Sunday, 10 June 2007

Facts about Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center, Darjeeling

Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, Darjeeling.

The Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre was started on October 2, 1959. At that time, following the dramatic escape of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, thousands of our fellow countrymen, leaving hearth and home, fled into the neighboring countries to live as free human beings. The overwhelming majority of the refugees had brought nothing with them apart from the clothes they wore and what little provisions they could carry with them as they began the long and difficult trek over the Himalayas.

Fortunately, the Lhasa Uprisings and the miraculous escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama captured the attention of the entire world and the plight of the refugees who began pouring into India and other neighboring states. National and international voluntary agencies set up emergency relief programs to feed, clothe and give temporary shelter to the newly arrived refugees. In terms of immediate need the challenge was met. But thus was only the beginning.

Driven out of their homeland into a totally different environment and without any knowledge of the language, customs and social institutions of the countries where they had sought refuge, the long-term habilitation of the refugees posed innumerable difficulties. But right from the start, we realised that what was needed was the determination to stand on our own feet and rely first and fore most on our own effort in short, the spirit of Self-Help.

It is no exaggeration, in fact, to say that without self-help there can be no rehabilitation, be it economic, social, psychological, cultural or spiritual. Outside assistance is, of course, necessary. But no matter how generous others prove to be no refugee could ever be rehabilitated in the fullest sense of the word without self-help. This vital element could only come from within our own community, from within our own selves.

It was within this view that a ten member committee was formed in Darjeeling to organise a rehabilitation centre to be known at the TIBETAN REFUGEE SELF HELP CENTRE. The founding members of the committee were: Mrs. Gyalo Thondup, President, Mr. T. Lawang, Mr. G. Tesur, Mr. Tenzing Norgay, Mr, & Mrs. Joksari, Mr. T. Tethong, Monsignor Benjamin, Mr. Chumbay Tsering and Miss Tesur. Later we had the pleasure of welcoming the following new members into the committee: Mrs. Laden-la, Col. & Mrs. Thapa and Mr. Dilip Bose. The current members of the committee are Khedroob Thondup President, General Secretary and Treasurer Chimay Rinchen, Mr. T. Lawang, Bishop Lepcha, Dr. Wangdi, Mr. Dawa Tsering, Mr. Dorjee Tsetan, Mr. Jampa Tenzing, Mr. Dorjee Thokme and Mr. Palden.

The initial fund was raised locally by subscriptions, donations, charity shows and an exhibition football match. This was augmented shortly afterwards from contribution by a number of voluntary agencies through the Central Relief Committee (India), notably CARE, Catholic Relief Services, National Christian Council, The Red Cross, World Veterans Federation, American Friends Committee, Church World Service, as well as individuals. Invaluable aid was also received from a number of organisations in the form of food grains, clothes, milk powder and equipment.

We were very fortunate in acquiring a most suitable site right from the beginning. “Hill Side”, a small estate comprising almost four acres was originally leased and eventually bought from St. Joseph’s College. The site was ideally suited to our purpose. There was sufficient space to build and develop a small community outside the town itself but easily approachable by motor road. Moreover, “Hill Side” had a special significance for Tibetans, for it was here that the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama had spent His exile in India between 1910-1912 following a Chinese invasion of Tibet at that time. The original house had fallen down and nothing remained except the foundation and some crumbling walls. But the spot had been hallowed by the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama, one of the greatest of Tibetan leaders and a great champion of Tibet’s independence, who by His foresight and political wisdom, preserved Tibet’s national sovereignty. When the Center first started 40 years ago, there were just four workers. Today the Centre is home to 650 refugees. Over the years the Center has undertaken multifarious activities ranging from the production of handicrafts and training of artisans and craftsman to the care of the sick, the old, the orphaned and the and the needy. In 1961 the Centre was fully registered as a Charitable Organisation under Indian law. It has also received exemption from income tax on all gifts and donations made to it.

The production of handicrafts continues to be our main activity. To date the Centre has been exporting to 36 countries all over the world. Besides traditional items such as Tibetan carpets, wood, metal and leather works, we have also experimented in testing new production lines incorporating traditional Tibetan motifs, which would find a ready market both here and abroad. Among the successful items are footwear and coats which, while keeping the traditional Tibetan styles, are nevertheless modified for suitable wear with European clothes. The immense popularity of these items as well as the several letters we receive from all over the world has proved the success of this venture. In this connection, we would like to thank several friends who gave us useful advice and made invaluable suggestions.

In traditional Tibet, the market for fine handicrafts was generally limited and hence master craftsmen, who had to undergo long periods of apprenticeship, were few. Even fewer have managed to escape from Tibet and hence it was of the utmost importance for the future of Tibetan handicrafts that the skill and expert knowledge of these masters would be passed onto a new generation of workers. Thus, right from the start, the Centre laid great emphasis on training new workers.

In this way we have been guided by three considerations. First, on an individual level, the Centre seeks to give useful and marketable skills to refugees who would otherwise have to earn a precarious livelihood living as coolies or unskilled labourers. Secondly, without a sufficient number of skilled craftsmen and trained workers, the Centre would not be able to produce and sell handicrafts, which provides its main source of income. Finally on a wider level, the training programs at the Centre ensure that the skill and expertise of the few master craftsmen are passed on to a new generation of workers and thus ensure survival and growth of traditional Tibetan arts and crafts.

During its 40 years of existence the Centre has been able to train 1600 persons in various crafts. Out of this, between 1000 to 1200 persons have left the Centre to set up their own enterprises. All of them are now fully self-supporting and several of them are doing very well.

Although the production of handicrafts forms the main activity of the Centre and its primary source of income, the Centre was not planned to be and has never been solely a business concern. From its beginning the Centre has undertaken the task of helping orphans, the aged, the infirm and the needy among the refugees. For example, out of the total population of 650 the Centre houses for 89 old, infirm and needy persons as well as 42 orphans, all of whom have no means of their own.

The Centre provides free housing, food, medial care, pocket money for children, clothes, uniform and stationary. This program consists of the bulk of the Centres expenses and has been carrying on ever since its inception.

Since its beginning the Centre has cared for almost 400 orphans. Most of them have been sent to various schools around the country and several have been sponsored fore study abroad. These have no relatives or any one to care for them and thus are entirely dependent on the Centre. With the generous help of several individuals scattered all over the world, the Centre has not only been able to feed and clothe them but also to give them an education thus laying the foundation of their future.

Great stress is also laid on adult education. Classes are held every morning to teach the workers at least the rudiments of reading and writing. As a result we now have 60% literacy, whereas previously only a dozen or so refugees could read or write when they joined us. The refugees are also taught some Hindi and English in the morning classes.

Tibetans are deeply religious by nature. We have built a Gompa (Community Chapel) in our Centre to cater to their spiritual needs. The Gompa has a suite constructed specially for His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama fulfilling a long cherished desire of our workers and their families. His Holiness graced the Centre with His Divine presence in May 1975, in November 1981 and again in February 1993 and blessed our chapel, the Centre and its people.

Another field of welfare work undertaken by the Centre is the medical programme, which benefits not only the refugees of the Centre but hundreds of surrounding local people. The hospital was established in 1961 through the American Relief Services. It has grown from a small infirmary to a 20 bedded hospital today staffed by a well-qualified and experienced doctor, two nurses and some helpers. For example, last year 26,000 patients were treated in the Clinic and 290 patients were hospitalised in the small infirmary. Apart from normal consultation and treatment, the Centre’s medical unit also carries blood test, screening for TB, vaccinations, pre and post natal care etc. The overwhelming majority of those who avail of the medical facilities themselves are very poor. But for the services provided by the Centre, they might have had to go without any medical care.

In spite of the loyal services of our medical programme we are seriously faced with the possibility of closing or at least drastically cutting down the programme. It is well over 40 years since the original organisation largely responsible for financing the programmes has ceased to exist and none of the other relief organisations engaged in Tibetan projects are in a position to take its place. We would therefore like to renew our ever-existing appeal for medical aid for the poor and needy once again.

In June 1960 the Centre started a small Nursery School. Within a short span of time, the school grew into a fully-fledged primary school. The present enrolment in the school is 45, which includes many children from nearby Tibetan settlements. The 250 junior and senior students are attending different higher secondary schools and colleges in and out of Darjeeling. The children are not only provided with free education but also free meals, besides textbooks, stationery and pocket money. The primary school follows the syllabus of the General Tibetan Schools Administration and caters up to KGII. The present staff consists of four teachers and house parents.

It is a source of great pride to the Centre and especially to the teaching staff that the children who later join other schools for higher classes consistently receive good reports both in study and general behavior. Many more children are seeking admission to the school but shortage of funds has forced us to severely limit the admission. Recently, we have constructed an indoor playground for our small children with well-equipped games and a library with educational books, magazines, periodicals and daily papers for both the children and adults.

Life is, fortunately, not only work and study and the Centre has tried its best to provide a wide variety of recreations and entertainment. These include a recreation room with indoor games, TV and video. Occasional cultural programmes are organised and performed by the Centre’s people themselves. The staff, workers and students of the Centre have formed a Sports Club, which provides opportunity to learn different games and participate in local tournaments. The club has its own artistes who stage different historical dramas and traditional cultural shows for the entertainment of the Tibetans as well as the general public, thus raising funds for maintenance of the club. The “LINKA” is the Tibetan style picnic festival that started 30 years ago, has now become an annual event and never fails to draw a big crowd including many foreign tourists.

The real success of the Centre, however, does not lie in the individual success of its various departments and activities outlined above, but in the integration of all these to produce a happy, cohesive and productive community. A community in harmony and with firm roots in its newly adopted home and yet devotedly and firmly attached to the rich heritage of the homeland beyond the Himalayas. For this was the original purpose for which the Centre was started.

Any organisation must fulfill a purpose in order to exist. What was initially a program to feed and house the hundreds of shattered lives in 1959 and give them dignity through their handicrafts, today continues to function in a similar way. We have many less fortunate people in our Tibetan community in this area, who have problems in supporting themselves. Many are single parents whose partners have died through illness, leaving behind young children. The Centre takes in many families and helps the children receive an education and at the same time teach the surviving parents a handicraft skill to support the family.

We also have a growing number of old and infirm members who have spent their entire life here. We have a programme where the master craftsman and women amongst them teach the younger people. The Centre has been very lucky to have the kind help of the organisation, HelpAge U.K. and India, who have very kindly sponsored a building for an old people’s home in the Centre. We now have twenty rooms to house the aged, which in turn has led to more living space for the other members of the Centre.

A further extension of the medical services offered by the Centre’s hospital is the establishment of a pathological laboratory in town. The x-ray clinic consisting of a small unit along with the requisite generator was set up by a grant given to us by the government of West Bengal through the Hill Affairs Branch Secretariat, Darjeeling.

The clinic, started fourteen years ago has proven a great success being entirely staffed by trained people of the Centre. The pathological laboratory started operation six years ago out of the need for a good and well-equipped laboratory investigation unit. To date, it has been doing very well.


A recent addition to the Centre has been the dental clinic, opened in October 2000. It is situated under the office in town and is used to treat people from the Centre and surrounding communities from afar as Sonada. It has a full range of dental equipment under its disposal. The Centre raised a majority of the funds; however, some aid was also given by Dr. Simon Idelman from France. So far we have had a French dentist working for a small amount of time and hope that visiting doctors from around the world will offer to give their knowledge and help at the Clinic. The visiting dentist has kindly trained Centre staff and we plan for staff to further their knowledge of dentistry in Delhi. Future plans for the clinic include other activities but at the moment we are still integrating the clinic into the facilities provided by the Centre.

In order to generate more income, the Centre has diversified its activities and started a new offset printing press in town. The printing unit was started with one Heidelberg T-Offset machine and later added one bigger Heidelberg GTO 52 machine along with printing Down Frame, necessary computer equipment for desktop publishing, a German cutting machine, stitching machine and other accessories. Since its beginning in 1994, most of the jobs include printing of letter heads, circulars, certificates, text books, invitation cards, coloured calendars, magazines, flyers etc. It is being managed with the Centre’s own people who have been trained at the press only. The operation has so far been successful in meeting the printing needs of Darjeeling and at the same time, opens an avenue for a career in this field. We also print a bi-lingual weekly newsletter.

We are deeply grateful to all our friends who have helped us throughout the past four decades and have enabled us to serve our community. To them we say Thank You! We hope to fulfil the high ideas and continue to serve our community as envisioned by the founders of the community.


Lesley said...

Today, I bought two beautiful rugs made at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre (Darjeeling, India), from an auction in my small, rural town in Lincolnshire, UK. Both are 6x3ft, Design No 2. The first is No. 237, woven by Mrs Dolma & Tamtin Wandi, trimmer Mrs Palmo. The second rug is No 164, woven by Mrs Tsenkey & (the next name is unclear, it looks like Tamding?), trimmer Mrs Tsenkey. I would like to pass on my thanks to the makers of my rugs, if possible. :-)

Devika Paul said...

My grandfather, the late Dilip Bose was on the council of the Tibetian Refugee Self Help Centre Darjeeling. Our ancestoral home - Havelockvilla in Darjeeling was bought over by the TRSHC, Darjeeling. They were our tenants for many years. I am so happy to see my grandfather's name mentioned on this site. He did a lot for the Tibetain cause and is still remembered in Darjeeling, something I never fail to witness when ever I visit.

jon jo said...

hello lesley i read you post and wonder if you can help me i have purchassed a rug which is labbelled from the self help center i have looked up the rugs abut there are none like my one can you help with any info on how to find the actuall rugs they do my one is quite old and doddfrent from any off the others im intrested in selling iy would you know anyone who might buy it or maybe your self my little girl has a.d.h.d and im tryong to raise some money for her to come and stay with me so if you could pass onto me some info on wat i can do i will be very gratefull sorry if i seem forward but im at an dead end yoyr thankfully jon p abela my email is

MikesTrips said...

I was an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Jaipur, Rajasthan 1965-67 when I visited TRSHC in 1966. Memories of that visit have remained vivid and present through photos which you and your visitors may like to view. I happened to meet quite my accident Norgay Tenzing Sherpa in front of HMI. His photo is also here. Enjoy! Michael Gannett Burlington Vermont USA or

penelope gan said...

I visited the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre last December (2009) to cover a photostory. I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know many lovely women and men who narrated their lives.

Some stories (my personal opinion) mostly are available on my photoblog: