Resettlement of Tibet Refugees in U.S. to Begin


An unprecedented migration to the United States of Tibetan refugees, displaced by decades of Communist Chinese rule, will begin this year in an unusual resettlement that promises to reshape one of the smallest and most obscure minority groups in the nation.

During the last 30 years, just 500 Tibetans have come to this country, scattered in tiny pockets from Los Angeles to Long Island.

But possibly as early as February, the first of several thousand exiles from refugee settlements in India and Nepal will begin arriving in U. S. cities, capping more than a year of work to transplant a part of the age-old Tibetan world of robed lamas and mountain monasteries to a new world of mini-malls, Nintendo and rush-hour traffic.


The resettlement brings groups of Tibetans to 16 sites around the country, including Los Angeles. The project has been a volunteer effort and, with only a few months left to go, workers are still struggling to find the necessary jobs, housing and even Buddhist lamas for the newcomers.

But Tibetans in this country say that after decades of life in exile, the difficulty of resettling in a new country is only a small hurdle.

“It is a great opportunity for our people,” said Nyima Tsundu, a 29-year-old Tibetan engineering student at UCLA. “This is the beginning of something new for us here.”

The Tibetan resettlement is the result of an obscure provision in the Immigration Act of 1990, a sprawling piece of legislation that found room for 1,000 Tibetan refugees amid programs to provide tens of thousands of visas for foreign millionaires, visa lottery winners and Hong Kong business people.

The resettlement provision was sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and was approved after two years of lobbying by the Dalai Lama’s exile government and Tibetan supporters in the United States.

The Tibetan government in exile had lobbied before for similar programs, but failed. This time, supporters proposed a measure that required no federal assistance and deleted the politically charged term “refugee.” Instead, they called the exiles “displaced Tibetans” to avoid antagonizing the Chinese government.

With little debate or publicity, the measure was approved. “It was folded into this huge bill like a diamond in a stone,” said Edward J. Bednar, executive director of the Massachusetts-based TibetaS. Resettlement Project.

The program is open to about 110,000 exiles from among 47 refugee settlements in India and Nepal--the two countries with the largest Tibetan refugee populations.

The flight of the exiles began in 1950, after the Communist Chinese “liberation” of Tibet, then an independent nation that had been free of Chinese rule since the collapse in 1911 of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last.

Communist forces first entered eastern Tibet and a year later, forced an agreement in which the Tibetan government conceded China’s sovereignty in exchange for broad autonomy.

The accord collapsed eight years later in a revolt against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetans fled across the border to India and Nepal.

Today, the refugees continue to flow out of Tibet at a pace of about 1,200 a year, flaring with each outbreak of violence.

Their stories of escape are harrowing, and have become a binding, central memory for the generation of exiles.

Nawang T. Lhautara, 41, an insurance company executive in Diamond Bar and one of the organizers of the resettlement in Los Angeles, crossed the Himalayas with an uncle and several monks when he was 9.

Their journey through the Himalayas on foot took three months. They traveled only at night. As they moved up the mountains, their small group was joined by others, until they formed an unbroken chain of refugees on the trail.

“There were thousands of us there,” Lhautara said, recalling the cold and hunger. “It was like a long, dark line in the snow.”

Bednar and hundreds of other Tibetan supporters around the country have been preparing for the resettlement of the refugees for more than two years.

They have taken as their model the mass resettlement of Southeast Asians after the fall of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos nearly 17 years ago.

The Tibetans will be settled in clusters, each containing at least 50 refugees within 25 miles of each other, Bednar said.

The sites will be in such major cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago, and several small cities where sponsors have stepped forward to organize the effort, including Boise, Idaho, Darien, Conn., and Salt Lake City.

All the newcomers must have jobs before arriving and take an orientation on life in the United States.

“We’re striving to dispel the illusion in their minds about America, that the streets are paved with gold and all they have to do is scoop up the money,” Bednar said. “Our emphasis is making sure they know that they will have to take care of themselves when they come here.”

Key to the resettlement is an effort to maintain the Tibetans’ culture. Although most refugees will be selected because of their job skills, there will be a mix of religious leaders, government administrators and traditional artisans to help form the foundation of a community.

Half the visas will go to those who have been in India and Nepal the longest and have the skills to succeed in the United States. The other half will go to the most recent refugees from Tibet--some of them “the poorest of the poor,” Bednar said.

Most of the 1,000 visas are earmarked for heads of households who will be able to apply later for their spouses and children to join them--a process that could take about two years. In this way, the original 1,000 visas will multiply into several thousand.

“They all know this,” Bednar said. “It is a sacrifice they’re prepared to make. Nobody likes it, but that’s how it is.”

The project has raised about $160,000 for the resettlement--far short of the $1 million to $3 million that supporters would like. They have found about 500 sponsors and jobs, enough to carry the project through the first year.

One advantage for the resettlement is the relative success of the Tibetan exiles who have done well, for the most part, becoming farmers, business people or officials working for the exile government in Dharmsala.

Tsundu, the UCLA engineering student, said that many of the yul gyal ba, or exiles, have studied in English-language schools in India and are typically better educated than the gsar ‘byor ba , or new arrivals from Tibet.

Tsundu came to the Los Angeles area two years ago as a graduate student. He arrived speaking fluent English and possessing a freshly minted degree in civil engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology.

With the help of exile officials in New York, he found the Tibetan Center in Los Angeles--the cultural center of the Southern California Tibetan community--and met most of the 100 or so others in the area.

For Tsundu, adapting to the United States has been relatively painless. But, he added, adjusting to American life will probably not be as easy for the most recent refugees from Tibet. Instead of speaking English, Hindi and Tibetan, the gsar ‘byor ba usually speak only Tibetan or perhaps Chinese. Their job skills are generally not as high as the Indian exiles and many bear the physical and psychological scars of torture and oppression.

Tenzin Tersey, a 30-year-old Venice resident, is one of just a few dozen gsar ‘byor ba who are already in the United States.

He came six years ago as a student, speaking only Chinese and Tibetan. In Tibet, Chinese soldiers had killed two of his uncles, and his father was arrested dozens of times, he said.

Freedom, he soon discovered, could be as oppressive as life in Tibet. Because he could speak no English, he rarely left his apartment. His only place of solace was Chinatown, where he could walk the streets and communicate with people.

“Freedom was just like suffering,” he said. “Everyday, I cried and cried.”

Since those early days, Tersey has learned English and now manages a movie theater in Santa Monica. He is settled in a comfortable apartment in Venice and works at the theater with two recent arrivals from Tibet.

Although he is excited about the prospect of more gsar ‘byor ba coming to Los Angeles, he also feels sad over the difficulties they will face in their new home.

“They will have a lot of trouble,” he predicted. “They know nothing of the outside world.”

The one advantage the new settlers will have is that they will not have to endure the isolation that the first generation of Tibetans in the United States experienced.

Pema Chagzoetsang, a 33-year-old exile who lives in Bountiful, Utah, came to the United States in 1983 and has spent most of her life here separated from other Tibetans. Except for her husband and two children, the only other Tibetan in Utah is a student in Orem, about 40 miles away.

“It’s during the festivals when it hits you how lonely you are,” Chagzoetsang said. “We try to do the traditional things, but something is missing.”

The festivals are memories from her youth in India. She remembers waking up early in the morning to pray with friends and relatives on the New Year, which takes place in late February or early March, and drinking steaming rice wine.

“We’ve never had a real New Year here,” said Chagzoetsang, who has thrown herself into organizing the resettlement project in Salt Lake City. “It’s a very special feeling that I miss. . . . Maybe next year we will have a proper New Year’s festival.”

Key Addresses

For more information, contact the following:


Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project

17 Battery Place

New York, N.Y. 10004-1102

(212) 425-2900

Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project

144 Hancock St.

Newton, Mass. 02166

(617) 332-1411


Nawang T. Lhautara

Transamerica Occidental Life

3333 Brea Canyon Road

Suite 101

Diamond Bar, Calif. 91765-3782

(714) 594-3620

Coming to America

Beginning in early 1992, the first of several thousand Tibetan refugees will begin arriving in U.S. cities. They will be settled in “cluster sites” containing at least 50 Tibetans within 25 miles of each other. The resettlement has been a completely voluntary effort, involving no federal assistance.

Cluster Sites: 1. Los Angeles 2. San Francisco 3. Portland, Ore. 4. Seattle 5. Boise, Idaho 6. Salt Lake City 7. Albuquerque / Santa Fe, N.M. 8. Missoula, Mont. 9. Minneapolis / St. Paul 10. Chicago 11. Madison, Wis. 12. Ithaca, N.Y. 13. New York 14. Darien, Conn. 15. Amherst, Mass. 16. Boston SOURCE: Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project