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Compassion in Action

The Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet have taught us about kindness and compassion. It is our time to give back.

ANDREA MILLER looks at the work of three important organizations supporting the Tibetan people both inside Tibet and in exile, and includes extensive links to these and other such organizations.

To escape the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), refugees make an arduous trek across the Himalayas. Often their family’s savings have gone into sending them out, yet they cannot afford sufficient supplies for the journey and they arrive in Nepal malnourished, frostbitten, ill. The refugees know that if they’re caught en route by Chinese security forces, they could be shot and killed, and if they’re caught by the Nepalese border patrol, they risk being returned to their homeland, where they could face imprisonment and torture. Yet despite these hazards, refugees continue fleeing Tibet because the situation there is that dire.

“Tibet and the Tibetan people are going through the hardest time in our history,” says Lobsang Nyandak, the representative of the Dalai Lama to the Americas. “But in terms of reaching out to the international community, we are confronted with a powerful China everywhere in this globe.”

More than ever, this is a critical time to help Tibetans; and there are things that we can do. This article will focus on three of the many organizations that are supporting the Tibetan cause. Two of them—the Tibet Fund and the American Himalayan Foundation—are dedicated to humanitarian work. The third, the International Campaign for Tibet, is a monitoring and advocacy group.

In 1968, Richard Blum went to Nepal to go trekking in the mountains. He spent his first night in the country at a Tibetan refugee camp where there were little kids who had been carried over the passes on their parents’ shoulders. Those children plunked themselves in Blum’s lap and spoke to him in English and—as he says—he was “gone” that very night, gone into love for such warm people.

Today Richard Blum is a major figure in California business and government circles. A wealthy investment banker, he is chair of the University of California Board of Regents. He is married to United States Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Blum played a key role in the Dalai Lama’s first-ever visit to the U.S., and continues his dedication to the cause of the Tibetan people he first encountered in 1968. With the two-fold mission of improving lives in the Himalayas and of preserving the environment, Blum founded the American Himalayan Foundation in 1980. Today the San Francisco-based foundation is involved with approximately 175 different projects, many helping Tibetans. When choosing projects, says vice president Norbu Tenzing, “We don’t go to a place and say, ‘Listen, this is what we think you should do.’ We respond to the priorities of the local people.” Sometimes this approach takes AHF in unexpected directions, as in the case of Mustang.

The Nepalese region of Mustang is populated by ethnic Tibetans and is one of the few remaining sanctuaries of authentic Tibetan culture in the world. Fifteen years ago, however, the people of Mustang were losing confidence in their heritage and living in extreme poverty. Tenzing says, “Our chairman Richard Blum went to the area and asked the King of Mustang what AHF could do for his people. He thought the king would say, ‘I want education or healthcare.’” Instead, the king said that the best way to improve his people’s lives was to restore Mustang’s crumbling monasteries.

Restoration took twelve years of painstaking work, but it did indeed spark a profound transformation. AHF’s team of carpenters and wall-painting conservators trained the local people, the Loba, to restore their own treasures. This provided jobs and suddenly made daycares necessary. Then the Loba, with a renewed pride in their culture, wanted Tibetan teachers for their children; they wanted a high school. AHF began building clinics and working with youth groups. “The community,” says Tenzing, “has benefited a lot.”

When trying to help people, says Erica Stone, the president of AHF, you have to take many factors into consideration. “You can’t just helicopter over, drop the dollars, and go away, thinking something has happened. You have to pay attention.” For instance, many people in Tibet’s villages get sick because they don’t have clean water systems, but it isn’t enough to simply provide the materials for toilets. “The germ theory of disease is still a theory in Tibet,” Stone explains. “ Nobody has ever given these folks a basic health talk on hand washing and the importance of clean water.”

When AHF provides clean water systems, they also facilitate the education necessary to make the systems effective. “If you’re patient and you have somebody local who knows what they’re doing explain things to people, they rise to the occasion,” says Stone. People often come up to the instructor after the training and say, “This is the best day of my life. I didn’t know these things before.”

Another way that AHF is changing lives inside Tibet is by building bridges—critical work in a country of mountain ranges and torrential rivers. When there is no bridge, it can take six or seven hours to find a place to ford, and fording rivers puts people and their herds in danger of drowning. But people must get to the other side—for school, for medical emergencies, for their livelihood. To date, AHF has sponsored the construction of twenty-eight bridges.

“It’s a small investment on our part,” says Tenzing, but “the wonderful thing about these bridges is what the community puts in. It’s huge. We’re providing the hard materials but the community is out there in full force. Everybody is digging, getting supplies, making sure this thing is built.”

Similarly, locals form the backbone of AHF-supported orphanages in Tibet. One of these orphanages is run by a man who was an orphan himself. As a child, he walked from Tibet to Nepal and later went to India, where he got an education. When he returned to his home country, he was beaten and jailed. Months later, when the Chinese government finally let him out, he noticed there were children on the streets who were abandoned, and he started taking them in.

Stone says: “Every so often someone will bring him a very young child who’s been abandoned because the father has been killed and the mother is in jail. Or there is a little note from a parent that says, ‘I have no money to give this child anything to eat. I’m so sorry.’ He puts these kids in the local government schools and they live together.” Now, he has well over fifty children in his charge and he has a house that a donor helped him buy. AHF takes care of the expenses.

Implementing humanitarian aid programs in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is sensitive work. To avoid having the Chinese shut down their programs, Western organizations must steer clear of political activity, they must partner with local organizations that operate with the full knowledge and recognition of the local government, and for the most part they must be very discreet about their support. Some people describe it this way: To do work in Tibet, you have to cultivate a Buddhist attitude. You must be willing to do the work for the sake of doing good, rather than taking credit. You must be willing to work invisibly. And these days the strictures are not limited to Tibet itself. The current Nepalese government leans toward China, so now Western humanitarian organizations must also be extremely careful about how they support Tibetan refugees there.

The Tibet Fund is programs in both the TAR and the Tibetan exile community. In every place they work, health care is a priority for them. Robyn Brentano, who has been working with the Tibetan exile community in exile since the early eighties and who is the Tibet Fund’s executive director, explains, “Health care for Tibetans in Tibet is extremely scarce. For many Tibetans who live in remote areas, access to a doctor is a two days’ walk away.” Eye care is a particular area of concern.

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