Last week I attended a fundraiser at Tibet Kitchen in Parkdale to support the education of young rural Tibetans. At this event I was lucky to meet members of the Parkdale Tibetan community and hear their stories of how they came to live in Canada.
Of course many readers of this post will be familiar with the political situation in Tibet since China invaded the country in 1950 and claimed sovereignty in 1951. This link to Free Tibet’s website offers a useful timeline of some of the key events that led to scores of Tibetans fleeing their homeland and settling in other countries.
Garab Lama, the owner of Tibet Kitchen in Parkdale.
Tibet Kitchen owner Garab Lama moved to Canada from Nepal in 1997. The idea of moving here was first suggested to him by crew members of the movie Everest, who were filming in the Himalayas.
Garab was born in Nepal as his parents moved there after the Lhasa uprising in 1959. He said his parents’ families had no choice but to flee as when the Chinese troops arrived in Lhasa they simply did not feel safe. While he was not born in Tibet, Garab managed to stay in touch with his culture as he was educated at a Tibetan school in India. After his schooling he returned to Nepal. However his wife and parents never felt safe given Nepal’s close proximity to the Chinese border and the beginnings of the Maoist revolt in the 1990’s.
Garab visited Canada three or four times before deciding to move here. He said he chose the Parkdale area to settle as local agencies offered immigrants good help and support. The proximity to downtown Toronto was also a plus.
Garab is now the third owner of Tibet Kitchen, which serves up a fusion of Tibetan, Chinese and Indian cuisines. I asked him what would be the most traditional Tibetan dish on his menu and he said the momos (a steamed dumpling) and the beef or chicken noodle soup. While Garab of course recommends his own restaurant, he confesses he often eats at the other Tibetan restaurants in the neighbourhood now and again.
Garab and his family feel strongly about doing all they can for those who remain in Tibet and they work hard to raise money for Free Tibet and The Tibetan Women’s Association as well as the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre in Etobicoke.
Tenzing Jigme, Project Manager at the Mosaic Institute and a member of Parkdale’s Tibetan Community
Tenzing Jigme also was born in Nepal and arrived in Canada in 2011 to study. He is currently a project manager for the Mosaic Institute, working on the project “New Beginnings: Young Canadians Peace Dialogue on China and Tibet.”
Tenzing’s family left Tibet in the 1950s and Tenzing was educated at a missionary school in India. Despite growing up in Nepal and India, he speaks Tibetan and believes the culture is being kept alive in Parkdale. He often hears Tibetan spoken on the streets and says many community members take part in the Tibetan New Year and other auspicious events. Tenzing told me many Canadian Tibetans also observe Lhakar.
I had never heard of Lhakar but Tenzing explained it is a movement where every Wednesday some Tibetans choose to show their pride and will to keep their customs alive by wearing traditional Tibetan clothes, speaking Tibetan, eating in Tibetan restaurants and showing their support for Tibetan businesses. He says many young Canadian Tibetans can be seen on University campuses in Toronto on a Wednesday observing this day. I decided to investigate Lhakar further and found this interesting link about the movement, which explains how the tradition began in Tibet as a non-violent resistance protesting the inability to express ones religious and cultural beliefs and traditions in Tibet.
Finally, the saddest story I heard was from a young women whose name I did not catch. She is not a resident of Parkdale but another neighbourhood in Toronto, but I felt her story should be included as it really shows the resilience of the community despite the hardships they have faced.
This young woman was born in Tibet and when her parents divorced she moved to Nepal with her father at the age of 12. When she was 20 she moved to Canada to further her education and feels extremely fortunate to be here. She recently was granted her Canadian citizenship and with her new passport she hoped to finally obtain a visa to visit to Tibet and visit her mother, who she has not seen since she was 12.
Her visa was refused on the grounds she needed to obtain permission from government officials in Tibet. She tried again but still hasn’t been able to obtain a visa. She is grateful she can talk to her mother on skype, however she says these conversations are monitored. So while mother and daughter have some form of contact, they still can’t talk to each other freely and express what they really want to say to one another.
Despite this, she remains optimistic and says she is lucky she has been given a good education and has been able to experience living in Canada, which allows so many more freedoms than anyone in Tibet could ever dream of. She says a good education is something so many Tibetans are denied, as they are not allowed to leave.
Hearing of her separation from her family was sobering. It made me reflect on the situation of all refugees who have had to make so many sacrifices to obtain their freedom, health and safety.
Thank you to everyone who shared their stories with me.