Every year, hundreds of Tibetans make their way to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu, Nepal, seeking to escape religious and cultural repression by the Chinese government.
Crossing the border to reach Nepal can be a very costly endeavor – with guides being paid between 12 000 CNY (€1400) and 50 000 CNY (€8500) per person – if it is to be secure. But with the help of their family members, many Tibetans are at least able to attempt it.
But the challenge is not only found in meeting these expenses – it is also found in reconciling with leaving family members behind and the uncertainty of the future; oftentimes, it is also found in crossing the physical barriers which divide these two nations; yet, for others, the journey simply consists of a single bus or plane ride.
Whatever the reality of the journey is for these Tibetans who have fled their homes – be it dramatic or uneventful - they are all tales of refuge.
(Where indicated (*), names have been changed to protect the subject’s identity and that of any friends and family still living in Tibet).
At 58-years-old, Lhamo* did not imagine that she would ever leave Tibet. One of ten children, she grew up in a village high in the mountains of Kham province, where turnips grew in abundance and education was based in the home. But after the Chinese occupation, even life in her small village changed, when the government began imposing high taxes. “My mother used to say that rats were living a much happier life than us because we were facing such difficulties,” she recalls of that time. “The restrictions on our lives were so severe that my parents even didn’t have the freedom to eat what they wanted. If they had a piece of meat or a little bit of Chang [Tibetan barley/rice beer] they had to hide it, because if caught, they would be considered rich and tortured, so you had to pretend as if you had nothing to eat.” Lhamo moved to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa City, in the 1980s, and soon thereafter, began dabbling in business, selling clothes at a modest shop in Dham, the main border crossing between Tibet and Nepal. Lhamo’s passage to Nepal was relatively straight forward considering her proximity to the border, but making the decision to leave Tibet, her three children, and her past behind is something that plagues her to this day. “I told [checkpoint officials] that I was going to live in Dham – but inside my heart, I knew that I would go to India.”