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Our story

FIRST STEPS AND THE REASONS BEHIND CHOICES

Marilia Bellaterra

Nothing by chance …

In July 2001 I went to Ladakh for the first time. Then, from Pakistan’s borders, I went to Kashmir and to Punjab. Before coming back I was touched by the idea – by chance – to reach Dharamsala, the headquarter of Tibetan Government in exile, where His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the XIV Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual  head of all the Tibetans, is living. But it was time to come back home and that small place, the symbol of reconstruction and peace, remained an outstanding matter to me.

Shortly before Christmas I received a letter.  Someone that I didn’t know, informed me – by chance –  that the Dalai Lama was to spend some days in Italy. I never understood how and why that letter reached me. But I found it impossible not to go. At Cecina, in Tuscany, there were thousands of people: both believers and practitioners, ready to learn from His words, and some curious people were there as well.

I was there, among them, even if I’ m not a Buddhist and even if I had a poor knowledge about Tibet at that time.

It’s not enough to say that Kundun (“the presence”, the way the Tibetans call Him), has uncommon qualities. It’s just a way to describe, just a little, the complexity and charisma of such a person. Great and humble, profound and reachable, complex and tenacious, He embodies concordance, obligation and  harmony. He is able to speak to each one even within a crowd and He leaves a persisting smile in your mind and in your heart. Then, a “human being” really special. And, to any Buddhist, He is the XIVth reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, Buddha of compassion.

Back to Rome I started to explore the web in search of news about Him and about the story of His country. One page, among many, opened in front of me – by chance –  the site of Geshe La Gedun Tharchin, Tibetan Lama, living in my town, near my house.

So I learnt about the Lam Rim Institute, Buddhist studies’ center, and Geshe La, his spiritual master. Serious and profound as any real master can be but also “light”, always ready to smile and with a contagious soothing cheerfulness.

He introduced me to Tsering Palior’s story. One day he told me: “would you like to help him?” . That’ s the way my story as a sponsor had a start – by chance –  thank to a little monk coming from Tibet.

Tsering left his family when he was 7 years old and, like many thousands of people escaped from his country’s occupation, he had passed through the Himalaya reaching India as a refugee.

He has been educated as a monk following his parent’s wish and his new home has become a Monastery in one of the numerous camps for political refugees wanted by the Dalai Lama, the Lama Camp of Mundgod, in the state of Karnataka. Like other 15.000 Tibetans, monks and laymen, who are keeping tenaciously their country’s traditions even in exile

In the summer of 2002, after a journey in Tibet and Nepal, I came back to India again and, following a wish, maybe not too reasonable, I accepted the kind offer of the Abbot of Mundgod’s Monastery to meet Tsering. I crossed the entire country, from north to Goa and I arrived to the Gaiang Gyalrong Monastery, without imagining the consequences of such a decision.

I’ve never been prey to fascinations, I had no void to fill, nor wishes to transform. My life , after some painful and complex years due to my parents’ disease and their subsequent death- was now again quiet and full of my usual commitments, always numerous.

In the summer of 2002, after a journey in Tibet and Nepal, I came back to India again and, following a wish, maybe not too reasonable, I accepted the kind offer of the Abbot of Mundgod’s Monastery to meet Tsering. I crossed the entire country, from north to Goa and I arrived to the Gaiang Gyalrong Monastery, without imagining the consequences of such a decision.

I’ve never been prey to fascinations, I had no void to fill, nor wishes to transform. My life, after some painful and complex years due to my parents’ disease and their subsequent death, was quiet and full of my usual commitments, always numerous.

So I didn’t believe that the numerous stories, which I directly ”heard” and “saw”, concerning the 50 years of Tibet’s occupation by Beijing Government – as wild and iniquitous as any occupation can be – could affect me so much. And moreover, I wouldn’t  believe that they could change my life.

Many years have passed since that time. Many years but also a few.

This Association has been founded  during these years. It has the name of my parents – they were people of peace – to represent my commitment in favour of those who have neither resources nor peace and, sometimes, not even hopes. Those who have lost freedom and country but not unselfishness, tenacity or smile.

By those poor but rich people I learnt really much. And I realize it’s more and more irrelevant the little I gave if I think of the “much” I have received.

During these years the Association took its shape. It made the first steps, also the first errors, it worked to correct them.  It adjusted its fire scaling down its first theoretical magnificent programs. It widened its know-how , it activated synergies, it presented and won some projects, it carried out initiatives of social promotion too. And, moreover it consolidated the basic starting assumptions to lay the foundations of future works.

During this journey “Kundun” has always been a guide. Both ideally and affectively. Every time, both in Italy and abroad, we followed Him. Every time we had the privilege to meet Him  directly, in public, and also in private. Every time He recognized, both directly by his words and by some official  messages, the straight forwardness of our little “commitment” toward His country’s people.

An emotional start

When I personally met Tsering Paljior, in 2002, he was 12 years old. He was full of resources and of “scars” but with a solar smile and a contagious and explosive vitality. But, over all he had always kept a big heart.

I leave those small and big things that he taught me during the first 10 days I spent in his Monastery. He spoke no English and I spoke no Tibetan but he was able to let me understand some stories and some symbols of his land, he brought me to visit the worship and study places of his new “home”. He made me lough, smile, pray his prayers unknown to me, he made me follow his fatiguing exercises to memorize the sacred texts, aloud, up to 23 p.m., walking to overcome sleepiness and mosquitos. He was moved when I entered in his classroom. He cooked for me, he brought me everywhere, he introduced me to his friends. He draw for me Mickey Mouse (!). and any time that an interpreter allowed him to, he explained to me in detail all he could and all he knew, putting himself on my point of view to help me to understand and feel fine.

The day of my “first” departure he turned just in time in order not to let me discover that he was sad. Then he gave me the following conversation (precise words) asking the interpreter to translate carefully: “I thought what I could give you, I’m little and have very little. But I can give you this bag and this small basket. My mother made them manually, for me, before I leaved”. In my occidental stupid manner I had bought some presents for him in Italy and objected. His things seemed too “precious” to me. He answered “it’s right because my mother made them for me that I want to trust them with you” … And his answer follows me – always – with his smile.

Tsering has been the first child helped by the Association and he became its symbol. At the end of 2007 he gave back to the Abbot of the Monastery his monk’s dress and he decided to orientate differently his life. He started the military service in Dehradun, where he is still now.

Tsering will continue to be our symbol also when he will have his own children. His smile and his tenacious  resilience have been and will always be a constant inspiration to our projects and a “special” guide for our work.

Why Tibet

Tibet situation is well known. Years of violent occupation, by China, over a pacific and discreet land. Very rich in story and culture. Full of ethic and spiritual values. Just one handicap: to be of interest thank to its wide spaces (2,5 million square meters, more than two third of India), and its strategic location of cushion state in the heart of Asia.

It’s a country with an average of 3.650 meters height where many mountains (mount Everest among them, the highest of the world) are higher than 8,000 meters. It is called the snow country or “ the roof of the world” right because of this reason.

It’s a country with a delicate ecosystem now definitely compromised. Turned into a wide military base (for the 50.000 Chinese soldiers) which hosts one fourth of the Chinese nuclear missile power and enormous quantity of its  nuclear scoriae.

It’s a country where one fifth of the population (1.200,000 persons) has been killed and where thousands of religious and political prisoners are still locked up in prisons and working fields from where they can hardly get out alive. That’s because the condemnations (due to opinion’s offence) are very long lasting and torture is a common practice, also against minors and against women.

It’s a country where more than 6.000 monasteries, historical buildings and temples have been raided and destroyed. Where, being Buddhism one of the most important aspects of national identity and of Tibetan culture, total religious repression by Beijing authorities, always very hard, is not decreasing.

It’s a country where occupation, since 1945, has violated every rights. The women’s ones, by forced spaying. The children’s rights. And also the ones referred to education and to the chance to learn about their country’s history, culture and language.

It’s a country where racial discrimination has been tremendous and where the Tibetans became a minority in their own land (about 6 million, against 7,5 million non-Tibetans). Where economic conditions are exhausting and unjust causing some rural zones to stand under poverty threshold.

At last, it’s a country where, since 1960, the Commission of International Justice pointed out genocide acts and open violation of many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Neither condemnation resolutions against China taken by the General Assembly of the United Nation, nor the numerous protests in many places in the world to end the heavy abuses could do much.

A date, in particular, indicates the beginning of this story: 10th March 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His government’s members and about 80.000 Tibetans escaped from Tibet and asked for political refuge to India, to Nepal, to Buthan and, from there, to other countries.

“Kundun” lives in Dharamsala since 1960, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He still believes, with a resolute strength – after 50 years in exile – in a possible autonomy for His country and in a non-violent solution against its occupation.

By travelling around the world, teaching to His believers, giving lectures to anybody who wants to listen to Him and giving His contribution to the diffusion of impartiality, justice and peace principles.

He is not only a Buddha to the Tibetans, an unquestioned political and spiritual head. He is also the symbol of hope. He is the one that, thanks to the help of the Indian Government and of the International organizations, could guarantee their existence in exile. In many industrial-agricultural camps and in some artisanal centers and in the schools which are now hosting more than 20.000 children and in the numerous monasteries rebuilt in hosting countries. And in the many institutions which are helping to preserve and promote, outside their origin country where it risks extinction, the ancient linguistic and cultural heritage of Tibetan people.

Why outside Tibet

Because of all the above summarized reasons, we have decided to dedicate our commitment just to the Tibetans living outside Tibet. To support those people, those children and those families that “choose” to live in exile and that were able to pass Himalaya surviving to ice and hypothermia also after having survived to the devastating load of occupation.

Hoping – but we would like to say feeling sure – that such an investment is useful both in case of a possible “free return” of the Tibetans to their land, and in the case of a survival of their story even if outside their land.

Attempts and mistakes

We made many mistakes at the beginning of our work. The first one was not to confront ourselves with our powers and with the social political complexity of the country we were working in. It seemed easy to us to help and to look around for any direction the help could come from. Later we learnt to resize and choose more carefully.

We found some local contacts to be safeguarded, both to collect fees and messages and to recommend the most urgent cases.

At the beginning we needed to activate direct contacts with local Banks. We had to explain, to ask and to understand the different ways and priorities. The first payments, particularly the individual ones, sometimes “got lost” and the Association had to refund such amounts. Sometimes we waited months before receiving official responses and we paid too high commissions.

Then we learnt. To group amounts and to negotiate clauses. And over all we learnt to choose the local contacts to have better guarantees.

To date our contacts are the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Northern India and the Doeguling Tibetan Settlement for Southern India. Such Organizations proved to be very efficient and they also offered very precious and affective relationship.

We learnt, at least, to choose. We said no and we learnt that by choosing we were able to use our powers better.

Difficulties and chances

Looking behind I would say that some difficulties were “outside”. Burocracy, as usual exasperating. Slow rhythm to face. Moreover some organizational matters, social and also concrete which made our work harder.

Some other difficulties were “inside”. On our side, for example, we had the responsibility of choice. On the sponsors’ side there were some unexpected  defection. For example, the sponsorship is not a lifelong “obligation” but it’s anyway a commitment. It’s not a mere economic aspect which, in case of necessity, the Association can cover but a friendly reciprocal link between the sponsor and the sponsored.

We have rarely experienced the fact that the one who received didn’t want to “give back” someway. Little things, with a little economic value but with a sensible emotional value. Cards, for example, relating to our culture. Hesitant drafts of symbols unknown to the small fingers who had copied them … or school reports sent by parents to prove the valuable use of money received for their child. Even letters (sometimes e-mails) with pieces of their lives and the feeling to be present in their prayers … Also well combed children’s photos … taken to show welfare and good growth. And also “khata” (the white scarfs to symbolize wish), soaps, incenses, worked fabrics, necklaces to pray …

Every time I went back to Mundgod and Dharamsala – both to charge my batteries and for my annual inspection – I always visited all the sponsored families. And I always came back charged, with an extra bag full of moving presents. One day, three biscuits, another a tent detached directly by their window. Impossible to refuse as made by very poor persons to express gratitude for the help received to balance the link, from a passive receipt to a possible exchange.

On the other side some sponsors were too diligent. Maybe too much. This stimulated not only curiosity but also wish in respect of a world which seems to be better only because it’s far. We have always tried to protect both adults and children by this possible mistake. I thing we have (almost) always  been successful. I’m also sure that the sponsor has always learnt – and received – more than what he was thinking “ to give”.

A way to go together

At the beginning we were alone and we soon realized it was not a way to go by ourselves. We chose two contacts: the Coordinamento per il Sostegno a Distanza “La Gabbianella” and tha Associazione Italia Tibet.

At various levels both political and organizational, the relationships with them has been very enriching both relating to experiences and to common opportunities. Making such a choice there was no intention to exclude others but to privilege similar approaches and thoughts.

We learnt a lot and we also gave back I think. We are not pretending to equal those who are dedicating themselves to such activity since a long time but we recognize our enthusiasm as a privilege to whom is starting. We are grateful to have had the chance to share a social solidarity experience keeping our own attitude.

Let’s re-start … but not to star afresh

Child sponsorship is now well known, both as an ethic form of social solidarity and as an enriching life experience.

Also in the story of the Association this formula is a consolidated practice. So, up to date we are able to manage an increasing number of sponsors and to activate local and efficient cases not to lose time and to avoid any mistake.

But we are now also aware that the Long Distance Support is not enough. We have to link it to local initiatives, capable of auto financing and of development.

Then we started to participate more and more deeply to some important projects, both local and promotional – social, trainee and educational – inside their own country.

In fact we think one way “to help”, in order to keep help for the time being, is to expand, to inform and to allow others to do the same.

That’s the direction taken by our projects (both done and in progress) of cultural initiatives, photographic exhibitions and other events with the aim to awaken and to let other know. We work within cultural events, in the training of social operators and within schools adopting specific programs, both with teachers and students. Or with trainees and volunteers supporting both national initiative and periodical inspections in Northern and Southern India.

In the same time we started the sponsor activity to local initiatives. For example. We cooperate with a Centre of handicapped kids in Dharamsala by organizing tutors’ and trainees’ visits to Tibetan refugees’ Settlements. We provide support to some Tibetan Settlement’s artists in order to save their country’s artistic and musical traditions. We support small schools and Monasteries. We encourage local projects to link old people born in Tibet with children born in exile. We sponsor a particular publishing initiative: a social and political magazine edited by the young Monks of the Norling Monastic School in Mundgod.

A wish

To end, a wish. To whom who had the patience to read such pages, written by the simple direct experience, that they may have the wish to deepen the theme, may prove the generosity to expand and the curiosity to test. And that they may have the privilege to meet many “special” people as the ones we met during our way and that are continuing to mark our way thank to their “presence”.