For Tibetan refugees education is a precious joy

CHARAN KADD, India For the past month I have been teaching in Charan. The experience has been simultaneously beautiful and heart wrenching.


For the past month I have been teaching in Charan. The experience has been simultaneously beautiful and heart wrenching.

When you enter the camp, you wind your way between scraps of plastic held up with poles over little patches of concrete or smooth mud. The path seems to be more garbage than dirt.

If you begin to shrink in horror, the smiles and greetings change everything. “HELLO HELLO HELLO-O-O,” the kids shriek. They run and smile and compete with who will hold your hand.

Adults come to shake hands or say hello. “Wild” children, who still don’t comb their hair, wash much, or go to any school, not even in the camp, still love to join in the welcoming committee.

The school tent covers a piece of concrete near the back of the settlement and is luxurious by camp standards. Kids aged five to 15 are taught in a one-room fashion.

Residents are proud and very protective of their school. It contains a peeling blackboard that is propped against the wall, a metal cabinet for schoolbooks, and a metal medicine cabinet for when the school doubles as health clinic.

 There is also a bit of carpet that is carefully stored and unrolled for school.

Upon arrival, the first order of the day is scraping cow patties off the floor. The cows also love the school! When that is done and creepy crawlies thrown to the side, the carpet is unrolled.

No cows have entered while I was teaching, but there are countless puppies that like to make themselves comfortable.

This is a bit of a problem since they get in the way and sometimes the mother wanders in.

One day she began feeding in the middle of all the chaos as I was trying to teach.

The tent is sturdy and doesn’t leak when it rains, but of course it’s so loud we have to yell at one another to be heard.

As with any shelter, the floor also begins to flood after a point. In the school it’s the right hand side that is lowest. So when rain is excessive, school must be cancelled.

What is so impressive is that against all adversity, the children work hard and eagerly.

Though many of them comb their hair and wear clean clothes to school, some work too hard and are just unable to tidy up before class.

Sometimes they come straight from the garbage pits, hands as black as coal, clothes streaked with filth and smelling repulsive. But isn’t it amazing they get themselves to class after a long day of work?

One girl comes when she can.

She is already quiet and beaten down by the world. She picks garbage, but makes an obvious effort to look good.

When she comes to school, her father often wanders by. Though she seems to understand that education is beneficial, he dislikes her attending when that precious time could be used to make a few more rupees.

The kids often shock me with their questions and continually teach me about the world.

In a geography class I showed a Canadian $5 bill as part of a discussion on different currencies around the world.

I explained that it was worth about 200 rupees.

This is a lot of money.

A couple of kids began talking and more joined in. It became quite animated and finally I was asked if it was false currency.

At that age, what child would be considering such a thing?

I replied that it was real. Well, then things erupted and finally they insisted it must be fake. This went on for a bit and in the end they were quite amazed.

For art I decided a good skill to introduce would be sewing.

Many had never tried this before but there is enormous potential. If they can sew, they can earn a living.

As a demonstration, I sewed a cloth bag like the ones tourists carry around. The design was simple but attractive. When I brought it to class, there were broad smiles and shrieks of, “Begging bag, begging bag!”

I was floored.

This was the last thing I’d expected.

“No, no, shopping bag,” I responded. There was laughter and smiles. Finally they nodded and allowed me the victory.

“Shopping bag, shopping bag,” they shouted. It then became a joke and they teased me as they sewed.

At one point a student asked me where the bags would go when they were finished sewing.

Again I was amazed.

The kids were just happy to have the experience of sewing.

They didn’t expect that they would actually get to keep them.

When I explained that the bags were theirs, the look on their faces was something to behold. I took photos on the day they finished their bags.

They were wild with joy and excitement.

The bags all went to use immediately.

As soon as school is out, work begins.

Kids carry water containers half their own size, others run to fetch chapattis or rice; some tend siblings.

There is lots to do.

Jamyang is excited about the future, about the day the hostel kids take control of their organization.

He explains that Indians have been so kind and hospitable welcoming Tibetans into their country and that this work of his is a contribution to India.

When I ask about his future role, Jamyang says, “We (Tibetans) hoping for freedom one day so we going back to Tibet.”

In the meantime, he has many plans, the first of which is a vocational training centre for adolescent kids, the parents of the future.

In the evening roasting chapattis fill the air of Charan. Fabric Rainbows of drying laundry flutter in the breeze.

Each dilapidated shelter holds a precious story and many also hold a new commodity — Hope.

Part three of a three-part series.