Pema grew up in Amdo in north eastern Tibet, in a small, friendly, rural community. When left alone, it was like paradise, but the family slept surrounded by knives in case Chinese bandits came in the night. She says: ‘The village where I lived was very beautiful. There were lots of flowers and the sky was always a beautiful bright, bright blue.’
“It’s a risk to your life. You may die because of the weather or because of landslides.”
Today, far away from that bright blue sky, she reminisces about the nights she would camp with nomads, sitting round a huge bonfire singing songs. During the day, the nomads would play the flute to their herds of yak and tell stories…
Pema says: ‘Many of the old people had seen the Yeti in the mountains. They were like huge hairy men with long hair over their faces. We were told that if we came across a Yeti to run up a hill, because that way their hair would cover their faces and they would not catch us!’
Soon, however, more earthly horrors began to encroach. People in her village were shot by the Chinese army. At the Chinese school Pema attended she was beaten every day with a bamboo cane – and Tibetan language, culture and history were banned. One day, when she was ten, her father took her aside and asked her gently if she would like to go to India to be educated. He knew that if his daughter remained in Tibet she could be killed. Even today, simply owning a picture of the Dalai Lama can have horrific consequences.
Pema says of her decision to leave Tibet: ‘It’s a risk to your life. You may die because of the weather or because of landslides. If you are caught by the Chinese then you will be put in jail and suffer intolerable tortures – and your family will be in trouble and punished severely.’
So Pema and her younger brother Tenzin began the trek across the Himalayas with their father. It lasted many weeks and took them across high passes and down treacherously steep valleys. They marched through thick and thin, because they hoped and prayed that each step brought them closer to kundun, the golden spiritual radiance of the Dalai Lama….
And by a miracle they made it to the Nepalese border. But there was still a terrifying trial ahead. Pema says: ‘At the border there was a high bridge to cross to safety. The Chinese soldiers were walking with their guns just waiting to shoot.’
Fortunately, plucky little Tenzin puffed out his chest, acted like a passing schoolboy and just sauntered through! Pema couldn’t believe her eyes. Two days later, shivering with feaer, she made the attempt herself, pretending to be a washerwoman with a bag full of dirty clothes. Again, by a miracle, she slipped through….
To help Tibetan refugees, the Tibet Relief Fund supports the Reception Centre in Kathmandu in Nepal. A gift of £30 could help to pay for three emergency medical kits, so three children suffering from frostbite can receive the benefits of antiseptic ointments and dressings.
Triumph, however, turned to sheer exhaustion. Their father was still at the border and the two children were wet, cold and totally alone – two strangers in a foreign land.
Blessedly, Pema was reunited with her beloved father a few days later. He was covered in mud and earth, his face scarred and blotchy with blood. What had happened?
The soldiers had spotted him, so his only option was to jump into the river. Plunging into the icy depths, he frantically swam to the edge of the shore and, with seconds to spare, dived into a freshly dug shallow grave. As the soldiers passed by with their guns, cursing and swearing, having lost their target, ants chewed at his face.
The next day Pema’s father took her to a Tibetan orphanage. Cruelly, despite having just been reconciled, it was time to say goodbye forever. He hugged Pema and Tenzin and made them promise through their tears to study hard and keep the spirit of Tibet alive.
And with a heart full of grief, he turned back – to return to his anxious wife and three other children in Tibet. Yes, he had gone through weeks of agony, just to give his precious son and daughter a proper start in life.
The Tibet Relief Fund supports a number of Tibetan orphanages through our sponsorship programme and donations, which are both homes and schools for thousands of children.
One of the biggest is the Tibetan Homes Foundation (THF), founded by the Dalai Lama himself in 1962. The THF does everything it can to look after young children like Pema separated from their families.
The THF provides children with constant, loving foster care. The staff and older children see the younger children through the lonely hours when they feel homesick. The Foundation also makes sure every child receives a first class education.
Tibetan class work
Today, by making a gift of £30 to the Tibet Relief Fund, you could help the Tibetan Homes Foundation to buy blankets, mattresses and warm winter clothing to keep the children in their charge safe and warm.
The tireless work of the Tibet Relief Fund does not stop there. We’ve just set up a youth employment project, because when Tibetan children leave school, many will find it hard to make a living in today’s commercial world. It’s vital they learn the vocational skills that will help them find jobs, so they can live independently and escape poverty.
Thanks to our help, Pema is now a bright confident young woman studying hard at university to make something of herself and Tenzin is working towards qualifying as a doctor. Pema has big ambitions for the future, though she says wistfully: ‘I have always wanted to go back to Tibet and meet my parents, relatives and childhood friends. I wish that the Chinese would stop the killing and torturing of Tibetans. As soon as possible this hatred should stop and change to a peaceful relationship.’
Over the last year, small charities like ours have found it very difficult to raise funds, owing to the massive response from the public to such calamities as the Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake. While such emergency aid is vital, the long-term need to support the Tibetan people – whose plight goes unreported in the media – is as urgent as ever before.