A second chance for Tibetan youth in exile

One organization is working to give young Tibetans the training they need to get jobs. 

Ashwini Bhatia/AP
Tibetan Buddhist monks serve tea to a boy during a prayer session in solidarity with self-immolated Tibetans in Dharmsala, India, August 8. A Second Chance is a new program near Delhi that caters to unemployed young Tibetans and dropouts living in exile in India.

Karma Dhondup grew up in Mundgod, the large exile Tibetan settlement in south India, far from the rooftop of the world that is Tibet, where his family is from. He attended a Tibetan school on the settlement but dropped out after 8th  grade to learn to paint thangkas, traditional Tibetan tapestries.

But demand for paintings dried up and he found himself without work and limited education five years later. “Not much jobs in Mundgod,” he recalls.

Mr. Dhondup, now 24, is enrolled in A Second Chance, a new program near Delhi that caters to unemployed young Tibetans and dropouts living in exile in India. For two years, 21 Tibetan refugees will learn new skills, get practical job training, mentorship, and internships, and, hopefully, jobs that can help them be self-sufficient. Dhondup, who would like to become a chef, describes the program as “very helpful.” He adds: “I joined because I have no other job so I think with training I get new learning.”

A Second Chance is affiliated with a larger program started last year by the Tibetan exile administration to encourage job readiness and entrepreneurship among Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, and Tibet experts are hopeful it will help a new generation of young refugees find meaningful employment and keep them out of poverty.

"Young Tibetans often battle a sense of dislocation and face immense practical difficulties in finding jobs and becoming self-reliant,” says Kate Saunders, communications director at the International Campaign for Tibet, a US-based nonprofit. “This training has proven essential for developing the practical skills needed for a new generation of exiles.”

Joblessness is a pressing issue for Tibetan exiles. As much as 22 percent of Tibetan youth in India are unemployed, compared with about 10 percent of young Indians, according to a 2009 survey by Technoserve, a US nonprofit advising the larger project, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development only for another year. About 120,000 exiled Tibetans live in India – the largest population outside of Tibet.

“For a nation to be strong, we need to have a strong, independent youth,’’ says Tsering Choedon a 20-something counsellor at the Tibetan Career Center in Dharamsala. ‘’If we are unemployed and doing nothing, then I don’t know the future of our country.”

She notes that most Tibetans who come to the center “are confused. They don’t know what they want to do. They don’t realize their competencies.”

Seven Tibetan Career Centers across India and Kathmandu in Nepal opened a year ago to prepare young Tibetans ages 16 and up for job searches and working in the real world. The centers offer career counseling, mock interviews, resume writing workshops, and courses, such as free computer classes. They also link young Tibetans to third-party job training programs and potential employers across India. So far, 470 Tibetans have been trained through the centers and more than 200 placed in jobs ranging from call centers and beauty salons to hotels and restaurants.

Young Tibetans living on rural settlements or in hill towns in the Indian Himalayas can feel cut off from jobs in big cities such as Delhi or Mumbai. Others lack confidence in India’s competitive environment for work and education. In the northern Indian hill town of Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile administration, young Tibetan men hanging out or playing games and cards all day is a common sight. With limited job opportunities in India, many young Tibetans are fixated on migrating to Europe, the US, and Australia.

Job readiness programs for Tibetans “gets them to see different types of opportunities they would never have looked at," says Punit Gupta, India country director of Technoserve. “Often there are opportunities within the Tibetan community that can help maintain their sense of community and belonging, long-term.”

Beyond giving young Tibetans a chance to stand on their own financially, work training has the larger potential of preserving a culture under threat. Since 2009, 121 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest China’s repression of Tibet, including an 18-year-old monk who self-immolated on July 20, in eastern Tibet. China’s crackdown tightened in 2008, after protests in Tibet turned violent a year before the 50- year anniversary of China’s takeover in 1959. 

A Second Chance focuses on giving an overlooked group of Tibetans a unique opportunity. “There are many programs for graduates, but none for drop-outs,” says Lhakpa Tsering, senior program manager for Empowering the Vision, a Tibetan nonprofit in Delhi and partner with A Second Chance. “Every student has their own story. Some dropped out because they didn’t know the value of education. Then it was too late for them.”

Tenzin Yonten, a 20-something also from Mundgod, finished high school at a Tibetan school in Dharamsala, then worked at a call center in Delhi. But he didn’t like the city and left his job after two months. He returned home to Mundgod where he just “wasted time” for several years. Then Mr. Yonten heard about A Second Chance at a career center in Mundgod.

Early on a Monday morning in a bright classroom in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, the young man was excited for classes to start. Tibetan classmates pored over English-language Indian newspapers to prepare for the day’s first lesson, which includes an oral report of current events. The students recently did mock interviews and a global culinary workshop, and will eventually start long internships.

“Whatever I learn here is totally new that I never learned in my school time,” says Yonten. Communication and organizational skills and learning “how to talk with people” are some things he has learned so far. “In a job interview if you don’t have communication skills, you can’t pass,” he adds.

Classes and dormitories for the Tibetans are run by Pallavanjali and Ritinjali, Indian educational nonprofits that partner with A Second Chance, and held at a school in Gurgaon, a dusty city of high-rises and shopping malls. Saumi Chowdhury, head of Ritanjali, says the program gives young Tibetans a much-needed push to stand on their own.

“Because they are refugees, they are usually handled with kid gloves,” says Ms. Chowdhury. “If we are trying to mainstream them, handling them with kid gloves gives them a sense of comfort and complacency and won’t bode well in the long run.”

That trend is also found in the larger job training program. Ms. Choedon of the Tibetan Career Center in Dharamsala says young Tibetans sometimes want too much hand-holding, for example when they expect counselors to arrange housing for them after getting a job or internship. ''At times it feels like we are spoon-feeding them,'' she says. ''One has to give them a constant push.''

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