Group of Tibetan children surrounding older woman in Chupa, Jetsun Pema.
Jetsun Pema’s story

It is winter when Gelek, 12, escapes from Tibet to India. He walks over the mountains in canvas shoes in the deep snow, and after just a few days his feet begin to hurt. They swell up and burn like fire.

Gelek cries and wants to turn back, but it is impossible. His father has paid a man who is leading a group of refugees over the Himalayas. The adults look at his black speckled feet and say that he has frostbite. He could lose his feet. That night they take turns carrying Gelek on their backs, but he must walk the rest of the way himself. It takes four weeks to reach the Nepalese border. A few days later Gelek wakes in a hospital bed. His toes are gone and his feet are wrapped in bandages.

Gelek after arriving at the Tibetan refugee center in McCleod Ganj in India. Soon, he will go to live in one of the Tibetan Children’s Villages run by Ama Jetsun Pema la.

Born in Tibet

Every year hundreds of refugee children risk their lives to escape from Tibet. Many are orphans. Others are sent by their parents to escape the oppression and poverty in Chinese-controlled Tibet. In Jetsun Pema’s Tibetan children’s villages they get a new home and the chance to go to school. She has fought for Tibetan refugee children for decades and the children call her ama la, which means respected mother in Tibetan.

Jetsun Pema around the time that she and her brother Dalai Lama had to flee from Tibet.

Jetsun Pema was born in 1940 in Tibet. At that time her big brother, Tenzin Gyatso, had already been named Dalai Lama, Tibet’s highest leader. When she was 9, she was sent to a boarding school in India. A few years later Tibet was invaded by China. After a failed uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled with his family to India. “I was so glad that they were alive, that nothing else mattered”, remembers Pema. At the same time she was sad and angry. “We had lost our land. Now we were refugees”.

Children – Tibet’s future

India gave the Tibetans land in Dharamsala in northern India. Here the Dalai Lama welcomed the 85,000 Tibetans who followed in his footsteps. But thousands also died in the mountains during the escape. Others died in the refugee camp, where there was a shortage of everything from food and medicines to places to sleep.

“Only the strongest could survive the cold, hunger and sickness. The children were hit hardest”, says Jetsun Pema. To save the children – and Tibet’s future – the Dalai Lama opened a children’s home where his older sister, Tsering Dolma, took care of the children. In a short time 800 children came to Dharamsala to get help.

“The few houses we had quickly became full”, remembers Pema. The youngest slept in cardboard boxes while older children slept six to a bed or on the floor. They had terrible nightmares. Some had seen their parents killed by the Chinese army. Others had lost their family during the journey.

Jetsun Pema with refugee children in the first Tibetan Children's Village in McCleod Ganj, India.

Pema takes over

After a while, Tsering Dolma became ill and died. Jetsun Pema was only 23 years old, but when the Dalai Lama asked her to take over she didn’t hesitate. “I wanted to give the children a real home, a family and an education. Temporary solutions weren’t enough anymore.”

Jetsun Pema with refugee children meeting her brother, the 14th Dalai Lama. Photo: Tibet Museum

Jetsun Pema applied for and received funding, both from old friends and international aid organizations. She began by building new classrooms and small family houses for 25 children and a foster mother. The houses were called khimtsang which means home in Tibetan. As thousands of refugee children continued to come, the first children’s village grew into a small town.

Tibet has been called “the roof of the world” because the country’s average height is 4,000 meters above sea level. © Kim Naylor/WCPF

Today, nearly 2,500 children live in the children’s village in Dharamsala which has its own school, bakery, tailor, sports hall, theatre and hospital. More children’s villages and schools have been established all over India and a total of 15,000 refugee children are helped every year.
“My dream is that all refugee children should be able to grow up as brothers and sisters and get a lot of love from their house mother, just as in a real home”, says Jetsun Pema.

Who is the Dalai Lama?

Jetsun Pema's brother, the Dalai Lama, is the Tibetans’ highest spiritual and political leader. Dalai Lama means “Ocean of Wisdom”. The current Dalai Lama, seen here, is said to be the fourteenth in order, and was declared Dalai Lama when he was just four years old. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. © Kim Naylor/WCPF

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