Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tibetan Immigrants in the United States



Though currently Tibet is a nation occupied by the People’s Republic of China, the Tibetan people generally view themselves as people of Tibet.  As a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader and some 80,000 Tibetans initially took refugee in India, Nepal, and Bhutan (Lama, 1998; Lopez, 1998; Tibet.net, 2010).  In these three countries, Tibetans established refugee communities and within these communities, Tibetans were frequently cited as models of successfully coping with the challenges of refugee life and of preserving cultural identity in-­‐exile (Mahmoudi, 1992).  Particularly in India, Tibetans established many Tibetan schools with the support of the Government of India and foreign donors.  Until 2005, Tibetan schools in India followed an education system structured primarily on the host country India’s needs (Department of Education, 2005).  Under this education system, Tibetan students generally were instructed according to the policies and curriculums prescribed by the Indian Board of Education that embraced the English language as the primary language of instruction (Rigzin, 2004).  As a result, many adult Tibetans in India obtained their school education with English as their primary language of instruction.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) ‐‐ established in India after the failed uprising in Tibet in 1959 ‐‐ administers Tibetan exile communities and schools.  The Tibetan people’s recognition and confidence in CTA is evident from the incessant flow of Tibetans from Chinese‐controlled Tibet since 1979 when China opened its Tibet border generally to Tibetans inside Tibet as well as to the outside world (Office of the Reception Centers, 1997).  Tibetans seek refuge in India for better education, religious freedom, socioeconomic prospects, and for cherished democratic ideals, among others.  However, according to Samdhong Rinpoche, the last executive head of CTA, the Tibetan Diaspora was experiencing a paradigm shift with many young Tibetans preferring to settle in the West, including the United States (Sehgal, 2011).  A short description of this paradigm shift in the United States is briefly discussed below. 

Increased opportunity for young and educated Tibetan refugees to study in the United States began in 1988, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill to sponsor Tibetan refugee students each year to study in American universities (U.S. Department of State, 2010): the Tibetan Scholarship Program (TSP).  As of April 2010, under the TSP, 364 Tibetan refugee students received or earned their education from American universities, myself being one of them (TSP Alumni Association, 2010).  Two years later, the passage of the 1990 U.S. Immigration Act allowed an additional 1000 Tibetan refugees from South Asia to immigrate to the U.S. under a resettlement program (Bay Area Friends of Tibet, 2010; Hess, 2006; The New York Times, 1991).  Through these initial settlement opportunities, other Tibetan refugees started to take interest in settling in the United States to avail themselves of opportunities for a better livelihood, health, career, education, and the prospect of naturalization, among others.  The Government of the United States supported the increasing interest of Tibetans by providing higher education scholarships, sponsoring resettlement programs (noted earlier), and favorably considering requests for political asylum in general.

With the Tibetan scholarship and resettlement programs (previously noted), Tibetan immigration to the United States increased.  According to the Office of Tibet (OoT) ­‐‐ the Official Agency of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Administration to the Americas, New York City ‐‐ the estimated population of Tibetan immigrants in North America in 2010 was around 15,000.  Of the 15,000, roughly 10,000 resided in the United States (L. Nyendak, personal communication, July 13, 2010).  During the June 2010 visit to New York City, the Executive Head of Central Tibetan Administration and Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament in‐exile, it was estimated there were around 7,000 or more Tibetan immigrants in the New York­‐New Jersey area alone (L. Nyendak, personal communication, July 13, 2010).  However, some argue that the Tibetan immigrant populations in the United States is comparatively higher than the official figure of 10,000, as several Tibetan immigrants neither associate with the OoT, New York City nor with any local Tibetan community association.  Therefore, the precise total population of Tibetan immigrants in the United States remains unknown.

The Tibetan immigrant populations in the United States generally include Tibetans coming from the three refugee communities in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, as well as Tibetans from Chinese‐controlled Tibet.  In other words, the United States continues to provide a safe haven for Tibetans migrating from other parts of the world.  By 2010, Tibetan immigrants had succeeded in setting up community, youth, and regional associations throughout the United States: there are 25 Tibetan associations and 23 Tibet support groups in the United States (The Office of Tibet, 2011).  Tibetans celebrate the Tibetan New Year and other festivals, and remain connected to their own community of peoples (Wangdi, 2008).  In the last couple of years, as previously discussed, the population of Tibetan immigrants in the United States has grown.  As of 2010, the largest concentration of Tibetan immigrants is in the New York and New Jersey area (Tibetan Community of NY&NJ, 2010). 

Irrespective of the total population, Tibetan immigrants, those literate as well as illiterate, generally struggle in the United States; they struggle with a new system of governance, communication, transportation, naturalization, career, health, education, lifestyle, and a foreign culture.  To put it differently, Tibetan immigrants struggle with the social, economic, and political circumstances of their new country.  This study focuses on skills education that may help support the transition of adult Tibetan immigrants’ settlement in the United States.  As a Tibetan refugee myself, I have seen Tibetan immigrants in New York City pay the hefty sum of U.S. $1000 to an agency for help to complete their Green Card application form.  This is one example of the need for skills education for adult Tibetan immigrants in the United States in general and in New York City in particular.

Understandably, with the growing Tibetan immigrant populations in the United States, there is a subsequent growth in the number of organizations that aim at supporting settlement in their new country of residence.



*An excerpt from the dissertation, "Skills education for adult Tibetan immigrants in the United States: Identification, prioritization, resources, and challenges" 2012, Page 2-6.

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