Second wave of refugees adapting to Canadian city life
She arrived to Calgary at 8:00 p.m. on a cold March night to a welcoming crowd of Tibetans, bright lights of video cameras, and the many questions of multiple reporters.
Yeshi Choedon, is a 28-year-old Tibetan immigrant from a small village in the Arunachal Pradesh province of India. With 26 Tibetan refugees, Choedon immigrated to Canada.
Weeks after her initial arrival, Choedon admits she is overwhelmed by her new country. But with a large smile on her face she says, “Still I don’t believe I am in Canada.”
The arrival of Choedon and her fellow Tibetans stems from an initial plea in 2007 from the Dalai Lama to the Canadian government to resettle Tibetan refugees in Canada.
The government replied with interest but with no funds to generate a Tibetan resettlement program. Instead a non-profit organization called Project Tibet Society stepped up and raised the money to sponsor the Tibetans.
By 2011, a temporary public policy was put in place to offer Canadian visas to up to 1,000 displaced and stateless Tibetans facilitated by the Project Tibet Society. Choedon is one of the 400 Tibetans expected to immigrate to Calgary over the next three years and Nima Dorjee will be there every step of the way.
Dorjee is president of the Project Tibet Society and as a Tibetan immigrant and Calgarian, says it is imperative to give people like Choedon an opportunity.
“I think these are some of the greatest opportunities,” says Dorjee of the recent Tibetan immigrants. “It is that ability to reach their full potential without any inhibitions and without an limitations.”
Photo by Kelsey SimpsonLike Choedon and many Tibetan immigrants, Dorjee was born in India. As a young boy, his family came to Canada in 1981, giving him access to Canadian health care and education— a luxury that many Tibetans may never know. After visiting Tibetan settlements in India, Dorjee says he realized just how much young and educated Tibetans needed opportunity.
Pairing up with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, Dorjee was able to find housing and meals for the incoming Tibetans.
EARLY LIFE IN INDIA
Before Choedon arrived in Calgary, she was among an estimated 8,000 Tibetan exiles living in refugee settlements in the politically disputed and fragile Arunachal Pradesh province in India. The area contains five refugee settlements that border Tibet and more importantly, China, who claims the province as Tibetan, and therefore considers it should be a part of China.
The province is remote. Choedon left home at an early age to go to boarding school, which she recalls, was eight days of travel away from her family. The distance meant she sometimes went years without seeing her family. Choedon completed 13 years in boarding school before going to college on a scholarship.
After earning a degree in English, Choedon obtained a diploma in special needs education. There, she says, in the classroom teaching special needs children, Choedon found her calling.
A CHANCE AT A NEW LIFE
As a young and educated Tibetan, Choedon and others like her, were entered in a lottery that chose 1,000 Tibetans as part of the new public policy from the Canadian government.
Coming from a poor farming family, Choedon admits that she thought she had no chance of going to Canada. With no country to belong to and no nationhood, Choedon cannot believe the sense of welcoming and sincerity she has felt since arriving to Canada.
Spending their first two weeks at the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre ran by the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, Choedon and her friends lived in the dorms with other refugees from Sudan and other places around the world.
More recently, Choedon and other Tibetans have been moved to new homes throughout the city to allow them to feel more comfortable and focus on the task ahead—finding jobs and getting to know their new city.
Photo by Kelsey SimpsonAlthough India has been home for many of these Tibetan exiles for nearly 50 years, Choedon and Dorjee says that it is hard to get past the stigma of being a refugee.
“The Paradox of India if you will, is that on one end you have got India who has been more generous that anyone else in terms of how they treat the Tibetan refugees living there,” says Dorjee.
India has provided land, and schools that teach Tibetan language, however the Tibetan people are still denied citizenship in India, and are forced to renew their residency every six months.
“There is the other aspect of the stigma that comes in general where being a refugee is seen as a derogatory term, as if it is the fault of the refugee somehow,” explains Dorjee who found it difficult even when he was growing up in India.
Choedon also says it is hard to explain her complicated heritage. She is constantly saying that she is Tibetan but born in India. Choedon has had to come to terms with people who reinforced her refugee status. “Don’t forget, you are Tibetan…you have an R written all over your forehead,” she says pointing to her head.
Although claiming her heritage proudly, Choedon admits she has never set her eyes on her homeland, and neither have her parents.
“It is very sad. As a Tibetan, I have never seen my own place,” admits Choedon. “Before I die I want to see Tibet for once.”
In her Killarney home for the next few months, Choedon is focusing on her future. Most recently she has had an interview with a Tim Hortons and hopes to land a job there soon.
Choedon says her plan is to make lots of money.
With loans from her work back home, Choedon wants to repay that debt and also send money home for her family. After that, Choedon hopes to work hard until she has enough money to be certified to teach special needs children in Canada.
Choedon admits that working with special needs people can be challenging but says, “That is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Since coming to Canada, Choedon says it is a lot different than India with no need to explain herself or her family. With a Canadian visa, Choedon says she feels her status of a refugee lessening and her identity as a Tibetan and a Canadian growing.