Review of Running from Tendra Gyami: a volunteer’s story of life with the refugee children of Tibet
Author: Lesley Freeman
Publisher: Mantra Books. UK. 2013.
Price: £12.00 in UK. $22.95 in US
At ten years old Tsering Topgyal is already witness to the price his family had to pay for their acts of defiance back home in Tibet. He recounts:
‘They ordered my brother to kneel down and bow his head at the feet of the soldier-in-charge. A Chinese soldier put a gun to my brother’s head and shot him. He shot him dead in front of us. I remember this. I will never forget it until my life ends. My brother just fell in a heap to the ground. Father was crying and my mother and sisters were in a very bad state. I wanted to comfort them, but was too terrified to move.’
Topgyal’s family had helped his eldest brother, Sonam, to escape into exile in India to study Buddhism at a monastery set up by the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. When the authorities discovered this and interrogated the family, his father and brother refused to admit to anything. A year later, at the insistence of his monk brother, the family also smuggled Topgyal into India. He is now in a refugee school.
Lesley Freeman’s book Running from Tendra Gyami, relates many such stories written by children who have escaped into exile to be estranged from their parents left behind in occupied Tibet.
Freeman, a counsellor from London, sold her home in 2000 and packed her toothbrush to become a volunteer in a vocational training centre for young Tibetans in North India. Her one-year experience as a volunteer, her marriage and divorce to a Tibetan, and how she eventually distanced herself from supporting Tibetans are told in her recently published book.
The first part focuses on Freeman’s life and her experiences in India. In the kitchen given to her by the school, she writes, the ‘basic wooden shelves, eaten away by cockroaches and woodworm were covered with peeling green paint, and stacked with cooking vessels, pots and pans. The only workshop was made from cement and no food could be allowed to touch as mice would almost certainly have left droppings or urinated on it during the night.’ Freeman also complains of revolting noises from packs of stray dogs, pigs and monkeys that continually prevented her from ‘enjoying a full night’s sleep.’
This section is a rather unrewarding read – her writing is tedious and her observations often cursory. She has also thrown in sweeping statements such as ‘in 1965, the Chinese abolished serfdom in Tibet’ and ‘the Panchen Lama remained in Lhasa after 1959’ without contexts or further explanations.
However, what shines through in contrast is the second part of the book where children remember and narrate their harrowing lives in Tibet, their traumatic experiences of running away from tendra gyamar, (a Tibetan term generally translated as the ‘Red China, Enemy of Faith’) and their re-rooting in exile while battling years of loneliness and alienation in a strange environment.
There is an urgent need for such first-hand human stories to be told and re-told over and again. Often the entire issue of Tibet is packaged in terms of cultural and religious freedom or shrouded in the secrecy of backroom meetings and hard-to-grasp official and diplomatic jargon. The true level of human suffering and everyday traumas of ordinary Tibetans living under occupation – and in exile itself – are often conveniently ignored or swept aside by leaders of free nations to avoid upsetting China and to win some economic goodies in the process.
Freeman’s experience with refugee children is in many ways similar to that of the Irish travel writer, Dervla Murphy, who cycled to Dharamsala in July 1963 and spent time at the Tibetan Children’s Village. In her book, Tibetan Foothold, Murphy vividly describes the appalling conditions of day-to-day life in the nursery where the first batch of refugee children lived amidst squalor, disease and hunger while a handful of dedicated Tibetans and foreign volunteers did their best under the terrible circumstances to look after their wards. Murphy called them ‘Tiblets’.
The writer-Murphy became the Nurse-Murphy and cared for her children at the nursery by scrupulously examining each child’s ears daily, noting down the name, room number and personal number of the infected cases.
Freeman too cared for her ‘Tiblets’ for whom she became a strict teacher and was rewarded by many of the children sharing their deepest personal stories with her and treating her as a caring voluntary-foster-mother to fulfil their longing for their real mothers left across the Himalayan mountains. In this sense, it is not the writer Lesley Freeman that made the difference but her basic human goodness, her compassion and her ability to empathize with the life-shattering loneliness and devastating experiences of the children. I believe those youngsters would cherish this part of Freeman’s personal sacrifice throughout their later lives.
Since being forced into exile in early 1959, the Tibetan refugees have to a large extent benefited from foreign volunteers who continue to come and work in the exile communities in various capacities, bringing different skills and international perspectives. As long as we remain in exile, this relationship will continue.
At nine, Sonam Yangzom is the eldest of her siblings. Her uncle brought Sonam and her sister into exile by walking for days with just tsampa (roasted barley flour) that refused to go down their parched throat on the high mountain passes. They took a circuitous route and only ventured out at night to avoid the Chinese police and roadblocks. Finally, when they arrived in Nepal their uncle told them that they were very far away from their home and father. Both sisters cried. ‘You can’t go back. You will be away from Tibet for many years,’ he said.
This has been the standard and recurring story for Tibetan refugees since 1959, when China completed its occupation of their homeland. This is also a familiar narrative of refugees everywhere in the world – whether they be Palestinians living in Lebanon, Romas seeking refuge in France, or Syrians now flooding into Turkey and other neighbouring countries. No one person has the power to single-handedly change the fate of fleeing exiles. But each individual, as demonstrated by Lesley Freeman through her sacrifice, can contribute to alleviate their suffering in practical terms and also give them a voice through the printed word that is brutally suppressed in their own troubled lands.