“It made me feel responsible for my own future”: The life of a third generation Tibetan refugee

Most pupils have been doing online lessons at home during lockdown. Not many have been doing them in a country 7000 km away from home.

Dechen (17) is currently studying for her International Baccalaureate at Atlantic College in Wales, but has been living with a host family during lockdown in St Albans, England.

Dechen is also a third generation Tibetan refugee, who was born and grew up in India. Her grandma fled to India from Tibet as a teenager in 1959, when revolts started in protest of China’s rule over the country.

Meet Dechen!

Dechen’s grandma was part of a large group of refugees that made the journey at the time, following in the footsteps of Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who had also fled to India that year with most of his ministers. After months of travelling, they crossed the Indian border. They settled in the North Eastern Himalayas, where Dechen was eventually born.

The hardest part of the move? “Understanding Hindi, and also coping with the weather difference,” Dechen said. India is a LOT hotter than Tibet. This is because Tibet is North of India, and the Himalayan mountain range, which provides a barrier against air pressure and makes the more elevated regions reach very cold temperatures.

The journey was pretty treacherous as well. Dechen explained that the group her grandma travelled with often didn’t have enough food, and the route didn’t have any shelter. They just rested wherever they could along the way.

Growing up in India

Both her parents were born in India, and from a very young age, Dechen says she can remember her mum “suffering from all sorts of diseases”. She didn’t really understand what was going on at first, but after asking her older brother, she discovered that her mum had something called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). It’s a painful disease causing inflammation to the joints, skin and other organs. She also had tuberculosis, which Dechen explained that, at the time, was very serious and hard to cure. She died in 2008.

Dechen and her three siblings went to boarding school after this, as her dad needed to work in order to support them all. In mid-2011, her dad came to visit the three of them at school. However, Dechen says this was “the last time we ever saw him.” He died of stomach cancer later that year.

Understandably, Dechen says she doesn’t have a lot of good memories from this time. She remembers taking care of her mum, giving her massages when she was in pain, and her dad visiting her at school. While her parents’ deaths had a huge impact on her, she explained that it made her look at life through an entirely different lens.

“It totally made me feel responsible for my own future,” she said. “I must be careful to do well.”

This determination has translated into an ambition to study medicine and become a doctor. Dechen explained that there wasn’t really any medical expertise in her local area in Tibet, and to get any specialist help they had to travel for miles. By the time they realised how ill her parents were, it was too late to make the trip.

Coming to the UK

Fast forward to today, and Dechen is well on her way to achieving her goal. She moved to the UK to study at Atlantic College in Wales, which is one of a number of United World Colleges (UWC) across the world. Their goal is to provide young people from all over the world with education, no matter their personal or financial circumstances.

Dechen went up against 131 other bright young students from Tibet, but was ultimately chosen by the Indian National Committee for Tibetan Refugees to receive a full scholarship from the Pestalozzi International Foundation, which is a UK based charity that funds the education of high achieving, low income students. She was the first person from her school to receive the scholarship, so it was a huge achievement. Not only that, but the Dalai Lama blessed her as a result.

Dechen getting blessed. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th Tibet has had

As well as studying for the International Baccalaureate, Dechen and her classmates receive lessons on all manner of things from global issues to critical thinking, as well as volunteering in their local community. Her favourite subjects aren’t hard to guess: Chemistry and Biology. She’s currently writing an essay exploring how SARS and MERS pandemics can be used to predict COVID-19, which she says has been “awesome” to work on.

When lockdown started though, like students all over the world, Dechen had to take her lessons online. She moved in with a host family in St Albans, who are alumni of the UWC programme. She says they’re “really nice and caring people” and have been extremely supportive since she arrived.

One thing she’s particularly enjoyed about staying with them has been the ability to swap parts of their culture. While Dechen is enjoying experiencing an English lifestyle, she explains how she’s been teaching them about her Tibetan culture, too.

“Recently, it was a holy month for us… called Saga Dawa, in Tibetan Buddhism. We dedicate this month to taking spiritually positive actions. I quit meat for a month, and my family tried as well.”

But the lessons don’t stop there: “I told them the 15th day of the month is the most important day. And they asked me when is it. I replied to them, just look at the Moon… because there will be a full Moon on the 15th day.

“They really found it strange and funny because they never look at the Moon to understand time... it's a cultural difference.”

Dechen has finished school for the year now, and has been taking up running and other exercise to keep her fit during lockdown - sitting in front of a screen all day every day was concerning for her, so getting outside has been a must.

In her spare time, she’s learnt how to sew. She’s been making masks for elderly neighbours, as well as selling them to raise money for Syrian refugees. She's also been making PPE for the Bucks Search and Rescue PPE appeal, which her host family’s sister is a part of.

“I’d actually never done something like this before in my life. But it was actually not very hard, because we used ripstop nylon, which was quite easy to sew. The hardest thing was putting elastic in the hand's sleeve cuffs, because it kept jumping back!”

Dechen hard at work making masks and PPE

Looking ahead

Now lockdown is coming to a close, it’s given the world time to reflect. Dechen says the experience has “made me feel more appreciative of home and more grateful for what I have.”

She misses her two siblings who still live in India, but she speaks to them as often as she can via video call. She was accustomed to virtual meet ups with loved ones months before the rest of the UK caught on.

She misses the rest of her family too, such as her uncle who looked after her and her siblings after her parents died, as well as her friends. She definitely wants to go back to visit when she’s able, but isn’t ready to leave the UK for good just yet. She wants to study medicine at a UK university and at the moment, she’s got her eye on UCL and Cambridge.

She muses that she’s definitely going to need funding to achieve her goal, but she’s pretty optimistic about her chances: “The future is always very uncertain, but I'm always very hopeful.”

Eventually, Dechen also wants to visit Tibet. The political struggles her country has faced are upsetting for her, but she’s confident that one day, her dream will become a reality.

“I believe good things take time to happen. And I have a really high hope that one day not only me, but all other Tibetans will be able to visit our country.”

For now though, studies and the coronavirus are influencing her more immediate plans. But even a global pandemic can’t touch Dechen’s positivty.

“I think medical researchers and doctors will find a vaccine. And this lockdown will be in the past, and it will go back to normal soon.

“My experience in Atlantic College is showing me that people from all around the world can work together and understand each other now. And I think genuine people working together for right things will make the difference we all need.”

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