Bent, never broken: In solidarity with the migrant spirit on World Refugee Day 2018

By Prarthana Mitra

On Wednesday, June 20, the whole world observed World Refugee Day in their own ways; with hashtags on social media, by publishing art and poetry from this disenfranchised diaspora, through activism at the borders, prisons, parliaments and town halls, or simply by starting a dialogue.

Earlier this week, the US administration came under severe scrutiny for violating human rights at the US-Mexico border, separating migrant children from their families since April. President Donald Trump’s disdain for “illegal immigrants” betrays the growing xenophobia among first world nations, and can no longer go unaddressed.

Several European countries have turned away boats full of refugees, who are braving dangerous seas even as we speak, to seek refuge in a completely foreign land where they will eke out a meagre existence as second-class citizens, as orange pickers or “that maintenance guy” at the most.

For what? Safety.

Although it is unfair to reduce this vast diaspora to a single term, “refugees” (for rhetorical convenience) leave their homes and homelands behind forever, out of fear for their lives and to provide their children with a secure future.

Sometimes fleeing government-sponsored genocides against minorities, narrowly escaping civil wars and tyrannical regimes at other times – the risks, experiences and struggles of these people are unfathomable, and the courage they display is inspiring to say the least.

So while the US wages a war against refugees, the rest of the world chose to observe World Refugee Day in commemoration of the strength and resilience displayed by displaced people all over the world.

Bridging the privilege through conversation

Acknowledging their hardships, Clap Global attempted to bridge the cultural gap by offering international refugees like Tenzin Tsundue a platform to share their experiences. Believing it to be one way to start a dialogue, they hosted the Tibetan poet to share his unique experience with students from Trinity International School, earlier this month in Mumbai.

The event was a part of their ongoing series, Clap Talk, but this one was special. Over the 75 minute conversation, Tsundue spoke about his struggles and how he became a refugee from a Tibetan national overnight, when his parents were forced to leave the country in 1959, fearing persecution by the People’s Republic of China.

Now a prolific voice of his community in exile, Tenzin’s struggles reflect in his poetry as well as activism. He has been a member of Tibet’s independence movement since he was student at Bombay University. Since then, he has braved blizzards, mountains, and border patrol to return to forbidden Tibet, now occupied by PRC, to survey the damage suffered by his own people. Thereafter he was locked up in Lhasa for three months before being ‘pushed back’ to India.

Qrius spoke to the Neruda-loving poet on a number of incendiary issues. Condemning Trump’s policy at the border, Tsundue said he is reminded of the time when a Romanian mountaineering group witnessed Chinese soldiers shooting at a group of Tibetan children escaping Tibet over the Himalayas.

Tenzin also candidly discussed the nuances of the “One China-One India policy” which further oppresses Tibetan refugees on either side of the border. On asked how he identifies himself, Tenzin responded, “We are stateless, not citizen to any state.

We live between the dreams of Tibet and the reality of exile.”

At the Clap Talk, he took the students through his struggles which began with the Chinese invasion of Tibet. At a time when spiritual and political leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama, followed by 80,000 Tibetan refugees, sought asylum in India, Tsundue said, “My parents were among them, but they were teenagers. My generation of Tibetans are born refugees, we have never seen Tibet. Tibetan government in exile was set up in Dharamshala, north India.” They came to India during the chaotic era of Tibetan refugee resettlement in the early seventies, where they laboured for decades on border roads across the Himalayan region.

“Today hundred and fifty thousand Tibetans spread in over 30 countries maintain the struggle outside Tibet, but the main course of our freedom movement is run by the six million Tibetans living in Tibet under Chinese occupation,” he added. Besides explaining the geopolitics at the heart of China’s occupation of Tibet, East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Manchuria, Tsundue also spoke at length about the threats it poses to Hong Kong’s democracy and Taiwan’s independence.

The students were inspired, touched and awestruck by the session. Jenica Kerkar, a student who attended the Clap Talk said, “I was thrilled to learn so much about a refugee, an activist and a true person who dedicates his life for the well-being of his countrymen. I had only read about refugees in newspapers, this was the real insight on them.”

A strong desire to bring the world closer and inculcate understanding that transcends borders lay behind the Clap Talk featuring the poet-activist, co-founder Aarti Chhabria told Qrius. “Today, we are poised at a juncture from where the world could go either way. On one side, the level of intolerance is growing, and on the other, we see some fascinating initiatives towards great ideals like world peace, inclusion, and more,” she said.

Clap Global had previously hosted a Syrian refugee who inspired Indian students to exchange Letters of Love with children in Syria, those under siege in Gaza and migrant children in Turkey. “Observing the refugee crisis in Syria and South Asia (Rohingya), we decided to take a step towards bringing in a perspective of refugee life, through the power of dialogue,” read the founder’s statement.

“We believe that the future generations should learn the language and power of love. This is exactly how we aim to change the world, one conversation at a time.” Aarti added.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius