Tibetan School Project: Project Site; Katsel, Tibet

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A wonderful dream has come true in a small Tibetan village northeast of Tibet's capital city Lhasa. For the first time in over 30 years, a school has been established in the village of Katsel, Medrogonkhar. It began in 1987 when Sonam Jamyangling visited his hometown, Katsel, after 28 years in exile and decided a school was desperately needed in the village. In the next year, Sonam, who lives in Sweden, founded the Swedish Society for School and Culture to promote the Tibetan culture and more importantly, to establish schools in Tibet. He later enlisted assistance from Tibetan exiles and U.S. citizens who formed the U.S. Society for school and Culture to provide broader support for the Tibetan School Project.

After years of planning, negotiating, and fundraising to establish the school along with two dormitories was held in September 1994. During the inaugural celebration, I saw a small desolate village transformed into a brilliant place full of happy and proud villagers who hosted hundreds of visitors from neighboring villages and the larger towns of Medrogonkhar and Lhasa. The villagers had painted the walls of the local monastery and their homes, and dressed in their finest clothing. Women wore bright in their finest clothing. Women wore bright wunchus, or shirts under their chubas, or Tibetan dresses, with strings of festive colors woven in their hair. The 100 children from Katsel and neighboring villages paraded towards their new school as everyone beamed with hope in their eyes.

To the West, where schools are part of daily life, the new school may seem commonplace. However, in a Tibetan village where educational opportunity is rare and a privilege, and the threat of cultural extinction is real, the Katsel school is a miracle. Due to the growing population transfer of Han Chinese settlers into Tibet, Tibetans are becoming a minority in their own land. Its hard to believe that the official language in Tibet is not Tibetan, but Chinese.

Prior to the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, thousands of flourishing Buddhist monasteries and nunneries formed the foundation of the Tibetan educational system. During the Chinese cultural revolution over 6,000 monasteries and convents, housing the rich literature, were looted and destroyed. Hundreds of Tibetan religious and secular educators were murdered or jailed, thus wiping out the infrastructure of Tibet's educational system.

In order to preserve and nature the endangered Tibetan culture, it is necessary that Tibetans be provided with a means to obtain an education. In rural areas, where the majority of the Tibetan population lives, 44% are illiterate in any language and the majority cannot read or write in Tibetan. In rural Tibet, there is a desperate need for schools with qualified teachers, proper facilities, and educational materials.

As a Tibetan exile born in a refugee camp in India, I have always known that my culture is in danger of extinction and I have always imagined visiting my native land. In July 1993, I had the rare opportunity to travel within Tibet that included an emotional and memorable stay at my father's home village, Katsel. During my visit, the village children attended temporary classes in an open courtyard of the local monastery. With promises of a new school in Katsel, villagers enthusiastically discussed the prospects of a better life for their children.

On my return to Katsel in September 1994, I was amazed at the transformation of the village. The children had significantly progressed in their Tibetan studies. Local villagers had built a stone wall around the school grounds and sewn traditional Tibetan uniforms for the children. I attended several classes and was thrilled to see the children eagerly respond to the teacher by raising their hands to write on the blackboard or to read from their textbooks. Some children lit up with great joy and pride when they pronounced Tibetan words they had just learned to write. Since many of the children had never known how to hold a pen, much less write their own name in their native language, they beamed with a great sense of accomplishment at their newly acquired skill.

Today, the Tibetan School Project educates, and feeds 178 children. There are 103 day students living in Katsel, 75 are boarding students from the surrounding villages. These boarders are either orphans, or from families of dire financial situations and reside in four dormitories. Meals are prepared and served in a newly constructed kitchen and dining hall. There are 14 staff members living on school grounds in three teachers' quarters. The teachers and other staff members have additional responsibilities such as taking care of the boarding students, driving into town for supplies, nursing children in the dispensary, cooking and cleaning.

At the Katsel primary school, the main subjects taught are Tibetan, English, Chinese, Math, and Science. Part of the children's curriculum involves routine exercises and sports after classes. The children also learn traditional music and dance and give performances in the local village.

The students are also involved in planting new trees in the school yard. Much of Tibet's countryside, including the village of Katsel, has experienced unprecedented deforestation after the 1959 occupation of Tibet. These trees will provide protection from the hot sun, a break from the strong valley winds, and create a new ecological balance to the barren landscape. As well as planting and nurturing more than 8,000 trees, the children are also maintaining a sense of respect for the environment that is consistent with their own Tibetan values.

After years of planning and fundraising, Dr. Anne Wedemeyer and the Pittsburgh Friends of Tibet sponsored a medical dispensary located on Katsel school grounds. In March 1996, representatives of the Pittsburgh Friends of Tibet, traveled to Tibet to inaugurate the dispensary. At that time, many children in the school were inflicted with the contagious pink-eye, which Dr. Wedemeyer was able to treat. This much needed clinic has a full time nurse receiving patients, and a doctor on a part time basis. Due to dedicated doctors and supporters of Tibet, the Katsel school is able to provide basic medical care to the school children, staff, and villagers.

Having successfully established this landmark school in Tibet, The Tibetan School Project hopes to open the door future projects that directly benefit Tibetans and provide opportunities for the preservation of Tibetan culture. The Project provides direct assistance to small, under-founded, rural schools in Tibet. For example, Kharto, a village in Tulung Valley, is very remote and the distance to the nearest school is too far for the children to travel. The local monastery has started a small school, but due to financial and political restrains, only grades one two were available to travel to distant schools for the next grade levels. After discussions with the authorities, the schools was allowed to teach through grade four. In the remote Yangpachen regions, schools are non-existent in may villages. The Tibetan School Project and several villages are planning to build a school in a central location so all will have access to it. The Tibetan School Project supports the building, maintenance and expansion of schools like those of Kharto village and Yangpachen areas.

Through the success of the Katsel School, it is possible for international grassroots efforts to educate Tibetan children. The Tibetan School Project's primary objective is to provide educational opportunities, clothing, food, and basic health care for the children of Katsel school, as well as to provide assistance to other rural Tibetan schools. The U.S. and Swedish, in hopes that one day Tibetan schools with qualified teachers and proper facilities will exist throughout Tibet. Both Societies will continue to work relentlessly until this hope becomes reality.

As an individual who appreciates all the educational opportunities in her life, and as a Tibetan whose language and culture are endangered, I ask you to support the Tibetan School Project in their relentless efforts to educate the children who are the future of Tibet.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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