Helping the child refugees

A Suffolk-based charity uses art to help Tibetan children deal with their emotions after fleeing their homeland and Chinese rule. Steven Russell learns about its work and discover how its chairman got involved

Opting to flee from one’s homeland in search of greater freedom isn’t a decision to be taken lightly – and it’s not like sneaking across the border between England and Scotland. It involves trekking over the Himalayas to reach reception centres in Nepal and India, where refugees can spend weeks or months preparing for an existence in exile.

About 3,000 people take this route each year, says Frances, who lives in Aldeburgh. “About one third of these are just children under 14 years old – we have even had babies – many of whom arrive emotionally traumatised having had a difficult and dangerous journey and having left behind their families, not knowing if they will ever be able to return.

“It can take weeks for some of them to arrive. They are crossing over the Himalayas and they can get all sorts of injuries, including snow blindness and frostbite. Some have lost their friends and family members down crevasses, they can encounter other dead bodies along the way, and for a lot of them it can be a nerve-wracking experience.

“Some of them will come with a parent, or both parents, but the parents will usually return to Tibet. At the border a guide waits until he has a group of 40 or 50 or more, and then he takes them across. But sometimes they are aban-doned by unscrupulous guides who take their money.”


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By the time children arrive at the reception centres, run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the Tibetan government-in-exile, some are shy, afraid and might shut down psychologically. Which is where creative arts therapy helps them deal with what they’ve been through and the new life to come.

“Some of the children arrive and can be curled up in a corner, but when they become involved in art they come out of their shells and they start to relax and smile,” says Frances.

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The roots of the initiative lie in something called The Painting Club, which started life in India in 1994. It was created by the Friends of Tibetan Women’s Association as a series of month-long after-school painting clubs for refugee children where they painted their memories of Tibet, the journey into exile, and life in their new schools in India.

About five years later the Art Refuge programme was born – helping children who had just arrived from Tibet, before they started in their new homes and schools within Tibetan communities in India. Vulnerable children can paint, play and explore their experiences in safety, supported by trained staff and volunteers. It’s heralded as thera-peutic and healing in dealing with the stress of a traumatic experience. There are art and craft activities, games, fancy dress costumes to wear, face-painting and singing.

At times, youngsters have portrayed scenes of torture, murder and despair, such as a brother being shot dead, or a child all alone in the Himalayas.

One child said: “I could draw mountains, grassland, flags, and water/rivers. It was important because it reminded me of home, where I was surrounded by that scenery. I also liked dressing-up, singing and dancing, because it made me happy and helped me forget my suffering.”

In 2006, Art Refuge UK was set up to take over and develop the work with Tibetan children. Frances is its chairman.

She got involved with Tibet while living in Hong Kong for four years, mostly on Lamma Island. “I was mainly teaching English, as well as teaching children arts and crafts in an after-school programme in one of the interna-tional schools. While I was there I met several people who had been to Tibet and I started learning about the history and the current situation.” Then there was that man with his scrap of paper . . . After Hong Kong she moved to America to help her widowed sister raise her three children. “I studied for my MA then (in creative arts therapy, on Long Island, New York), not really thinking of what I would do with it in the future. When I was invited to join a delegation of art therapists on a two-week trip to China, I decided to combine it with a trip to Tibet to do research for my thesis, ‘The Identity of Tibetan Children as shown in their Art.’

“After the China trip I then spent three months travelling in Tibet, Nepal and India, gathering data for the thesis. By this stage I was well aware of the whole Tibetan situation and the numbers leaving each year. I had wanted to visit the centres at that point but didn’t have the right contacts, so couldn’t get in.”

Frances returned to the UK and shortly after was contacted by the Friends of the Tibetan Women’s Association. “They had heard about my thesis and wanted to talk to me about the Art Refuge programme they had set up in the centres for the newly-arrived Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India in 1999.

“As a result of our chat, I went over as a volunteer and became convinced that this was something I wanted to be involved with on a long-term basis. I then became their volunteer co-ordinator, building up the volunteer pro-gramme so that we had two in each centre at all times for most of the year. It was very successful and popular with anyone interested in the arts and/or Tibet.”

“When the tsunami happened in 2004, FOTWA devoted all their fundraising efforts to helping an orphanage in Sri Lanka, so I took over the Tibetan side of things and set up Art Refuge UK so that we could fund-raise as a proper registered charity. My passion in life seems to be for Tibet and the Tibetans, so it was natural, I guess, that I would set up the charity to carry on helping them.

“I have been back to Tibet three times since I wrote my thesis and have witnessed first hand the devastation that the Chinese policies have wrought on the countryside, as well as the continual repression of the Tibetan people.

“The changes are horrifying – all in the name of ‘progress’! So I can empathise easily with the people who manage to make it safely to the centres in Nepal and India, and sometimes it breaks my heart when I hear their tales of life back home, the difficulties they have faced, or the family members they have lost; but especially the really painful fact of leaving their parents behind. It often doesn’t occur to the younger children until they are well into their journey that they might never see them again, so they arrive at the centres with a feeling of devastation at this great loss.”

When children leave the centres they go to one of the schools run by the Central Tibetan Schools Administration or one of the SOS Children/Tibetan Children’s Village schools in India.

“These are huge establishments where the children live in ‘homes’ with up to 20 other children of all ages, and they look after each other like a big family. Each ‘home’ has a home mother who takes care of them all.

“Adoption is discouraged as the Tibetan communities prefer to keep the children together in order to keep the Ti-betan culture intact. And once they are in India, the United Nations no longer has a main role in their care. All Tibetans in India come under the care of the Tibetan Government in Exile.”

Art Refuge UK is a labour of love for Frances, a part-time bookshop assistant in Aldeburgh and also employed by a second-hand book dealer in Thorpeness. She spends her spare time promoting and running the charity with the help of trustees and volunteers.

Since 2006, supporters have raised about �16,000. It pays for four staff and equipment at the centres.

“We are not a huge well-known charity and we rely on volunteers and word of mouth. We have very loyal supporters, including one man who did a sponsored walk with his dog, Tinker the Terrier, and he raised a lot of money for us. We raise money at different events by having stalls, which include notebooks made by adult refugees who do not have any other skills. However, our plan for the coming year is to raise enough money to fund a new post of project director, increase our number of trustees and develop a three-year business plan.

“We had a big fundraising evening in March, where we raised just over �1,500, which was great.”

Frances visits Nepal and India regularly. “I am passionate about Tibet, I love children and I love art, so this charity is a perfect mixture of them all for me! They always want you to help with their games and sometimes I feel as though I need 12 arms. The little ones love being hugged and that is why they need the large teddy bears, so they can hug them and roll around with them on the floor.

“I still keep in touch with a group of children whom I met on my first visit as a volunteer, and I refer to them as ‘my family’.

“Every time I go there I feel as though I am being flung into the deep end immediately, because these children have nothing apart from the clothes on their back and maybe a small bag with a few treasured possessions. They are not used to seeing foreigners and we are dealing with basic survival skills.”

Frances adds: “It is very humbling when you come from the West, where there are so many luxuries and privi-leges, and you see these kids who have escaped from Tibet. However, they are really grateful that we are there for them . . .”

‘Culture being eradicated’

FRANCES Fox is adamant that life under Chinese rule is miserable for Tibetans. Are people allowed to leave, or is it difficult?

“It’s not that there is a blanket ban – the Chinese just don’t like the Tibetans leaving. They probably feel it reflects badly on them, as conditions are supposed to be so much better since the Chinese arrived in 1957 and changed their world forever. They call them ‘illegal immigrants’ in Nepal and India, and are working hard on the Nepalese government to catch them and return them immediately.

“And the reason the Tibetans are leaving is because their culture is being eradicated. They are not allowed to practise their religion/faith freely, they are watched all the time – CCTV cameras have been installed everywhere in the big cities, including in the big touristy attractions such as the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple; secret police are known to follow foreigners around and then arrest any Tibetans who have been seen talking to them – large gatherings are banned, free speech doesn’t exist, and children are not given the same educational opportunities as the Chinese children in Tibet.

“If people want to leave, it is done in secret – just like an escape from prison. They can’t tell anyone for fear of them getting into trouble later, or for fear of the police finding out and stopping them; or, worse, taking them to prison.

“Oh, another thing – it is very, very hard for Tibetans to travel freely in Tibet. There are checkpoints along all the major roads and anyone caught travelling out of their own district without the proper papers will be sent back. So anyone wanting to leave Tibet has to do so at night, when they can avoid the checkpoints; but it is more likely they will travel off-road, especially when near the border, as they need to cross the mountains where there are no checkpoints or soldiers.

“Anyone can try to leave: if they have the money to pay a guide, good health – as it is a long journey – and the confidence that they will succeed. They also have to do all this without the local spies finding out; so it’s no easy thing.

“Many people try to escape but get caught, and so don’t try again. Many people try to escape, get caught and taken to prison, where they are beaten up or tortured badly, and are so ill when they leave that they can’t try again. Many people try to escape, get caught, but try again. I have known a few teenagers who were caught a few times but eventually made it to Nepal.

“A few people these days manage to save enough money to get passports and then bribe the local officials into giving them travel documents so they can get out of Tibet easily on a bus or in a hired car (with driver). But that is hugely expensive and just as dangerous. The travel excuse is usually to go on pilgrimage or to see family in Nepal – they daren’t say they are going to India, as suspicion will be aroused immediately.”

The Chinese government paints a different picture. A website called Open mind towards Tibet insists “China’s Tibet Autonomous Region launched Democratic Reform in 1959 and since then, great changes have taken place all around Tibet in politics, economy, culture, lifestyle and so on . . . We choose large numbers of articles written by famous journalists from all over the world, let them tell you a true Tibet through their own experience . . .”

A travel enthusiast called Monmar Francis is quoted as saying, for instance: “On the streets, you can see Buddhism followers either devotedly prostrating on the ground or rolling prayer wheels everywhere in Lhasa. They are really free and happy!”

Japanese reporter Serita Shinichiro says: “It’s evident what painstaking efforts the Chinese government has made to eliminate the serfdom.” Spanish “Tibetologist” Inaki Preciado Idoeta points out: “What I have seen and heard in Tibet completely differed from the distorted propaganda by the Dalai Lama.”

The current target

Art Refuge UK is raising �3,000 for a new art room in India

It’s appealing to the public to sponsor an item, such as:

Television �150

Large teddy bear �70

Tables �60

DVD player �40

Storage cabinets �40

Blankets �40

Benches �32

The charity also needs unpaid volunteers to help with administration, newsletters and grant applications

Further details from Art Refuge UK, PO Box 37, Aldeburgh. IP15 5WY

Email frances@artrefugeuk.org

Web: www.artrefugeuk.org

Donations should be by cheque made payable to Art Refuge UK and sent to the above address

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