A First in a Refugee Settlement

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By Phuntsok Dorjee

I was born in the Mundgod Tibetan settlement in the late 1970s and personally was quite fond of reading.

I think my interest in reading was born out of my curious nature and my interest to acquire new information and knowledge. I vividly remember a monthly magazine called Wisdom which had articles on different subjects and I also had a collection of comics bought from a shop which sold used books in the nearby town. Our school library didn’t exist then and sadly, serves as just a physical presence even today.

Being a refugee community, our parents were more concerned with providing for the family and our existence was at stake, so exploring ways of learning was not a priority. Reading as a pleasurable activity is something unknown–many from my generation would have gone through this same experience with an exception of a few families. So, children grew up with either no reading habit or no resources available to explore and build on any slight natural curiosity they might have had towards reading.

As I grew older, I was drawn to books on history. Although, it was not one of my main subjects in school, I remember borrowing other students’ history textbooks and reading them. My source of history narratives was only from textbooks. I graduated in B.Com, but later went into Computer and Technology field and by doing a basic crash course in the subject, I taught myself by reading up on the subject. I do the same even now to keep myself updated, although, now it is through digital reading. Looking back, I think I read no fiction or one could say that I would have also read fiction if there had been access to it. .

On the other hand, my wife was introduced to comics and other fiction since a young age. Although she was in a boarding school, she came home for the holidays to a good collection of reading materials – a variety of comics, the world of Famous Five and Nancy Drew…etc. She continues to read different novels and reads for pleasure. However, she is not much of a non-fiction reader.

What we realised in both our cases is that essentially we developed the reading habit from two different experiences, but shared a common understanding of its importance. We were always aware of the facility to support reading as lacking in the settlement and a general indifference of the Tibetan children towards reading.

I think it was around the time we had our daughter that we started to talk more on the subject. During one such conversation, a westerner friend said, “Reading should be for pleasure” and we began to acquire books for our daughter. It was then that we came across vibrant, full of colour and beautiful illustrations in children’s books. We were quite excited ourselves and started to see this as something we could do for young children–introduce them to books! We felt that this pleasure must spread throughout our community.

Since the last five decades of being in exile, the settlement has now become a vibrant community with living conditions greatly improved along with free education and healthcare provided to the members of the community by the Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamshala, in north India. However, our children are still missing out on the wonderful world of exploration through books and reading. Reading as an enjoyable activity, a form of entertainment and learning is still not common among our children and nothing much has changed on that front. We still have many families with children and young adults who don’t have a single book in their homes and the sad part is they don’t know what they are missing.

It hit me strongly when during one of my annual holidays at the settlement, I met with the children in my locality and took an informal survey and found the situation needing urgent attention. As a community, we need to do more to provide our children and youth easy access to books and create an environment for their growth and development and open their world, one book at a time. When access is assured, so is the foundation for their growth. We started by registering our project www.helpwithbooks.org as a website with an understanding that we will be the facilitators for books in the different Tibetan settlements and offer children the opportunity to become lifelong readers. I started my personal initiative around a small reading area in my locality (the settlement has 9 such localities which are called villages) and with some savings, provided for the books and some furniture. But, it was not successful and the fact that I have a full time job based in Dharamshala made it difficult to manage.

After sitting on the idea for a couple of years, I figured we have to make it a much bigger project and be more effective and beneficial to the whole settlement. My friend and a personal mentor suggested preparing a project proposal when there was a possibility for a grant. I approached the Mundgod Tibetan settlement officer (under the Central Tibetan Administration-CTA) and proposed to build a public library in the community. It was received with much interest by the office, which fueled my enthusiasm to work further. We contacted Tibet House Trust- UK with our project proposal which was generously accepted and they donated the funds for the construction of the library. I know that the way the Settlement officer heard me , listened to me and received my suggestion was the beginning of the birth of the Mundgod Public Library.

The construction of the library building began in early 2016, when we had also started to divert our attention to the furnishing and stocking of our library. We started with a dream, the passion and absolute dedication to bring it to life but with no experience in the field of library education. My experience was limited to being a parent to two kids of my own and the books that they enjoy. So, we researched by looking at different articles, blogs..etc wherein people list book suggestions. Based on this, we created a wishlist on Amazon.in so we can receive book donations.

In one of my meetings with the Education Kalon (Education Minister, CTA) he directed me to contact Ms. Usha Mukunda and Ms. Sujata Noronha and they instantly acknowledged our desire and agreed to guide us. It was a learning experience to be in contact with them and the passion and the positive energy that they exuberate is addictive. We shared our ideas to bring the project into fruition and our plans for the future and it was reassuring to receive their unstinting support.

Over the next months, while the building was in construction, we continued our fund raising drive for furnishing and books.

The Tibetan Children’s Village, which is one of the premiere educational institute donated the funds for furnishing of the library and donated a collection of Tibetan story books for children. A friend of mine who is a writer helped me spread the word among her readers and they bought many books from our wish list. Another friend, passionate about promoting reading among children donated books and pledged donations in the future. We also received a collection of Tibetan books for children from Dept. of Education, CTA. We also promoted our project within our community both residing in the settlement and expats living abroad. Our community based in the New York and New Jersey pledged salary for a librarian for two years and an annual fund to purchase new books. We wanted the larger community involved to develop a sense of ownership which we believe will help in sustainability of the project.

We were also blessed with the name for the library as Shiwatso Library by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. What began as small idea in 2010 came to fruition in November 2016 and with a substantial number of books received through donations, we were ready to open our doors.

The community now has a wonderful space that aims to foster learning, inspire self-empowerment and promote positive social change. It has also re-established my faith in the project and the difference it will make to the children in our community.

The year 2016 ended on a high note with the auspicious inauguration of Shiwatso Library by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on 22 Dec 2016 and officially opening to the public. It was a blessed day to have His Holiness at the library and to see his interaction with the children.

I share the translation of his message below:

“A special feature of the human brain is the capacity to discern what is right and wrong and to take into account, the long and short-term advantages and disadvantages of things, and education is the key to opening the door to them. Therefore, it is very important for the concerned teachers and staff not to believe any matter immediately but to draw conclusions only after scrutinizing them thoroughly.” Dalai Lama, A Buddhist Monk, 22/12/2016

Shiwatso Library is the first free public library in the Tibetan community in India. We hope that with this, it will set an example for other Tibetan settlements in India to follow suit. Our aim is to offer Tibetan children and adults alike, the opportunity to look at books and reading with a new perspective: a medium to learn, explore, inspire and empower.

(Mundgod Tibetan settlement began in 1966 under the rehabilitation plan granted by the Government of India for Tibetans who fled Tibet after China’s military takeover. Tibetans were allotted 4045 acres of land in a forested area by the Karnataka State Government for housing and agriculture cultivation, to sustain the livelihoods of Tibetan refugees who settled here. Mundgod is the largest Tibetan Refugee settlement in India. Initially, there were 4045 people here, but now the population has increased to over 16,000, consisting of both lay population and monks and nuns.)

Phuntsok Dorjee, aside from his involvement with the Shiwatso Library project, also co-founded the Tibetan Technology Centre (Tibtec) in 2006 and helpwithbooks.org in 2008 with his wife. When not chasing his dreams, his day job at the Tibetan Children’s Village, Dharamsala as the IT coordinator keeps him busy.

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