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Helping the World's homeless; Tibet culture endures amid Swiss cowbells

By Edward GirardetSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1980



Rikon, Switzerland

Two elderly Tibetan women wearing dark embroidered Himalayan dresses slowly make their way up the neatly asphalted hillside road. Twirling silver prayer wheels while softly muttering devotions to the tally of well-worn malas (religious beads), the two women seem a world away from the clang of Swiss cowbells, the sharp report of gunfire on a shooting range, adn the dull roar of a jet landing at nearby Zurich Airport.

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Halfway up the hill, the women approach the modern split-level Swiss Tibet Institute with its snow-white Stupa (shrine) and multicolored prayer flags hanging from surrounding trees like Christmas decorations. An orange-robed lama , one of seven at the institute, strolls and meditates in the yard.

"Grutzi," greet the women, using the customary Swiss-German salutation. But that is the extent of their foreign vocabulary.

Unlike the young, many of the older Tibetans who have settled in Switzerland since 1962 have found it exceedingly difficult to integrate into moder Western society. Close to 1,400 Tibetan refugees now live here. Most of them, resettled with the help of the Swiss Red Cross, are clustered in German-speaking areas of the country.

"The only have only managed to settle down physically, but not in their minds ," commented Lama Gonzar Tulku, an interpreter at the Tibet Institute, founded 12 years ago to help promote Tibetan culture among the refugees. "With the young it is quite different. They have almost become too integrated and are in danger of losing their heritage."

The 10 scattered communities in Switzerland, each having 50 to 240 members, represent the most ambitious Tibetan resettlement experiment outside India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, where more than 100,000 exiles are now living.

Victims of Chinese expansion and repression, most Tibetans passionately hope to return to their beloved mountainous homeland. Although some relief officials are pessimistic about such a prospect, they feel that as long as hope exists the Tibetans should be encouraged to retain their cultural identities.

The Swiss Red Cross has stressed that "while we want the Tibetans to be a part of the Swiss scene, we are anxious that they not lose their very special cultural heritage." Only a handful of Tibetans have adopted Swiss nationality. Others return regularly to northern India to keep in contact with friends and family.

Now, nearly two decades since the first group arrived in Switzerland, relief representatives are scrutinizing the Swiss experiment for ideas on how to resettle other Asian groups in the West. "On the whole," noted Gyaltsen Gialtag , a Tibetan sociologist and teacher living in Baden, Switzerland, "resettlement has been a success despite the many difficulties."

One plus for the exiles living here is the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetans. Relief workers and Tibetan community leaders say he has helped boost morale. "When the Tibetans first came to Switzerland," said Lama Gonzar, "they felt totally lost. So his holiness sent over several lamas to help them with their problems."

The monastic aid eventually led to the creationof the Tibet Institute. Lamas there arrage funerals, festivals, and other religious celebrations for the Buddhist refugees hre as well as for Europe's estimated 1,800 Tibetans.

When the Swiss government first decided to take in the Tibetans, many communities pitched in to help. The owners of small industries offered jobs and , in some cases, housing.

Most of thenew arrivals, 1,000 in thefirst wave and 350 more later, were illiterate nomads and peasant farmers. It was thought they would tend yaks and work the fields, asthey did in their Himalayan homeland.

Instead, they chose factory work. A metal shop in Rikon empoys close to 200 Tibetans. "Despite their lack of Skills, the Tibetans have proven themselves to be very conscientious andhardworking," said an official of the Swiss Center for Refugee Relief in Bern. Local villagers feel warm toward the Tibetans, too, and there has been little friction.

Some 200 Tibetan orphans were initially sent to foster homes, but the project was halted after the Dalai Lama expressed fear they would forget their backgrounds. "Many children speak fluent Swiss-German, have acquired Western habits, and have completely forgotten their homeland," said Lama Gonzar.

But several orphans, now in their 20s, have begun studying Tibetan culture on their own. These practices have been encouraged under a four-year-old program started by the Tibet Institute that teaches youngsters Tibetan language, history , and religion in the home.

But the yearnings for the homeland still linger. "Most Tibetans would go back if conditions in Tibet improved and freedom of religion and culture guaranteed," said Lama Lasang Jinpa, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress in Dharmsala, India. He was also a member of the DalaiLama's recent fact-finding delegation sent to Tibet at the invitation of the Peking government. The Chinese are trying to encourage Tibetans, and, in particular, the Dalai Lama, to return to their homeland.

News from Tibet, however, has not been encouraging. "What we saw and experienced made us very sad," said Phuntsog Wangyal, chairman of the British Tibetan community.

Tibetans have begun to realize that if ever they return, Tibet will never be the same. The Chinese have destroyed all but three of the region's monasteries. The exiles remain wary of Peking's motives. "It is understandable that we remain skeptical," remarked Gialtag. "The Chinese talk with ambiguous words."

Next: Refugees in North and South America