“The story of these people is my story too. I know this is the population I want to work with,” said Dechen Lhewa in a recent interview from her apartment in Boston, Massachusetts. Lhewa, a Tibetan immigrant and human rights advocate, was speaking of her commitment to help Tibetans living in exile establish an acceptable standard of living. Whether working as an undergraduate student in Minnesota, an Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow in New York City, or a graduate student at Boston University, Lhewa’s focus has always been tied to her Tibetan heritage. Helping Tibetan immigrants adapt to life in America, especially those Tibetans who are torture survivors, is at the center of her continuing work at New York University’s Bellvue/NYU Program for the Survivors of Torture and her research as a doctoral student of Psychology at Boston University.
As an immigrant to the United States from India where her family was living in exile from their home of Tibet, Lhewa knows first hand the difficulties faced by immigrants in a foreign land. Tibetans have faced the hardships of displacement since the 1950’s. In 1949, China began an aggressive campaign to take over the nation of Tibet, and by 1959 the Dalai Lama had fled Tibet for asylum in India. Since that time, Tibetans have suffered many human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government and military. It is estimated that at least 1.6 million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In addition, human rights abuses ranging from torture to job discrimination have plagued the region’s history.
“The kinds of human rights violations have become less explicit, more
systematic. Electrocutions and torture were once not uncommon, but now a
more pervasive demoralization faces the Tibetans that remain,” said Lhewa.
She went on to explain that 7.5 million Chinese and only 6 million Tibetans
live in the region formerly known as the nation of Tibet, and the Chinese
government continues to create economic incentives for Chinese to move into
the region. Tibetans in support of the Dalai Lama, called Separatists, are
not allowed to speak of a free Tibet. They have difficulty finding work and
are faced with a barrage of Chinese propaganda in the region’s schools and
institutions. As a result, many Tibetans have fled to India, especially to
Dharamsala where the Tibetan government in exile is located.
Tibetans also emigrate much farther, as in the case of Lhewa’s family. Her father came to the United States through a program that matched Tibetan refugees with Americans willing to provide them with mentorship and some financial support. Her father’s sponsor lived in Montana where her father moved over a decade ago. Five years later, Lhewa, her brother and her mother joined him.
Lhewa enrolled in college and transferred to Macalester College after two years. It was during her time at Macalester that Lhewa says she began to connect the refugee issues that played a large role in her past with new academic pursuits:
“My time at Macalester was one of great personal growth. Much of my new enthusiasm stemmed from my interest in Buddhism. Through my classes I was able to connect what I learned about Buddhism with Psychology and Philosophy. I learned more about other people and more about myself.”
She also started working at the Center for Victims of Torture based
in Minnesota, an organization that allowed her to apply her psychology coursework
to the needs of Tibetan immigrants in Minnesota.
It was at the Center for Victims of Torture that Lhewa learned of the Bellvue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, a similar organization located at Manhattan’s New York University. Lhewa had recently graduated from Macalester and was interested in continuing her work with Tibetan torture survivors in a region of the United States with a higher Tibetan immigrant population, such as New York. A physician at the Center for Victims of Torture told Lhewa of the Upper Midwest Fellowship Program, and she received a grant in the summer of 2001 to support her move to New York.
At the Bellvue Program Lhewa’s initial task was to interpret for Tibetan clients seeking help from the center. She also assisted in interviewing clients to determine the extent of their needs, “As Tibetans come to this country, the first thing they are concerned about is asylum. We determine if they are an appropriate candidate. After that, some have medical problems. Social services can also be crucial.”
After her fellowship ended in August of 2001, Lhewa was hired as an intake and research coordinator for the Bellvue Program. “My work in the Human Rights Fellowship Program led directly to my job in the Bellvue Program. It facilitated my ability to identify my goals and advance my work with the refugee community. I helped with psycho-therapy translating and started researching the psychological health of these refugees,” said Lhewa.
Her two years as an employee at the Program sparked her interest in pursuing a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology. She hopes this training will allow her to focus specifically on the mental health of Tibetan refugees around the world. “My dream is to work in Dharamsala or Nepal at the refugee reception centers doing research as a form of advocacy, and maybe some clinical work as well. When I was there this past winter, I saw children in Indian schools sent ahead of their parents to a new country. In many cases their parents will not come. It was very sad. The way those children incorporated their flight into their lives and were still able to move on was amazing. I see myself there working with those people.”
Lhewa has several years left in her doctoral program at Boston University and continues to work with the Bellvue Program as a researcher and advisor. She hopes to become involved in the Boston Torture Treatment Center, ideally working with the same refugee issues that have led her from India to Minnesota and New York.
As Lhewa reflected on her own future, she also spoke of the challenges that lie ahead for Tibetan immigrants living in the Western world: “It’s going to be a challenge for us to keep our sense of Tibetan identity alive. Assimilating to the American and Western world is a challenge, and staying true to your identity is even more difficult.”