It is easy to overlook the two unassuming settlements, adorned with prayer flags, that lie dotted around the outskirts of Pokhara in central Nepal. Situated in opposing locations on the town’s peripheries, they take some time to find down the winding backstreets and like many of Nepal’s smaller villages they remain tucked away from the bustle, and even the traffic, of modern Nepali life. The reason why these settlements profoundly stand out above many other villages however, is that they are the current home to a number of exiled and escaping Tibetans.
We had walked into one of the country’s Tibetan Refugee Camps.
These refugee camps are the result of decades of bitter relations between China and Tibet. Under a strict Chinese regime, the Tibetans have experienced religious oppression since China invaded in 1949, meaning Buddhist practices and celebrations are banned. The ultimate driving force behind Tibet and China's political conflict points to China seeking control of Tibet, whilst Tibet wanting to remain its own autonomous state. At the moment over 20,000 Tibetans are seeking refuge in Nepal, however this has also proved difficult for the fleeing families. Aside from enduring the crossing of the Himalayas, Nepalese authorities have begun to strengthen ties with China leaving the refugees more vulnerable. Tibetan refugees and any children born whilst in the camps are not allowed to register as Nepalese Citizens or receive passports - producing a stateless group of individuals. Furthermore, Tibetans are also denied work within the country and the only method of support for the community is to sell tourist souvenirs at the sides of their homes.
One of the main sites, named TashiLing can be located a short walk from a well-known waterfall and tourist hotspot, Devi Fall’s. Though the powerful surge of water, which plummets into an opening in the ground, is enough to attract quite a daily crowd the neighbouring refugee camp is yet to become such a desired go-to. Despite no signs, little information detailed on a map, and no local shop owners admitting to knowing what TashiLing is, it is with some perseverance that eventually a small alley can lead the avid traveller to their desired destination.
TashiLing and Tashi Palkhiel however are not the type of refugee camps that have so often made headlines around the world. Unlike the brazen images that come from other detainee centres around the world, an eerie silence meets you upon entry to the camps in Nepal’s Himalayan foothills. The gates are open and you can easily enter or leave, and unlike the symbolic, potent imagery that so often captures the world's attention regarding refugee crises, there is no barbed wire fences or makeshift homes here.
The complex is full of dozens of colourful one-storey, well-built houses and Tibetan flags are adorned everywhere you look. Whilst the silence persists for a few moments, your senses are next overwhelmed with a number of Tibetans beckoning you to their stalls full of jewellery, handicrafts and cries of ‘please look, looking for free’. It quickly becomes apparent that these Tibetan nationals have been waiting for the unsuspecting tourist to stumble into the complex. The handmade crafts that are available display traditional Tibetan production methods, are decorated with beads and historic patterns and are of an incredibly high quality. Of all the stalls, almost identical in crafts and all displaying signs that state any proceeds go back into supporting the survival of the camp, there is a deep sense of sadness and desperation that lingers in the air.
It was during my visit to this site, as I meandered further among the houses, that an elderly man approached me with a ‘Namaste’ and beckoned me into his home. Entering the simple one-roomed house I was met with an entire wall decorated with Tibetan handicrafts and pendants - a single bed mat lay in the opposite corner of the floor. His home had become both his shop and living quarters, much like the majority of homes here temporarily belonging to the 1,500 refugees. The second Tibetan that I encountered even further within the colourful alleys was as well as a souvenir seller, an English speaker and attempted to discuss Brexit and how ‘good it was that Britain had its independence’. Of course one can wonder whether such support for other countries and their political independence derived from his own homeland struggle.
Further exploration around the camp can lead you to the front of a Tibetan monastery, which has also remained the most well kept building in the area. Here, the young monks in traditional dress no older than 12 years old can often be found playing cricket with a piece of wood amongst the rubble. What seemed apparent however was that aside from the monastery and the market stalls, there is nothing else to do here for the cohort considered as second class citizens in Nepal.
Although the camp was in good condition and the refugee’s houses are painted in bright colours, it is difficult to anticipate what feelings are evoked upon visiting such a politically charged location. The narrow streets are lined with a mix of silence and sadness as the Tibetan citizens wait for the liberation of their country.
Before I left the camp I encountered one final Tibetan refugee who was happy to tell me his story of home. Having fled to Nepal in 1959 as just a child, he spoke of how he remembers China destroying Buddhist temples and changing the entire landscape of his home. He has not had any contact with the family members who remained behind in Tibet. So far, he recalled, Nepal had been a good home to him - and he has a good spot on the marketplace.
The political turmoil between Tibet and China both remains considerably under the radar in mainstream news and also remains unlikely to change in the near future. And so these displaced Tibetans remain in limbo selling their trinkets, quietly living in the shadows of streets graffitied with the words ‘Free Tibet’.
Photography by Jaleesa Greening, https://www.jaleesagreening.com/ in: lampenkap1