Ama Adhe's full story in "The Voice that Remembers".