After divorcing from my “childhood sweetheart” in 1994, I began to consider my future. I had felt “empty” and “lost”, without direction for a long time.
In 1998 I became a full time student, training to be a Counsellor. Yet, I still felt empty and lost. It was during this time I became interested in Buddhism and the Tibetan culture and began reading books about the people and the culture. I decided I wanted to travel to India to work with Tibetan refugee children. After making enquiries through an e-mail on volunteering that I found at the back of one of these books, I found a post as a secretary teacher in a Vocational Training Centre in Northern India, applied and was offered the “job”. When applying, I didn’t think of the consequences of being offered the job, at the time I merely want to see if I could be offered it. So, it was a huge shock when I got the call.
I sold my house and most of my belongings, leaving my teenage son in the care of my daughter. Saying goodbye to them at the airport is an image I will never forget. I was so proud of them, encouraging me to go and help the Tibetan children. So, off I set, and travelling to a place I have never been to before. I intended to stay for just 6 months. Yet 2 years later I was still there.
During my time in India, I spend a year at the VTC and made many good friends and had the opportunity to help the children and community. When I first arrived at the VTC 90 Tibetan children from the age of 4 to 19 had recently arrived from Tibet. Many of them looked in shock, and although the Indian sun was very hot, nearly all of them had fur coats on, thick jumpers and scarves. I helped the nurse to clean the wounds the children had suffered on their 2 month journey, walking through the Himalayas to get to the Tibetan Reception Centre in Khatmandu. I choked back tears as I held a 10 year old girl down, while the nurse squeezed the many abcesses on her head. This little girl, although in great pain, did not make a sound.
I made many friends at the VTC, spending all my spare time with children. I began to hear about their stories of how they were suffering at the hands of the Chinese Authorities in Tibet. I asked the children to tell me their stories, so I could write a book about them to let the world know what was happening. So, each night after class, I would sit with the children, and one by one they came to tell me their stories, my Tibetan friend translating to me, while I wrote them down by hand.
Meeting the Dalai Lama
In the November of that year I went to a mountain village, Rajpur, to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama address his people. During his talk the Dalai Lama looked over to where I was sitting, along with 2 American journalists and said, “We have some westerners here today. You need to talk to these people, tell your stories, so that they can teach the world about Tibetans and our suffering”. It was then that I realised why I had come to India.
While I was in Rajpur I met a Tibetan man, Dawa Tsering and we soon began a relationship. We were married in February 2001. It was much too far for me to travel from Rajpur to the VTC, so I left and moved to Rajpur to be with Dawa. Soon after I arrived at my new home I started to put together my manuscript, that included my own story of my experiences as a volunteer. The ups and downs and struggles of life as the wife of a Tibetan and as a volunteer.
We had very little money and the community clubbed together to help me pay for the 3 weeks rental of a computer. I worked night and day typing up the manuscript. After deciding on a title for my book I sent the manuscript with a friend to Dharamsala, to the Dalai Lama’s office, asking him to write a foreword.
During my life with the Tibetans, I witnessed the death of children from TB and also contracted Typhoid and was hospitalised, becoming extremely ill. During the 2 years I was in India my daughter came out twice, but my son wasn’t able to. In that 2 years I visited the UK once, for 3 weeks. In January 2002 I realised I needed to go back to England.
It felt that as soon as we touched down on UK soil, our relationship was doomed. Dawa wanted to experience as much as possible of his new life, to make his own friends. We returned to India for a month’s holiday in 2003, but sadly, soon after we divorced. In the September of that year I received the official foreword from the Dalai Lama. My book, “Running From Tenda Gyamar”, was published in April by Mantra Books. My website is www.volunteerfortibet.com.
The experience changed me for the better
Travelling to India, being a volunteer and experiencing life with the Tibetans, I realised I had been a selfish and angry person. I learnt a great deal about sacrifice and what it was like to struggle in a country that is not your own, where very few speak your language. My experiences in India helped me to grow and develop as a person, I feel changed me for the better. It has helped me to be a better mother, counsellor, partner and friend.
My advice to anyone wanting to be a volunteer in India, is to:-
- Make sure you live within the community, for safety
- Make sure you have health insurance
- Make sure you “say no” sometimes, as a volunteer you put others before yourself
- Make time for yourself – rest and be mindful of your emotions.
- Take neutral, linen/cotton clothing and several sets of cotton underwear and a warm coat and boots for winter
- Have people send you cosmetics, toiletries, personal hygiene items and makeup
- Keep a diary or write a blog
Lesley Freeman is 53, a mother of 2, a grandmother and Counsellor