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Running From Tenda Gyamar
A Volunteer's Story of Life with the Refugee Children of Tibet
By Lesley Freeman
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Lesley Freeman
All rights reserved.
Tibetan Children's Villages (TCV)
Tibetan Children's Villages (TCV) was set up in 1960 by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Subsequent to the invasion of Tibet and violation of the Tibetan people by the Chinese in 1950, His Holiness escaped from Tibet through the Himalayan Mountains to face uncertainty in India. Thousands of Tibetans – men, women and children – followed their temporal and spiritual leader to begin a new life in exile as refugees in India.
The massive influx of Tibetan refugees caused a huge problem regarding the welfare and educational needs of these children. His Holiness, being aware that they were the future of Tibet, decided to establish an organisation that would save them from the desolate circumstances and terrible conditions they faced. His Holiness's Sister, Madam Tsering Dolma Takla, agreed to take charge of the children, who began to arrive at the centre daily.
Most of the children came from road workers' camps, as this was the only work available to the uneducated Tibetans. Men, women and children lived and worked in appalling conditions, many of them afflicted by diseases such as tuberculosis, and stomach and skin problems caused by exposure to the harsh environment and climate they had faced during their journey. The children were sick and there was a desperate shortage of the basic necessities such as food, clothing and medicines. Every effort was made to find carers who would give these children the love and attention they needed. As time went by international aid organisations, pressure groups and individuals learnt of the Tibetans' sad plight and began to support TVC.
Tragically, in 1964, Madam Tsering Dolma Takla died, so her younger Sister, Madam Jetsun Pema, took over as director. Since then, due to Madam Pema's determination, dedication and tenacity, TCV has expanded and has many branches, caring for over 11,000 Tibetan refugee children. In 1972, TCV was officially registered as Tibetan Children's Village and became a member of SOS Kinderdorf International in Vienna.
With their support TCV continues to expand and in 1973 a sponsorship fund was created to secure sponsors for the children's welfare and education. The sponsorship provides food, clothing, medical expenses, school uniforms, books and stationery.
There are now children's villages, residential schools, TCV day schools, day care centres, vocational training centres, youth centres, outreach programmes and old people's homes that are supported by TCV, SOS and sponsors from across the world.
Details of the charity can be found in the 'Useful Addresses' section at the back of this book.
My initial vision and objective in writing this book was to tell the stories of Tibetan refugee children and hopefully, through people's increased or newfound awareness, to secure financial support for them. However, since working at Selakui, moving to Rajpur and witnessing for myself the children's educational and emotional welfare needs, I decided that not only financial help was required, but also a huge increase in volunteers. Therefore, it is also my hope that this book will inspire others to do as I did and to consider volunteering. A Tibetan once said to me, "Lesley, there's nothing stronger, or more sincere, than the heart of a volunteer."
For that reason, before you begin reading the children's stories, I want to tell you about myself and how I became a volunteer for Tibetan refugees. I want to share with you some of my experiences, to help you build an image and have some insight into my thoughts and feelings, the obstacles leading up to my departure from England and what my life was like when I returned to India.
I want you to get to know me and understand why I chose to make such sacrifices. I didn't realise my life would change in ways beyond anything I could have imagined. I believe this to be valuable background for anyone who has yearned to make a similar journey but, for whatever reason, procrastinates.
People consider me to be frank, compassionate, empathic, tenacious, romantic, stubborn and kind, but much too sensitive and emotional. I speak from the heart and I am true to myself, even if it means hurting others in the process. What I mean to say is that, since 1998, I have lived by my belief that: 'I don't have to give up myself to please others. I am free to do as I want.' This has given me the courage and motivation to begin living my life in the way that my soul needs and, furthermore, I believe that living with this conviction has helped bring me where I am today.
I was born in St Mary's Hospital, Islington, North London in 1959. I have three sisters, one of whom is my non-identical twin, and two brothers. Most of my childhood years were spent first in Wiltshire and then in Essex. I had a miserable childhood, living in constant fear that my mother would kill me, which she tried to do on more than one occasion, and that my father would leave us, as he often did when they fought. I needed protection from Mum, but Dad was unable to provide it.
From the age of eight, every night before I went to bed, I would hide any matches, knives or other objects that I thought Mum would use to hurt or kill me. After several years of arguments, hostility, and witnessing things that little girls never should, things that fill people with horror when I tell them, Mum and Dad, thankfully, divorced. I was eleven. Mum is an alcoholic, she has epilepsy and suffers from 'nervous problems'; we have not seen each other for many years. I had nightmares about her for such a long time, waking covered in sweat and crying, which only ceased after I received counselling.
Following a year's intense and arduous therapy with Eva, my counsellor, I was finally able to forgive Mum and write a letter telling her so. Writing that letter was prompted by a Denise Lin tape that I had bought, which motivated me to forgive my parents. She advises us to "Look at your mum and dad as small, frightened children themselves, and know that they, too, were hurt when they were young". She says, "Find a place in your heart where you can keep a vision of your mother as a scared little girl, or your father as a frightened little boy."
I desperately wanted Mum to take responsibility for her actions, but eventually faced the sad fact that she would be unable even to comprehend what I was saying to her, let alone accept that responsibility.
I sobbed as I read out the letter during my therapy session. Every word was painful to say but, at the same time, brought relief. When I finished I looked up and saw that Eva was also crying. She told me she had never heard such beautiful words in a letter and that these had come from deep within my soul.
I regret never keeping a copy of that letter, as I would like to read it now and again. The enormous sense of relief at letting the past hurt go and to say, "Mum, I forgive you," catapulted me into a new beginning; a new acceptance of her, my past and myself.
My next task was to visit Dad and ask him to take responsibility for not protecting me from Mum. He, like the rest of my family, knew I had been going through many 'transformations' since my therapy and I think they were all a little wary of me, even afraid. They repeatedly complained that they didn't know who I was anymore. I responded energetically by saying, "Nor do I, but I soon will and so will you, and we will like who I am."
I believe that each member of my family, including myself, were like cogs. We all needed to keep to our unconsciously allotted roles within the family structure to keep the wheels turning. The wheels stopped turning when I no longer wished to be just another 'cog': I had changed my mind and I wanted to do something else with my life, to find a new role that would feed and nurture my heart and soul. This upset my family because my self-development and the improvements in my life had the effect of forcing them to look at their own lives, which made them uncomfortable. There are particular members of my family who were terrified of facing certain issues, because they were either unwilling or unable to do so, and this is why I felt different. Unless I faced what was given to me, how on earth could I develop and learn about myself?
Dad was shocked at my appearance: "Lesley, you look terrible!" he said. He was scared to confront the reasons why I had visited him and tried to change the subject. He couldn't even look at me. After several hours of talking, crying and hugging, he uttered the words I had been so desperate to hear: "Lesley, I take responsibility for not protecting you from your mum, and I'm sorry." At that moment it was evident that both of us had taken huge steps in our own ways. From then on my relationship with Dad improved.
Dad provided well for us. He worked hard to give us as comfortable a life as he possibly could. Although we weren't well-off by any means, we always wore smart, clean clothes and the cupboards were always full of food. Yet he was a difficult man to live with: he had a violent temper, which he often took out on us and we lived in fear of him, which is how, we discovered, he had lived with his own father. As I grew older I yearned for him not just to listen to me, but to hear me - my thoughts, feelings and opinions - but he could only hear his own.
The one thing about him that affected me more than anything else was that he never allowed me to complete a sentence. He continually interrupted me and was unable to hear and understand what I wanted to say. He took away my power of speech, which was a dreadful feeling. However, things have improved and now it feels good to sit and talk to him.
My working life in England was spent mostly as a personal assistant and secretary in various companies in the City of London with a break of two years during which I opened and ran my own tea and coffee house. This was without doubt, in my opinion and that of my bank manager, the worst decision I ever made. Although I was creative, excited, motivated and had firm ideas about what I wanted for my business, I was, unfortunately, also inexperienced in keeping accounts and supervising employees.
After selling my business a year later (for a very good profit, I might add, which eventually drew a smile of relief from my bank manager) and divorcing my husband, I returned to the City, resuming my role as a secretary. I soon felt demoralised and wondered if this was all there was to the rest of my life. I spent more time talking to colleagues and friends about their problems and endeavouring to work them out than sitting at my desk doing my job. Riskily, I decided to leave paid employment and return to school to study for a diploma in psychology. I wanted to become a 'therapeutic counsellor'. I wanted to help people: this, I knew, would feed my soul. I was confident it would lead to many new opportunities, though not the kind that it eventually did.
Part of the training course curriculum required all students to undertake their own personal counselling sessions. Although this proved to be the most difficult part of the course for me, it eventually helped me realise that I wanted to do something different and meaningful with my life. I needed to make some drastic changes, which meant making some big sacrifices and taking some big risks. I explained to Eva that I wanted to give something of myself to others in the world that would, hopefully, benefit their lives. I was determined to leave this world having done something useful and worthwhile for humanity.
I am by no means gifted academically and I possess no outstanding skills or qualifications, apart from my counselling. There is only me, my life experiences and an abundance of love, along with the need to care for and help others, and give them what I feel I missed out on in my own past. I knew I didn't want a life where I just woke up every day to live the same 'nine to five routine' only to return home again to an empty house with no one to share my evenings. I needed more than that: I needed something to feed my mind, body, heart and soul. However, I had no idea what that was, or how I could find it.
Eva mentioned an ex-student of hers whose parents worked in a hospital in Kolkata, India. They were looking for volunteers to support their HIV patients. Although I expressed great enthusiasm for this work, after a few weeks of waiting, nothing materialised so I carried on dutifully with my studies and therapy. However, Eva and I did not realise that she had unwittingly 'planted a seed' in me, which had begun to grow. I'm the kind of person who, once something penetrates their soul, does everything in their power to achieve it.
At the time of my therapy I was undergoing sessions of colonic hydrotherapy. For those of you who are innocent of this uncomfortable, distasteful and somewhat embarrassing practice, a tube is inserted into the rectum and cleanses the colon with purified water. This not only improved my physical health, but also improved my psychological state of mind. I will expand on this. A small part of the tube is clear. Therefore, one can see, if one so desires, the built-up waste leaving the body. I would force myself to look at this and surprisingly (and somewhat disconcertingly), I soon began to envisage the bad feelings and hurt I had suffered in the past leaving my body. This visualisation worked extremely well with regard to people who had affected me negatively!
My 'bottom' therapist was interested in my 'spiritual path' and, having never before had this question set before me, I became quite stimulated, as it gave me yet another opportunity to analyse myself, which I am prone to do much too often. Six years previously I had been confirmed into the Catholic faith, but I remained unsure if this was, in fact the correct and appropriate religion for me. She began to tell me how the Buddhist philosophy had greatly improved her life. She enthusiastically proceeded to share her many personal stories and by the time I left the clinic I was eager to read more about Buddhism. Walking as fast as my short legs would carry me, my brain directed me to the nearest bookshop. This surely must have been the quickest I have ever parted with my hard-earned cash, buying several books written by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as if they were going out of print.
I feel ashamed to admit that before that moment I had never taken much notice of the Dalai Lama, his people or Tibet. In fact, I knew nothing at all. I didn't even know where Tibet was. As I read, I was appalled by how the Tibetans had suffered and continued to suffer at the hands of the Chinese. I was ashamed that I had been too selfish and preoccupied with my own life to notice or learn anything about these people and their plight.
It also made me think of the people who were tolerating hardships in my own country and how, in the past, I had ignored pleas for help from people, regardless of whether I knew them or not. The words of His Holiness made me look at and reflect more deeply on myself, questioning my past motives, morals, values and actions. For the first time in my life I came face to face with the 'real me' and I didn't like what I saw. I disliked how I felt and how I thought even more. I realised that much of what I had suffered in this life had been of my own making. I used to believe strongly in destiny and fate, but this has been replaced with an even stronger belief in karma, the cause and effect of one's actions.
As a result of my own actions I make my own destiny, no one else. I am responsible for the way I live and the person I am. Up until that moment I had blamed others for my often lonely and miserable existence. I had failed to take responsibility for my own life. At my following session with Eva I explained to her, with surprising clarity, my 'new awareness'. She suddenly jumped and whooped with joy! She said I had made remarkable progress by finally admitting this to myself, and this was what she had been waiting for.
With her help and the support of my children, closest friends, tutors and group members at college, I worked tirelessly to revise the values by which I had previously lived. I knew deep within my heart and soul that my 'new' values and deepest beliefs must be strictly adhered to in order for me to make the true choices that would benefit my future.
Excerpted from Running From Tenda Gyamar by Lesley Freeman. Copyright © 2012 by Lesley Freeman. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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