Feedback
News
gallery

Tibetan Exiles Long for Home and Family

When he was 8 years old, Tsering Topgyal's parents paid a smuggler to take him across the Himalayas, a weekslong walk over the mountains from Tibet to India. It is a trek that tens of thousands of other Tibetans have taken since the Dalai Lama fled a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

18 years later, Topgyal, now working as a photographer for The Associated Press, sought out the stories of other Tibetan exiles who had to leave their families behind.

ABOVE: A car drives along a road that snakes beneath snow-capped peaks near Zoji La in Indian Kashmir. Many Tibetans say that being in the mountains makes them miss their homeland.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Photographer Tsering Topgyal sits for a self-portrait in New Delhi, India.

"My parents must have had their reasons to send me here; they must have had the best of intentions," he writes. "But 18 years later, I still don't know why they did it. They are not political people. They are small farmers who raise barley and a few yak in a rural area not far from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. I have not seen them since I left.

"As a boy, I hardly thought about them. I was in a new country, part of a community-in-exile the Dalai Lama had created in India. I lived in a school with hundreds of other Tibetan refugee children. But as I grew older I began to long for them.

"Today, we occasionally talk on the phone, and that has helped keep us together despite the distance. But long silences often fill our conversations. Over the years, our relationship has only grown more complex, more limited."

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Tibetan monk Dorjee, 38, displays a photograph of his father, left, and himself, center. Dorjee said he held back his tears when he spoke with his parents on the phone after 27 years apart. He exchanged a few words with his father but says his mother fainted when she heard his voice.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Tsering Choephel, 26, left his home in Tibet 23 years ago and now lives in Dharamsala. Sometimes, he says, he dreams of seeing his family again. Often he mourns the fact that he barely misses them. "The great tragedy of my life is not being separated from my family, but being separated from the sensibility of missing them, after living without them for decades."

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Tibetan exile Pema Lhamo, 8, fits herself into a box to enact her escape scene. Lhamo fled to India hidden in a box when she was 3 years old and now lives with her grandmother. She is studying in a Tibetan Children's Village School in Dharamsala.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Dorjee Tashi adjusts the beret he calls his "Che Guevera cap" as he poses for a photograph in front of a flag of Tibet in his room in New Delhi.

Tashi had just returned from a protest rally when he received news of his father's death in a voice message stored on his phone. His one wish was to meet his father again and he considers this unfulfilled wish as part of his karma.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Coral and turquoise stones that belonged to Tsetan Kalsang's mother. Kalsang escaped into India in 2004 with the help of her brother, who returned to Tibet after safely transporting her across the border into Nepal. Her mother died a few months later in Tibet and she received the stones as a keepsake. Kalsang said she feels alone when she has to make crucial decisions and misses the support of family.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Tibetan nun Namdak Choeying, 44, prays in the room that she shares with two other nuns in Dharamsala. Back home in Tibet she aspired to be a fully ordained nun and escaped to India in 2006. Her five siblings and aged parents live in Tibet and she dreams about being reunited with them. Choeying says she immerses herself in prayers to keep her mind occupied.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Tashi Dorjee, 27, sits in a coffee shop in Dharamsala. He fled with his brother as a four-year-old in 1991. Dorjee says he missed his parents most when he was in school, especially when everyone went home for winter vacation and he had no home to go to. He says because of time and distance he now doesn't have any attachment with family or parents.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Kalsang, 19, poses for a photo at a Tibetan college library near Dharamsala. She escaped from Tibet in 2004 and says she misses her parents more as she grows older. Kalsang is studying Buddhism and says it helps her understand the world and to be in control of her emotions.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

A letter sent to Tibetan exile Tashi Norbu, 34, by his brother in Tibet. It reads “My dear brother Tashi, we hope you have been keeping well even in the times we have been apart. We were so happy when we spoke with you and your brother last time. We all are fine, including your father. You need not worry. Please respect and treat your aunt like your own mother. That is your father's greatest wish and mine as well.” Norbu escaped to India when he was 6.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Kalsang Tsering, 20, sits in his room in New Delhi. Tsering said he missed his family when he was ill and in the hospital with nobody to care for him. He now rents a room from a woman who treats him like a son and says the feeling of being cared for is wonderful.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

A 27-year-old Tibetan who did not want to disclose his identity sits in his room in New Delhi. He escaped into India in 1992 and says the 22 years away from his family have made him strong and emotionless. His mother has grown old and conveys her yearning to meet him but he doubts whether he will get a visa. He says he misses his parents when he watches family-based dramas and movies.

Tsering Topgyal / AP

Sonam Dolma, 75, poses for a photo near a prayer wheel in Dharamsala, where she made her home after escaping from Tibet in 1959. She says she wishes she could visit Tibet someday.

-- The Associated Press

Tsering Topgyal / AP