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Human Rights
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Asia, South Asia
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Migration, Refugees, Monks, Tibet, Dali Lama, Nepal, Buddhism, Tibetan, Exile, Culture
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As China achieves its goal of absorbing Tibet, a growing number of Tibetan families are making a desperate sacrifice, sending their children away to be raised in exile in India. I propose to tell the story of this displaced generation, who represents a people’s hope that their distinct culture and national identity not be lost.
Teru Kuwayama

1999 — professional winner

Tibet, as a country, will soon vanish. This is a simple fact. Massive immigration of ethnic Chinese has already reduced Tibetans to a minority in much of their country. Deforestation by China’s timber industry, and rapid construction of modern buildings to house new Chinese arrivals are changing the very face of the land. In the Buddhist monasteries, traditionally the cornerstones of Tibetan culture, Chinese authorities have ordered monks under the age of 18 to be expelled and sent to secular, state-run schools, where they will be educated in Chinese. Subsequently, a growing number of Tibetan children cannot read or speak their own language fluently.

As a result, more and more Tibetan parents are making a desperate sacrifice. Seeing little opportunity for their children in an increasingly “sinocized” Tibet, and little future for the Tibetan people if their children assimilate, these parents are sending their children into exile in neighboring India, knowing they may never see them again.

It is a desperate act that effectively orphans hundreds of Tibetan children each year, and which is straining the resources of the Tibetan exile community. The Tibetan Children’s Village, founded by the Dalai Lama, was established 40 years ago to care for 51 refugee children, who parents perished en route from Tibet. It had since grown into a network of orphanages, schools and hostels that support 10,000 young Tibetans. Man of these children are categorized as “semi-orphans,” meaning that their parents are not dead, but permanently separated from them, essentially lost behind the lines of Tibet.

It is the story of this stateless, “semi-orphaned” generation that I intend to tell. Their journey, born out of traumatic separation from home and family, is the story of an entire people. Their transition to a new life, in an intensely alien new world, is the story of a nation’s attempt to avoid extinction.

What makes their situation unique is the inspiration that lies beyond this tragedy. The displacement and decimation of the peoples by larger, more powerful forces is sadly common. The manner by which the Tibetan people have persevered against the largest country on Earth, armed with nothing other than their resourcefulness and their will to survive, is unprecedented. For this reason, it is doubly important that their story be told.

1999 marks the 40th anniversary of the first arrival of the Tibetan refugees in India. It also marks a critical point where the Tibetan exiles are at their most venerable, and ironically, where their perceived success has become a liability. While in danger of being overwhelmed by a growing influx of refugees, they are no longer considered a priority recipient of international aid, at a time that they need it most desperately.

It is my hope that a portrait of an exiled generation, and the fragile future they represent, will remind people of what is at stake.

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Tibetan Refugee Reception Center (TRC), Kathmandu, Nepal, 2000. This is the first landing point where refugees gather after successfully making the long trek across the mountains from Tibet. Most refugees travel by foot in the winter when the conditions are the harshest and most dangerous, and the escape routes less patrolled by Chinese and Nepali military and police. The trek, which often takes well over a month, is generally followed by several weeks to a month waiting at the reception centers in India - first Delhi and then Dharamsala. Children and monks, in search of a "Tibetan education," (government schools in Tibet are taught in Chinese and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is restricted in the remaining monasteries in Tibet) comprise the bulk of the "newcomers." Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
The dormitory at the Tibetan Refugee Center (TRC) in Dharamsala, 1999. Dharamsala is a mountaintop village in northern India, the current seat of the Dalai Lama's government in exile, and a de facto Tibetan town. This is the last way station for newcomers before they are placed in schools, monasteries or transitional/work training programs. By the time they leave here, most will have spent several months traveling or simply waiting in refugee centers. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
TRC, Dharamsala, 1999. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
TRC, Dharamsala, 1999. A mother shares tea with hr children. It was her last day with her children before they were placed in a school and she began the journey home to Tibet. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
TCV Dharamsala, 1999. The first of the TCVs, built to care for 53 Tibetan children orphaned in the original Tibetan exodus. It now serves almost 3,000 young Tibetans, many of them born in exile. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
Bylakuppe, 2000. A birthday party for Tenzing, a 5-year-old "trulku," believed to be the reincarnation of a high lama. Bylakuppe, located in the south Indian state of Karnataka, was the first permanent settlement established by the Tibetan government in exile in 1960. It is now home to over 15,000 stateless Tibetan exiles. At its center is Sera Je Monastery, one of several "transplants," temple-monasteries built in India as recreations of namesake monasteries in Tibet. With a population of over 3,000 monks, Sera Je is probably the largest center of Tibetan Buddhist learning in the world. Prior to the Chinese occupation, Sear Je monastery in Tibet was one of the world's largest monasteries of any faith, with almost 10,000 monks, but today only a few hundred remain. under Chinese rule in Tibet, restrictions against the entrance of children into the monasteries of Tibet make it impossible for children like Tenzing to pursue the faith of their families and people. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
Bylakuppe, 2000. Young monks with a cricket bat. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
Bylakuppe 200. Young monks bathing in the courtyard of a monastery dormitory. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
Pilgrims at the Jokhang, Lhasa 2000. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation
The Jokhang (the oldest temple in Tibet), Lhasa. 2000. Teru Kuwayama/Alexia Foundation