Significance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama receiving the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize
By: Tsechu Dolma (London UK)
There are 25.4 million refugees in the world; children make up half of them; 3.5 million school-age refugee children do not go to school, and only one percent of refugees enroll in higher education. Like many Tibetan refugees, I was born into these statistics. And yet, at age 27, I have twenty-two years of schooling, four higher education degrees, a decade of professional experience, and numerous awards/scholarships. Like all Tibetan parents, my Apa and Ama always attribute all our successes to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
If anything good happened in our lives, it was always magically due to His Holiness. Growing up as a teenager in the West, I found it difficult to get my head wrapped around this concept. I did not understand why a man I had never met in-person could take credit for everything good that had happened in my life. My Ama, my guiding light of unending patience and empathy, would name-drop the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, as though that one event in history could explain everything. She would go on to explain how everything is connected to 1989.
My parents always said that their children were born and raised in the “turning decade of Tibetans-in-exile,” the 90s, so they would never have to relive our parents’ pains and sacrifices. As a child, I did not understand what that meant; in my perspective, it seemed like we still lived in a refugee camp with poor indoor plumbing, many public health hazards, high school dropouts, and unstable access to electricity. I did not realize it then, but the 90s were the heyday for Tibetan refugees. The Nobel Peace Prize win triggered: Big blockbuster Hollywood movies were being made; celebrities visited our refugee camps; tourists flocked to our cooperative shops. And a mass socio-economic demographic shift started as families left the refugee camps to migrate to the United States and Europe. My Ama says the international spotlight His Holiness received from the Nobel Peace Prize begot our progress. His win elevated the status of Tibetan refugees on a global stage.
Every first weekend of December, my friends from the Tibetan Language School and I would get on stage and sing the Nobel Zamling Shidey Sengdak song, celebrating the Nobel win. I was pretty sure almost none of the 962 Nobel laureates had national holidays in exile, global celebrations, and a trope of songs. Nonetheless, through my youthful skepticism, I could see my Apa and Ama beaming with pride every time my sisters and I practiced the Nobel Zamling Shidey Sengdak for the hundredth time around the house. The lyrics had a much deeper resonance for them. And my parents were correct – their children would never have to relive the sacrifices and pain of poverty, separation, and exile because of the critical juncture the Nobel Peace Prize represents in the Tibetan experience. It was only through my parents’ lived experience I could start understanding this significance.
My parents had fled Tibet after 1959 and settled in a refugee camp in Nepal. As a teenager, my Apa, Popo, and Agu were Khampa guerilla warriors who made the decade-long harrowing journey in the 60s, fighting Chinese soldiers on foot and horseback, from northeastern Tibet to Mustang, Nepal, and finally making a home in a refugee camp south of Kathmandu. Before this, my Apa and Agu were on track to become Khenpo (a terminal Buddhist education degree equivalent to a graduate-level degree) at one of the foremost Nyingma training centers in Tibet, the Katok Monastery. When the Chinese People’s Liberation Army attacked the nearby Dzogchen monastery, my Apa, Popo, and Agu, fled their hometown, Derge, never to see their mom again, in the middle of the night and joined the Chushi Gangdruk, guerilla army.
Following the guerilla disbandment, my 24-year-old Apa came to Dharamshala to seek a modern education. When he was deemed too old for schooling, Dharamshala sent him to the Special Frontier Force under the Indian Army, and he fought in the Bangladesh Liberation War. After the war, Apa returned to the refugee camp in Nepal, married Ama, and started a small textile shop. Returning from war, living in the refugee camp in the 70s and 80s was another battleground. My Ama and her family came across Nangba la and settled in the same refugee camp in Nepal. Ama went to an orphanage school for two years in India before her family called her home for marriage at age sixteen. While her education ended abruptly by an early marriage, Ama vowed never to interrupt her children’s education. It became her utmost priority.
In the refugee camps, death was imminent and disease prevalent. Children died young from preventable diseases, while tuberculosis, alcoholism, and hepatitis haunted every family. My parents mark the post-1989 Nobel Peace Prize win as a turning point in our community because the rates of mortality, illiteracy, hunger, and poverty dropped starting then. By the time my sister and I were born in the 90s, we were always clean, well-clothed, educated, and stomach-full. This is why the Nobel Peace Prize signifies so much more to my parents. Of the other 960 Nobel laureates, I am quite sure none of the others have had such an impact on the trajectory of their entire community as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has had on Tibetan refugees.
Every year in recent history has had its shockingly sad refugee crisis, from the Rohingyas to Syrians to Sudanese to Somali, among others. I have professionally spent a decade working in international development, and I know firsthand how saturated and crowded the field is for refugee funding needs. Tibetan refugee community is one of the few refugee communities to receive annual earmarked funding directly from the United States government. We are more than six decades into our refugee status, and we continue to remain politically relevant.
So, back to my earlier question to my parents about “how did everything good that’s happened to us stem from His Holiness the Dalai Lama?” After the Nobel win, the Dalai Lama’s office started receiving invitations for bilateral relationships with foreign governments and institutions. This meant there was an increase in funding for public health, education, and community development. Many of my childhood friends and I would have not have survived or been able to attend school if we had not had access to the Community Health Worker program, which serves more than 200,000+ Tibetan refugees through seven hospitals, five health centers, and thirty-seven clinics in refugee camps across India and Nepal. Riding on the Nobel Peace Prize win, the United States Congress passed the Tibetan Immigration Act of 1990. My family went from being stateless people to seeking political asylum.
As immigrants, my parents worked low wage jobs every day for long hours. We were glad to be together and free. My parents have always instilled the importance of education and service. After five days of regular school, my siblings and I spent weekends attending Tibetan language school and cultural performing arts lessons. Having spent the first half of my life in a refugee camp, I found it difficult to adjust to my new country. Tibetan language school became the bridge for how I wanted to integrate into my new country.
Along with my Tibetan peers, we learned how to negotiate our Tibetan values at home with the Western values we were exposed to outside. I always looked forward to Tibetan weekend school; it was the only time in the week when I was in a room full of peers who shared my experiences. Our knowledge of the Tibetan language may not be as sophisticated as our parents and teachers want. Nonetheless, we used the Tibetan weekend school and community gatherings to forge lifelong friendships, our primary connection between Tibetan identity in the West. While funding was always scarce for Tibetan weekend school, the high-profile Dalai Lama’s visits always made sure to highlight Tibetan students and replenish our school’s budget.
In my new country, I dreamt of attending college and becoming an educated woman. However, I did not know anyone who had attended college. I knew I had limited options. There is a massive achievement gap between Tibetans and other Asian immigrants; we are working twice as hard to catch up. My siblings and I became first-generation college students. I was the first in my family to graduate with a Bachelors and Masters degree and won national scholarships/awards. I realized the value of hard work and grit in achieving our true potential.
For my Apa and Ama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize celebration is the manifestation of the long and arduous journey against all odds our community has taken since losing our freedom. Through His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this is all of our achievement and the work that still needs to be done. My Apa went from a precocious monk in Kham to a battle-hardened guerrilla fighter in Mustang and India, to a rug salesman in Nepal, to finally a family man in the West, bequeathing his lived experience to his children and grandchildren. Every year my Apa and Ama celebrate Nobel Peace Prize Day with our community, it is the accumulation of the pains, sacrifices, and achievements they have experienced in their lifetime.
As James Baldwin stated, “our crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.” This deeply resonates with me as a Tibetan. Our parents, ancestors, and leaders like HHDL have already paid the sacrifices; it is for my generation and the future of Tibet to reap the benefits and make our positive mark in the world.