On my first full day in Pokhara, Nepal, a petite woman strolled down the sidewalk and stopped in front of my table at the open-air restaurant where I was enjoying lunch. Her muted, horizontal striped apron was cinched around an ankle-length gray dress and long, glistening black braids wound around her head. A wide smile split her ruddy cheeks as she greeted me in Nepali fashion.
“Namaste. How are you?” My polite reply was enough encouragement; she sat down at my table.
“I am Tibetan,” she announced as she pulled pouches and bags out of her backpack. Soon, every spare inch of tabletop was covered with handmade earrings, necklaces, rings, and bracelets. She was the first Tibetan person I had ever met, but she would not be the last.
In 1959, thousands of Tibetans crossed the rugged Himalayas on foot, fleeing a brutal occupying Chinese army that destroyed monasteries and massacred thousands of monks as they advanced. Those who made it to Nepal were granted refugee status and allowed to settle on land donated by the Nepali government. Although many Tibetans have since emigrated to other countries, about 20,000 still reside in these original refugee camps, many of which are located in and around Pokhara.
Eventually, realizing I wasn’t interested in buying anything, my new Tibetan acquaintance stuffed the jewelry back in her bag but made no move to get up. Instead, she pulled off her thick black shoes and began rubbing her swollen feet. “All day walk, up and down, but no customers. Business very, very bad,” she sighed.
Shoving my plate into the center of the table, I encouraged her to share my lunch as she told me about her life. The jewelry she sells is handcrafted by her disabled husband in their home in the Tarshi Palkhiel Tibetan refugee settlement, located on the outskirts of Pokhara. Each day, though her doctor has advised her not to carry heavy weights, she slings the overloaded pack on her back, takes the bus to town and peddles her wares to tourists, hoping to earn enough money for daily living expenses and save a bit for her children’s college education. Too soon, she pushed back her chair, flashed me a beaming smile, and was on her way, leaving me to ponder how someone who lived with such hardship could seem so content and joyful.
In the weeks that followed this initial encounter I befriended many more Tibetans, who eagerly shared their stories with me. Those who arrived in Nepal prior to 1990 are recognized as refugees and have legal residence and religious freedom, however, their civil, political and economic rights are limited and many have no identity documents. Even Tibetans who have been born and raised in Nepal are denied citizenship due to political pressure from China, which insists that all Tibetans should be arrested, charged as criminals and repatriated to Tibet. Sandwiched between two superpowers – China and India – tiny little Nepal bows to pressure from both the north and south. Continue reading