1999 — professional winner
Teru Kuwayama is a photographer from New York. His work over the past decade has focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. He was a 2009–2010 Knight Fellow at Stanford University, a 2010 TED Global Fellow and a 2010 Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. He received a 2010 Knight News Challenge Award to launch Basetrack, an online social media project that chronicled the deployment of a US Marine battalion in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. He became a TED Senior Fellow in 2012.
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.