Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre

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Category Tibetan Institution
Allied Category Allied Race
Associated Category Tibetan Related

What is it? Refugee Centre
Where is it located? Outskirts of Darjeeling Town
When was it established? 2nd of October 1959


1. Introduction
2. The Site for the Centre
3. Traditional Crafts
4. Training Workers
5. Welfare Activities
6. Religious Activities
7. Medical Programme
8. X-ray Clinic & Pathological Laboratory
9. Dental Clinic


The Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre was started on October 2, 1959. Following the dramatic escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama during that period period of mayhem, thousands of his fellowing countrymen, leaving hearth and home, fled into neighbouring countries so they could live as free human beings. The overwhelming majority of the refugees had brought nothing with them apart from the clothes they wore and what little provisions they could carry with them as they began the long and difficult trek over the Himalayas. The dramatic events in Tibet such as the Lhasa Uprisings, the escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the plight of the displaced Tibetans who began pouring into India and other neighbouring states, captured the attention of the entire world. National and international voluntary agencies set up emergency relief programmes to feed, clothe and give temporary shelter to the newly arrived refugees. In terms of immediate need the challenge was met. Driven out of their homeland into a totally different environment and without any knowledge of the language, customs and social institutions of the countries where they had sought refuge, the long term rehabilitation of the refugees posed innumerable difficulties. But right from the initial stages, the more educated of the refugees recognized that the need of the hour was the determination to stand on their own feet and rely first and foremost on their own effort, in short, the spirit of Self Help.

This vision led to the formation of a ten member committee in the Darjeeling to organize and establish a rehabilitation centre to be known as the TIBETAN REFUGEE SELF HELP CENTRE. The founding members of the committee were Tenzing Norgay, Joksari couple, T. Tethong, Monsignor Bengamin, Chumbay Tsering and Tesur. Later Dilip Bose was included in the committee . The current members of the committee are Mr. Karma Choeying Honarary Chairman, Khedroob Thondup Honorary President, Dr. Tanpa Thondup, Honorary Vice President, Mr. Chinmay Rinchen General Secretary and Treasurer, Mr. Lakchung, Mr. Dorjee Tsetn and Mr. Jampa Tenzing.

The initial fund was raised locally through subscriptions, donations, charity shows and an exhibition football match. This was augmented shortly afterwards by contributions from a number of voluntary agencies through the Central Relief Committee (India), notably CARE, Catholic Relief Services, National Christian Council, the Red Cross, World Veterans Service, as well as numerous local and foreign individuals and well wishers. Invaluable aid was also received from a number of organizations in the form of food grains, clothes, milk power medicines and allied equipment.

The Centre is today home to 650 refugees. Over the years the Centre has undertaken multifarious activities ranging from the production of handicrafts and training of artisans and craftsman to the care of the sick, the old the orphaned and the needy. In 1961 the Centre was fully registered as a Charitable organization under Indian Law. It has also received exemption from income tax on all gifts and donations made to it.


The “Hill Side”, a small estate comprising almost four acres was originally leased and eventually brought from St. Joseph’s College. The site was ideal for building a refugee camp. There were sufficient space to build and develop a small community outside the town yet conveniently approachable by road.

The “Hill Side” also had a special significance fro Tibetans since it was here that the Thirtheenth Dalai Lama had spent His exile in India between 1910 and 1912 following Chines aggression of Tibet at that time. The original house had long collapsed leaving nothing except the foundation and some crumbling walls. But spot had been hallowed by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, one of the greatest of Tibetan leaders and a great champion of Tibet’s independence, who by His foresight and political wisdom, preserved Tibet’s national sovereignty during his life time.


The production of handicrafts continues to be the mainstay of the Centre both in terms of activity as well as its source of income. To day, the Centre has been exporting to 36 countries. Some fo the traditional items are Tibetan carpets, thankas, wood carved items like folding tables, frames, wall hangings, metal items like bronze and copper pots prayer wheels and leather items such as gents and ladies boots and shoes. Tibetan apparel such as woolen coats, jackets, caps, chuba, pullovers, mufflers, socks, gloves, ladies aprons, shawls, blankets are some of the other items made here. Besides, Buddhist utility articles and other items of daily use are sold from the Show Room located in the premises of the Centre.

Among the successful items are footwear and coats which, while keeping the traditional Tibetan styles, are nevertheless modified for suitable modern wear. The immense popularity of these items along with numerous letters of praise and encouragement the Centre receive from all over the world has proved the success of this venture.


In traditional Tibet, the market for fine handicrafts was generally limited and hence master craftsmen, who had to undergo long periods of apprenticeship were few. Even fewer have managed to escape from Tibet and it was of the utmost importance for the survival of Tibetan handicrafts that the ancient skills and expert knowledge of these masters should be passed onto a new generation of workers. Thus, right from the initial stages, the Centre laid great emphasis on training new workers.

This strategy was guided by three considerations. First, on an individual level, the Centre seeks to give useful and marketable skills to refugees who could otherwise have to earn a precarious livelihood living as coolies and unskilled labourers. Secondly without a sufficient number of skilled craftsmen and trained workers, the Centre would not be able to produce and sell handicrafts, which provides its main source of income. Finally, on a wider level, the training programmes at the Centre ensure that the skills and expertise of the few master craftsmen are passed on to a new generation of worker and thus ensuring the survival and growth of traditional Tibetan arts and crafts.

The production and sale of the Centre's high class carpets with their traditional and intricate motifs continue to be the Centre's forte. Demand outstrips supply and the normal waiting period for each Carpet order received is one year; a trend that is unheard of and unique in today's highly competitive global market.

During its 46 years of existence the Centre has been able to train 1800 persons in various crafts of which 1000 to 1200 persons have left the Centre to set up their own enterprises. All of them are now fully self-supporting and several of them doing very well.


Although the production of handicrafts forms the main activity of the Centre and its primary source of income, the Centre was not planned to be and has never been solely a business concern. From its beginning the Centre has undertaken the task of helping orphas, the aged, the infirm and the needy among the refugees. For example, out of the total population 650 the Centre accommodates 90 old, inform and needy persons who are entirely dependent on the Centre.

The Centre provides free housing, food and rations, medical care, pocket money for children, clothes, uniform and stationary. This programme consists of the bulk of the Centres expenses and has been carrying on ever since its inception.

The Centre has cared for almost 400 orphans till date. Most of them have been sent to various schools around the country and several have been sponsored for study abroad. These orphans have no relatives or any one to care for them and thus rely wholly on the Centre. With the generous help of several individuals scattered all over the world, the Centre has not only been able to feed and clothe thme but also to give them an education thus laying the foundation of their future.

Great stress is also laid on adult education. Classes are held every morning to teach the workers at least the rudiments of reading and writing. As a result the Centre now has 70 per cent literacy, whereas only a dozen or so refugees could read or write when they joined the Centre. The refugees are also taught some basic knowledge of Hindi and English in the morning classes to help them get by in interacting with others in their daily lives.

There are many less fortunate people in the Tibetan community in this area, who have problems in supporting themselves. Many are single parents whose partners have died through illness, leaving behind young children. The Centre takes in many families and helps the children receive an education and at the same time teach the surviving parents a handicraft skill to support the family.

There are also a growing number of old and inform member who have spent their entire lives here. Form them the Centre has a programme where the skilled craftsman and women amongst them teach the younger workers so that traditional skills are preserved for posterity. The Centre has been very lucky to have the help of the organisations like HelpAge U. K. and HelpAge india, who have granted funds for a 2 storey building for an old people's home in the Centre. The Centre now has twenty rooms to house the aged, which in turn has led to more living space for the other members of the Centre.


Tibetans by nature are deeply religious. A monastery was built within the precincts of the Centre to fulfill the long cherished desire of the workers and the families. Alongside the pantheon of Buddhist dieties and Thankas made of silk and brocade, a throne has been placed, as in all Tibetan monasteries, for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Spiritual and Temporal Ruler of Tibet. A suite too, has been constructed for His Holiness in the rare event of an overnight sojourn. His Holiness visited the Centre in May 1975, November 1981 and again in February 1993and blessed the chapel, Centre and its people.

As an offshoot of the monastery's activities, the late Founder - president initiated an arrangement with Drepung Loseling Monastic Institution, Mundgod in South India whereby the latter would send to the Centre, a Geshe - equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy, Theology and Metaphysics; to take charge of all religious ceremonies during important and auspicious days in the Tibetan almanac. The present Geshe is especially active and under his tutelage and active interest, a Tsechu Association was founded in September 2002 consisting of the more religiously inclined staff, workers and students of the Centre.

Besides gathering for prayers on auspicious days every month, this group numbering 60, also converges at the house of a recently deceased person to recite prayers for the peaceful rest of the departed soul. During the monthly prayer sessions, people voluntarily offer tea and food to the group. Tsok (blessed cake made of barley flour, butter, sugar and nuts) which is distributed at the conclusion of each session. Under Geshe's guidance, the members have become adept at chanting various Tibetan prayers and reciting verses from religious texts. At times, a terminally ill worker of the Centre requests the group to visit their home to recite from the scared scripts. Such gestures give peace of mind to the patients and helps them to contemplate and reflect on his lives.

In 2006, fifty large Copper Prayers Wheels have been installed outside the Monastery and Workshops for the benefit of the Centre people. This was made possible as a gesture of remembrance and gratitude by the children of one of the workers who, as with most other people at the Centre, spent the better part of their lives serving the Centre and making it their second home.


Another important field of welfare work undertaken by the Centre is its health programme, which benefits not only the refugees of the Centre but hundreds of surrounding local people. The hospital was established in 1961 through the American Relief Services. It has grown from a small infirmary to a 20 bedded hospital today staffed by a well qualified and highly experienced doctor, two nurses, an overseas volunteer and some helpers.

Every year, thousands of patients are treated in the Infirmary. Apart from normal consultation and treatment, the Hospital also carries out blood test and grouping, screening for TB and follow-up medication and care, vaccinations, pre and post natal care, home visits to patients and old people too weak to come to the hospital etc. The overwhelming majority of those who avail of the medical facilities themselves are very poor. But for the services provided by the Centre, they might have had to go without any medical care.

In spite of the loyal services of the medical programme the Centre seriously faced with the possibility of closing or at least drastically cutting down the programme. It is nearly 50 years since the original organisation, AECTR largely responsible for financing the programmes had ceased to exist and none of the other relief organisations engaged in Tibetan projects are in position to take its place. The Centre's consistent policy of issuing heavily subsidized and free medicines including consultation to all its patients is a big drain on its resources and finances.


With the establishment of a pathological laboratory and X-Ray Clinic in the office premises, the Centre's medical services were greatly enhanced. This expansion was warranted out of the need to provide a more professional touch to the growing clientèle of people needing immediate and personalized attention. Also the need was felt for a well equipped laboratory investigation unit. The X-Ray clinic consisting of a small unit along with the requisite generator was set up by a grant given to the Centre by the Government of West Bengal through the Hill Affairs Branch Secretariat, Darjeeling.

The laboratory and clinic have proven a great success and a boon to the local people. It is entirely staffed by trained personnel who have graduate from the Cochin School of Paramedicals in South India. The Centre has been regularly sending batches of students for this one year intensive training course after which they are absorbed in the Centre's Clinics often filling the vacancies left by senior collegues who have left of their own accord. Without doubt, both ventures are running successfully.


A Dental Clinic was opened at the Centre in October 2000. It is also based within the head office complex in Darjeeling town and treats people from the Centre and surrounding communities in and around Darjeeling. It has a full range of dental equipment at its disposal. This unit was set up from the Centre’s internal resources as a natural complement of services already on offer. The venture was also partly aided by Dr. Simon Idelman of France.

So far the Dental Clinic has had 9 French dentists working for short stints voluntarily mostly arranged for by Chagpori, France. Not only the members of the Centre but the general public at large have benefited from their skillful hands.

Future plans for the clinic include allied services and expansion but at the moment the Centre is still integrating the clinic into the facilities provided by the Centre. Once all the activities are streamlined, the Centre hope to provide a complete dental package that will be the envy of Darjeeling.


In June 1960 the Centre started a small Nursery School. Within a short span of time, the school grew into a full-fledged primary school. The present enrolment in the school is 45, which includes many children from nearby Tibetan settlements. As aforementioned, the children are not only provided with free



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