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Tibetan education thrives – in exile

As Tibetans mark 50 years since China's occupation of Tibet, the exile community sees a major accomplishment in creating a network of schools that preserves their language and culture.

By Amy YeeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2009

MODERN WAYS: At Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala, India, curriculum has been modernized to include technological studies.

Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science Monitor/File


Dharamsala, India

In a sunny classroom in this Tibetan exile community, preschoolers stack blocks and color. One boy crouches on the floor over flashcards bearing pictures and English words. Alongside him, the sight of a little girl arranging cards with spiky Tibetan script hints that this school is anything but typical.

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Some 2,000 Tibetan children live, study, and play here at the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, the Indian hill town that is the Dalai Lama's home in exile. The school, which goes through 12th grade, also has about 150 Indian, European, Japanese, and South Korean students whose parents have settled in the area.

This month, the 50th anniversary of China's occupation of Tibet, is a key one for the community. In anticipation of unrest, China has launched a "Strike Hard" campaign in Tibet and has stepped up security and arrests – though pro-Tibet protests are still erupting.

Ever since the Dalai Lama fled the invasion and set up an exile community here, his goal of autonomy for Tibet has remained elusive. But with China waging what he calls "cultural genocide" in Tibet, creating a solid education system has been central to his goal of preserving Tibetan culture.

The fact that "Tibetan exile society has established schools that function so successfully in India and provide a modern education is a considerable achievement in itself," says Elliot Sperling, an expert at Indiana University.

What began in 1960 as a ramshackle nursery for Tibetan orphans has grown into almost 80 schools across India, Nepal, and Bhutan. There are 17 TCV branches with at least 12,000 students. The system as a whole enrolls about 28,000 students and includes day schools, nurseries, vocational institutes, and training centers.

"We give an education that allows our children to grow up as Tibetans," said Thupten Dorjee, secretary-general of TCV. "The Chinese are destroying Tibetan identity. If Tibet is to survive as a race and a nation, our hope is our children."

That objective has become all the more urgent in the wake of pro-Tibet demonstrations across Tibet last March that erupted into China's worst violence in almost a decade.

TCV receives about 850 students each year who escape from Tibet. But because of an aggressive Chinese crackdown since the protests, only 20 have enrolled at TCV in the past year, says Mr. Dorjee. He also confirmed that China is pressuring parents in Tibet to bring children back from schools in India or face consequences.