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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
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
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
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
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.