A former Tibetan prisoner struggles, but is supported by a New York City program that help refugees.
Ngwang Tsamla, a former Tibetan prisoner, who suffered torture at the hands of the Chinese government, recently quit her job at the Food Emporium on East 59th Street, where she had worked at the sushi bar for the last eight months. She just couldn’t handle it anymore. She said felt dizzy with the crowds there and started to feel like she couldn’t breathe.
“It was my first job that I tried other than babysitting, but I guess my body is not ready for this,” said Tsamla, a rail-thin 35-year-old. “I go to the hospital in the Lower East Side every month to have counseling and medication. I will go back there again this month ‘cause I can’t sleep very well.“
Sponsored by the U.S. Asylum Program and under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an increased number of Tibetan refugees, exiled by the Chinese government, have settled in the United States. Many of them were tortured as political prisoners under the Chinese, and like Tsamla, struggle to live normal lives.
“Those [Tibetan torture victims] are mentally and physically very weak,” said Tsewang Phuntso, liaison officer at the Office of Tibet, an organization tasked with raising the profile of Tibetan refugees at the United Nations and preserving Tibetan culture among exiles in the U.S. and Canada. “But New York City seems to at least have easier access to help, like our office and the Survivors of Torture Program.”
Phuntso said a few organizations have also helped many to get Tibetan refugee certificates, working permits, and access to hospital services, like the Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture, where refugees have easy access to medication and Tibetan interpreters.
Tsamla shares the same tragic history as many Tibetan refugees seeking a better life in New York City. It’s been 15 years since she took to the streets of her homeland to shout “Free Tibet” along with many Buddhist monks and nuns from her temple, the only educational institution at the time that taught classes in Tibetan, and not Mandarin. Not long after, Tsamla, then just 19, was arrested and thrown into prison, where police officers beat her relentlessly, poured water into her mouth, and subjected her to electric shock. Government officials then drew her blood to use in transfusions for wounded Chinese soldiers.“Not only was my whole body bruised and broken by torture, but I started to have mental problems as well,” said Tsamla, who suffers from fainting spells after spending two years in prison."
AUDIO: Tsamla speaks of arrest and torture
After her release, Tsamla married a man who shared “the same beliefs in Tibet’s freedom” and had also spent six years in prison. They headed to India, where many exiled Tibetans found shelter, but Tsamla, under the advice of her local social worker, decided to come to the United States by herself in order to support her two daughters and her crippled husband, who remains unable to walk after being repeatedly kicked by the prison guards, who shattered his legs.
As soon as Tsamla arrived in California, she was faced not only with the difficulties of learning a foreign language, but also the shock of adapting to another culture and environment.
“It is too bright there,” said Tsamla, who said the sunlight gave her headaches after years spent in prison without any light. “I also needed to drive a car to get my medication, but sometimes, I suddenly couldn’t see anything or concentrate on driving. I became afraid to drive.”
After spending a year in California, she moved to New York, where she could get anywhere she needed by public transit, but even that isn’t always easy, she said.
“I still can’t be on a subway very long because I start to feel overwhelmed and everything gets all white, but it’s much safer than driving a car,” said Tsamla.
Still, she said she is lucky to have found a Tibetan roommate and to have many Tibetan friends, who not only share her hometown, but her history of torture. She also shares an apartment with four other Tibetan torture survivors for $900 a month.
“My place is so small,” said Tsamla, “But it is still bigger than the prison I stayed in and we all know how much more lucky we are now.”
But Tsamla longs for her family. Her two daughters have not gone to school in over three months, Tsamla said, because their father has become too sick to take care of them, she said.
“Every time I call them, they say, ‘We miss you, we need you here’,”Tsamla, said as she wiped her tears away with her hands. “All I can do is to get better and work hard ‘til they can come here.”Department of Journalism at New York University