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.
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”.
“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 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.
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.