The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

A Tibetan Refugee's Extraordinary Story

by Kunsang Dolma
October 4, 2013
Fri, 10/04/2013 - 10:18 -- kdolma
Kunsang Dolma, author of A Hundred Thousand White Stones, recently interviewed Tsering Tsomo, another extraordinary Tibetan woman, for Tibetan Women's Reality. We've included an excerpt of this powerful interview below.—Editor's Note
Every refugee has a story, but few of us have had to face the challenges and difficult choices that Tsering Tsomo faced many times. I first met Tsering Tsomo at her small tea shop in Norbulingka, India. Since then I’ve discovered that she is a truly remarkable woman with story of immense hardships, but a story that also shows the strength of human endurance and the power of a mother’s love. More than making us appreciate our own fortune, she makes the rest of want to be a little better, to hold our kids a little tighter, and look more closely at the struggles of people around us. In this interview, Tsering Tsomo presents the authentic voice of a Tibetan woman making her way in a complicated world.

Kunsang Dolma: You told me earlier that when you tried to come to India the first time the Chinese government caught you at the border and put you in jail. How long were you in jail?

Tsering Tsomo: When I started leaving, I left carrying my five month old son on my back and holding my daughter’s hand. I didn’t have any experience or have much advice to go on. When we got to Lhasa I didn’t know how to get a guide. I’d heard that the Chinese government had a lot of spies in Lhasa trying to catch people thinking about going to India, so I had keep quiet. It was hard to figure out how to get a guide without knowing anything or being able to ask people. I started thinking I couldn’t get out right away, instead I got the idea to go to Mt. Everest; at least I would be getting closer to India there. I got there by catching rides on passing trucks going in that direction. Each truck took me a little closer before dropping me off. Getting there wasn’t easy but I got there eventually.

After I got to Mt. Everest I heard about a guide taking people to India. Three days later I found the guide. There were eleven people in the group. Some people had told me that I couldn’t trust some guides because they might take everyone’s money then take us to the Chinese army instead of across the mountains. I’d heard that but I didn’t have any choice. Only two days after our group left we were caught by a Chinese soldier. It looked like the he was waiting for us. I don’t know because I don’t have experience, other people in the group said that they thought our guide took money for turning us in. Each one of us was questioned by the army, it went on all day. They wanted to know about our group and what we were doing. They didn’t feed us all day while questioning us, eventually people started to tell the truth. Until we told the truth, they asked the same questions again and again. It looked like they already knew what was going on.

I don’t remember exactly how long they kept us in jail, it was more than two months. One of the women from our group had three kids with her in the jail.

KD: What did they feed you guys? It must have been very hard with kids.

TS: From the first day we went went in until we left they only food they gave us was tsampa [barley flour mixed with water]. A lot of insect eggs were in the barley flour. When I mixed the barley flour with water and squeezed it into a ball the baby insects moved around inside my hand. Looking at all the eggs, I felt like there was no way to eat that food but that’s all there was. I used the little money I had to bribe the guard to bring tigmo [a Tibetan bread] and milk for the kids once in awhile.

KD: Was there any butter to mix with the tsampa?

TS: No no no. There was nothing else, just tsampa. The toilet was really difficult. There were three rooms in the jail, just rooms with no doors. All the women shared the first room. The second room had a few monks and the third one had other men. None of the rooms had a toilet inside. There was a hole in hallway we all used. When I needed to use the hole, I took a shirt to cover myself so not everyone could see me. After someone pooped, it didn’t go down the hole. We had to use a stick to push it down. It was terrible, even using the stick it was hard to get it to go down.

KD: You didn’t have any water to wash it down?

TS: No. Everybody used the same hole for a toilet.

KD: It must have been stinky, right?

TS: Of course! What do you think?!

KD: What did you do after you left jail?

TS: They put everybody in a car and took us to town. We could see we were somewhere close to Mt. Everest. There were prayer flags everywhere. After we got there they told us to make sure we all went back to where we came from, we weren’t allowed to stay there. They said if they saw us there later we would be in trouble. I told them I didn’t have any place to go and wanted to start a business there. I said trying to go to India was a mistake, I promised I wouldn’t try to go again. I was worried they wouldn’t believe me, I kept telling them I wanted to do laundry or beg or anything, I begged them to let me stay there, and they did let me stay. I walked for awhile until I found a house with a woman at home. I begged from the woman and she gave me a tent. I put up the tent on the ground near the house. I had the tent, but I didn’t have any blanket or anything else, so I went into the village to beg again. I got a few things, a blanket and a bowl and some cooking material. I don’t remember what month it was, it was early winter.

I was living in the tent and went back to Mt. Everest to look for work carrying supplies for people walking around the mountain. People only came in the summer and fall, and this was early winter, so there weren’t any people going around themountain that time of year. It too cold so I moved to a different village at a lower altitude where it was a little warmer. One family let me stay in a corner of their yard.

In the early morning around first light I went out to gather cow dung [used for fire, the dung could be sold for a small amount of money] in a bag. When the bag was full I’d come back and get under the blanket. I’d wait for the morning sun to begin to warm before getting up, then I’d wake up the kids and make breakfast. After breakfast I left water in a thermos then went out begging. This was in an empty area, it was a long walk between the houses I went begging at. Sometimes it took all day to go around begging for food, it would be dark by the time I got home. The first day I went begging was very difficult. I was shaking from embarrassment while yelling out to people in the houses to ask for food. It was hard to look in their faces when they came to the door. I had to do it because I had two kids waiting for me who needed food every day. Nobody gave me money, but most people gave something. Some people gave a piece of meat or tsampa or butter or sausage. A few people didn’t give anything. It’s nice that most people gave something. Some people asked me to come inside and eat something inside, others brought out tea and a little food for me to eat. Whatever they offered I was happy to have it. At the end of the day I would be worried about how the kids were doing. My daughter pretty much needed to take care of my son even though she was too young to be a baby sitter. I was always nervous coming to the tent, anything could have happened. Seeing them okay inside always made me feel very happy. Next, I took all the food I’d been given out of my bag. I dried any meat on a clothesline inside the tent to preserve it for later. I went through the whole winter for that.

KD: How long did you stay like that living in the tent?

TS: I made it the whole winter like that and still lived in the tent all summer. In the summer I moved back to Mt. Everest. There were a lot of Tibetans and Westerns there to circle the mountain [for spiritual purposes]. For carrying food and water for people going around the mountain I got sixty Chinese Yuan per day. Tibetan people sometimes gave me money to go around the mountain in their place. For that I got one hundred Yuan or sometimes more. Other times I only got fifty. I never told people a price, I took whatever they gave me. Once in awhile people I carried supplies for were very nice and told me I could go back before they finished going all the way. Other people insisted I stayed with them all day until they finished walking and anything else they needed to do. Some of those people moved very slowly, and I had to stay with them. I would be so worried about getting back to the kids. It would get very dark before I got back to them.

KD: Where did you leave the kids?

TS: I always left the kids in the tent. I couldn’t carry supplies for people and carry the kids with me too. One day my customer was so slow that I didn’t get back until well after dark, really the middle of the night. I was so nervous about how the kids were, I rushed as fast I could to get back. I could see a candle was burning inside the tent, which made me feel a little better, but I was still very worried. As I got closer I listened for my kids’ voices. I slowly opened the tent when I got to it. The boy was asleep, my daughter had put a blanket over him. My daughter was huddled right next to the candle and her brother, she was on her knees bent over with her hands together, shaking. She was almost too close to the candle. I was worried I was startle her too much if I called to her right away, so I went back a little and called out to her from outside the tent. As soon as she heard my voice she came running out to me crying. She was crying and grabbed my neck, she said, “Mom!” She was crying because she was so scared. I really felt sorry about leaving them like that every day, but what could I do? I needed to save money for food and clothes so we could leave again for India. I didn’t have any choice, but I was very worried about the kids getting mental trauma or physical damage. On days I couldn’t find customers going around the mountain I went to hotels to knock on doors to ask if anyone needed laundry done. I did everything I could think of to make money, not wasting any time. All I could think about was getting to India. That was my plan.

Read the full interview is at

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