Tibet Foundation

Field Visit to Tibet 2018

Nov 2, 2018

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A report by Phuntsog Wangyal, founding trustee

Since it began in 1992, our 'Aid to Tibet' programme has focused on education, healthcare and a sustainable local economy for the people of Tibetan origin living within China.  With full cooperation from the authorities, we have been able to run various projects smoothly and continuously over the last 26 years, and on the whole the experience has been positive.
Along with John Billington and Lobsang Seki, we have recently returned from a 3-week visit to Tibet, monitoring some of the Tibet Foundation’s aid projects in Kandze and Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures. When we first arrived in this part of eastern Tibet, at an altitude of some 4,300 meters, we were reminded of the tremendous challenges faced by Tibetans, at a time when a great acculturation across society is taking place.  As a Tibetan who left my homeland some 60 years ago, it was hard to refrain my emotions. There is so much to talk about, but here I will try to share with you some highlights of our projects on the Tibetan Plateau. 
For example, Gyalten School in Rongpatsa, one of a number of schools we support in Tibet, started as a day-school with 80 students in 1992, and has been supported by the Foundation ever since. It has now become a residential school for over 400 students. Its academic achievements, especially in Tibetan language, are highly acclaimed throughout the Prefecture. Thousands of students have received an education and many of its former students have found jobs in the local government. Others have continued on to successful professional careers, and some even joined monasteries and nunneries to become active Buddhist scholars. The school is so popular that there is always a long waiting list from across the region applying for admission. One aspect I noticed among the students, coming from the UK to Tibet, is that the ambition of many of the students is noticeably lower among the students I spoke to. Most want to have a government job as this offers an immediate and secure income.
The level of primary and secondary education, generally speaking, has improved in the last 20 years. However, few can manage to go to university for financial reasons. As a step to encourage university education, a few years ago the Foundation started supporting students studying in a number of universities in China. Subjects have varied from law to Tibetan language. Five students, including two who studied law in the Beijing Law University, successfully completed their courses last year. Encouraged by this success, the Foundation has offered scholarships to another 10 students this year.
Approaching Sershul (Zachukha in Tibetan), I was emotionally excited and overwhelmed by the natural beauty of snowcapped hills and grassland in valleys with herds of yaks roaming freely, and black yak-hair tents everywhere across the landscape. This was, I thought, the real Tibet we often dream of, but I wondered how soon this might change in the future. This image was pleasantly interrupted by the warm welcome and reception given by local officials and a delegation from the Sershul Tibetan Hospital.
Sershul itself was struck by a devastating snow disaster in the winter of 1995, which killed thousands of animals. In response, the Foundation launched an emergency relief project, providing hundreds of yaks to nomads to replace those lost in the disaster. Following this, an increasing number of people migrated from rural nomadic areas to urban towns and cities. This tendency is to some extent intensified by the government policy of establishing permanent settlements for nomads. However, there are still nomads who choose to maintain their traditional way of life. Tibet Foundation’s ‘Yak of Life’, started as an emergency measure soon became a sustainable programme, supporting such nomads in various places by giving them yaks to support their families while sustaining their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Every year the ‘Yak for Life’ programme provides nomads with yak, and this year we gave another 25 yaks to nomadic families.
I was pleased to see Dr Tsetop and others, dressed in traditional Tibetan chupa and speaking Tibetan in their local accent. During the period of the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan language was forbidden and any study of Tibetan culture, including Tibetan medicine was suspended. At the time of the snow disaster, there were only three elderly Tibetan medicine doctors alive. At the request of the local people, the Foundation established a project named the 'Sershul County Health Initiative'. Through this, we provided a system that gave local nomads some income for collecting medicinal herbs, increased medicine production to make medicine available free or at low cost, and to sustain a key aspect of Tibetan culture - traditional Tibetan medicine. The system also included medical training to 67 students for a period of 6 years. Today, all of them have become professional Tibetan doctors, running the County hospitals in Sershul, Derge, Palyul and Serta. The Tibetan medicine Hospital in Sershul has become well known throughout the Prefecture as a successful example of our long-term projects – supporting the local economy and establishing traditional skills and knowledge.
Traditionally in Tibet elderly people’s home are unheard of. Normally, younger members of the family looked after their elders. However, today, as more and more young people choose to move to towns and cities, the elderly are left behind in the villages without any support.  They are often vulnerable and there is an increasing need to support them and develop a sense of community. Tibet Foundation has supported the old people’s home in Sershul since 1996, as well as many more in other areas in the prefecture. We have requested the local government for their support. On our request, the local government has recently built a communal hall for the residents and in addition to this, the local government has established a new old people’s home in the centre of Sershul Town.
At the time of the Yushu Earthquake in 2010, Tibet Foundation was one of the first Tibetan charities from abroad to respond to their call for help, and to be able to provide direct support. Aside from giving emergency relief of food, clothing and medicine, more recently the Foundation has established a 5-year programme of training Tibetan doctors and health workers for a period of three to fours months each year. So far some 300 people received such training. Many of them have become professional doctors recognized by the government and are currently working in Yushu Prefecture Tibetan hospital in Kyegudo. Some of the doctors have established their own private clinics in nomadic areas. During our visit this time, we went to see a Tibetan hospital in Rongpo Nang, a two and half hour journey from Kyegudo. Four doctors who had trained earlier in our programme have set up this hospital, partly funded by the government. This is a good example of the success of our training projects, and of the longevity of the programmes.
Overall, Tibet Foundation is a small, Tibetan-led charity working in four countries abroad – India, Nepal, Mongolia and Tibetan areas in China, with a small yet effective budget. All of our aid projects provide local people with practical benefits, sustainable outcomes and work to preserve and continue Tibetan culture. The impact of our work is far reaching. Every time I visit Tibet I feel deeply impressed by the economic development made by the government and the hard work and enthusiasm of local people to maintain their culture.
During this visit the security in the region was noticeably higher, although we had no problem during our journey. We could see lots of locals with rosaries in hands circumambulating Mani walls and turning prayer wheels, and monks and nuns engaged in prayers and debates in their monasteries and nunneries. I am glad to say that Tibetan culture is still very much alive.
Both the local communities and government officials I met expressed their appreciation and gave us their full support. For example, Tsetop, former head of Sershul Hospital said to me during the visit: 
We are very grateful to Tibet Foundation for helping us to regain our tradition of Tibetan medicine, to train the young with knowledge of sustainable projects and to give hope to the old that they are not forgotten. We feel encouraged that you came to help us, although you are so far away, and that your heart is still with us. We pray for the success of the Foundation’s work and thank all those who are supporting you”. 
A government official responsible for overseeing our work said:
We found Tibet Foundation working within the law in the last 26 years and helping those local people who genuinely needed the help most. Currently, you are the only Tibetan charity from abroad working in Tibetan areas in Sichuan Province. We regard your work important and beneficial to the people and we are happy to help you continue successfully working here”.
Thus, we know Tibetans need our support and pray for the success of our work. I would like to request all of you to join us in our work so that together we are able to fulfill their wishes, and continue our efforts in Tibet. Thank you for your ongoing help.