From Tibet to Brittany, three refugees testify

- through Fabrice Groult

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Army monitoring. Relatives imprisoned. They could no longer stay in Tibet. Tenzindolma, Tenzinpelma and Choeden therefore decided to flee. A perilous journey to Nepal then a new life in India, in difficult conditions. Aware of the warm welcome given to Tibetans in France, they tried their luck and obtained asylum. They are rebuilding today, in Rennes. Trying to cultivate wisdom and benevolence, as recommended by the Dalai Lama, they retain a tiny hope of one day finding their country.

Nyandak, hair tied back, wearing a black hoodie, finishes cleaning the tables where many diners dined the night before. The Dolma restaurant, closed on Sundays, opens its doors to us especially for a few hours. The owner, helped by Tenzin, a former waiter, serves us a milk chai accompanied by khabsé, fine wheat biscuits, to welcome us. On the wall, right side, appear the eight auspicious symbols. The wheel of Dharma and the endless knot, yellow and red, are easily recognizable. The atmosphere and peaceful. Only the roar of the wind outside signaled the approaching storm.

The door opens. A man and two women are seated around the table, under a portrait of the Dalai Lama. The three tibetan refugees agreed to tell us about their journey. Nyandak and Tenzin serve as our interpreter. Choeden, slim, with short hair, is 33 years old. He remembers his flight from central Tibet in 2009. “The pressure from the Chinese army was such that I decided to flee. Ten days of walking to Nepal, before a long truck ride to New Delhi, India. »

Hidden in the goods

Sitting to our right, Tenzindolma tells us about the circumstances of her departure, when she was just a child, in 1999. “My father had been arrested for demonstrating. He died at hard labor, in a dynamite explosion. We couldn't recover the body. This is the reason why we decided to leave Tibet. With the help of a smuggler, she embarks on a dangerous journey from Lhasa, hiding in a truck for a week, surrounded by goods. Arrived at the border, she joins Nepal on foot. One of his fellow exiles dies while crossing a river. “When we arrived, it was very hot. There were hygiene problems, illnesses…” Then, after three months, the children were separated from the adults. Sent to New Delhi, she continued her education there before working as a housekeeper. “I had to fend for myself. I was far from my aunt, who was then in Dharamsala. »

The latter, aged 34, could be his sister. Like her niece, Tenzinpelma has a round face, soft eyes, holds her hair tied in a ponytail. Her speaking rate is sustained when she evokes the story of her exile in 1994. “My family was strictly watched by the army. I left with 25 other young people. After a month and a half of walking, we reached the Nepalese border. But the Chinese police had heard of their departure. Members of his family are arrested and sent back to Lhasa. Tenzinpelma manages to pass. "I was only nine years old, I wanted to go back to Tibet to find my family," she recalls, painfully. Her journey then takes her to Dharamsala. After six years at the school of Tibetan government in exile, she met her husband and started sewing, notably producing silk embroidery and monk's clothes.

False passport and French dream

Choeden listens carefully, before continuing: “I lived, as for me, in Karnataka, I chained the jobs in the restoration while learning English. It was difficult,” says the young man. Dreaming of a better life, he learns that France reserves a warm welcome to Tibetan refugees. With the help of smugglers, he obtained a false passport and embarked with friends for Paris in early 2018. Several were arrested at immigration. “Luckily, I succeeded”. Arrived in France, he went to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine where, on the barge of the association La Pierre Blanche, he met many Tibetans. “We slept on the quays. The members of the association had assured me that in Rennes, it was easier to obtain papers. A few days later, he arrived at the Dolma restaurant, which had become the headquarters of the Tibetans in the Breton capital. “On September 17, 2018, I obtained my refugee status,” he recalls, with a smile.

“My parents described to me the blood that flowed from the Potala Palace, the bodies stacked like bricks in the middle of the streets. They always reminded me to never forget”. Tenzinpelm

Tenzindolma keeps her arms crossed. Arriving in 2015, in similar conditions, she first stayed for a week in Paris with a friend, at La Porte de la Chapelle, before moving to Rennes. “For a month and a half, I slept at the Samu social, which takes in homeless people. Then I found shared social housing with two African migrants. In Rennes, she also worked for a time at the Dolma restaurant before doing odd jobs. Then she meets a Tibetan refugee, with whom she has a child.

Develop wisdom, away from one's own

The three refugees had to adapt their eating habits. This subject is worth a lively debate, punctuated by bursts of laughter. Tenzindolma cooks typical Tibetan dishes most of the time at home: “In the highlands, we eat hot dishes with meat and vegetables. So I find it difficult to enjoy salads and sandwiches. But I like the pot-au-feu, ”she says. Tenzinpelma, already faithful to her new home, admits her taste for Breton pancakes.

All three continue to practice Vajrayana Buddhism, in their own way. "As I have to take care of my child, I can't meditate every morning," admits Tenzindolma. But every eighth and fifteenth day of the lunar month (2), I address my prayers to the Buddha, at home. "With us, it is mainly the monks who meditate," continues Choeden. We lay people must above all develop wisdom and benevolence, with transparency. This is the message of the Dalai Lama”. The Tibetan community of Rennes, strong of about thirty people, does not hesitate to meet regularly to pray in the Parc du Thabor or in a room rented for the occasion.

The Dalai Lama as a symbol of hope

A fine rain begins to fall outside. The air is cooling. The two women put on their coats. Far from their homeland, refugees stay up to date with news from their country through social media. And all perpetuate the memory of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, in Lhasa. "On March 10, all the people revolted and on March 12, it was the women who took to the streets," says Tenzinpelma. A movement harshly suppressed. “My parents described to me the blood that flowed from the Potala Palace, the bodies stacked like bricks in the middle of the streets. They always reminded me to never forget,” she adds.

Choeden agrees: “That day, the Dalai Lama had been invited to dinner by the Chinese army. But he didn't go, then fled, hiding in the crowd. Who knows what would have happened if he had accepted the invitation…”

The XNUMXth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, remains a symbol for Tibetans. “He is our light,” assures Tenzinpelma. "It is thanks to him and his message of non-violence that we have a good image abroad", abounds his niece, who hopes to be able to return one day to an autonomous or independent Tibet, "although it is announcement very complicated, ”she admits. “As long as the Dalai Lama exists, we keep hope,” concludes Tenzinpelma.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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