The local Tibetan community has a dream as big as the Himalayas:
A place of their own.
A two-story center where people can gather for ceremonies and celebrations, with classrooms to teach their children the intricacies of a culture that’s rapidly being erased by occupying Chinese forces in Tibet.
That aspiration carries importance beyond the Philadelphia region. Exile communities here and elsewhere feel a duty to keep the traditions and language alive as thousands of monasteries in the homeland are demolished and Chinese replaces Tibetan in speech and writing.
“Without a cultural center,” said Tsering Jurme, chairman of the center’s committee for the nonprofit Tibetan Association of Philadelphia (TAP), “there’s no place we can call home.”
The group is trying to raise $450,000 for a center after the property it rented in Feltonville was sold last year. So far, TAP has raised $136,000, with contributions from nearly every local Tibetan.
“It’s the tiny diaspora that’s now responsible for preservation of the language and culture, a responsibility that those in Philadelphia take very seriously,” said Jeffrey Granett, a retired Bryn Mawr cardiologist who serves on the board of the U.S. Tibet Committee, an advocacy organization. “I don’t know any other way this culture is going to survive.… Everyone of goodwill should support them.”
It’s unclear where the rest of the money might be found. Grants and corporate funding have yet to materialize. TAP is offering to sell naming rights — for parts of the structure, like the library, or for the entire building.
“We must build up our fund-raising,” said TAP President Thupten Chonyi.
Tibetans here want the new center to promote the ideals of compassion and kindness espoused and exemplified by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet.
The Beijing government sees loyalty to the Dalai Lama as a threat to its authority, imposed when the People’s Liberation Army invaded in 1950. Nine years later, the Dalai Lama and thousands of followers escaped, establishing a government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India.
Tibet is known as the “Roof of the World” and the “Land of Snows.” China asserts a centuries-old claim over the country, which also borders Nepal and India.
Nearly all Tibetans are Buddhists, and that tradition is interwoven with festivals and family life.
The Chinese occupation has led to the imprisonment and death of thousands of Tibetans, and the destruction of more than 6,000 monasteries. China severely restricts freedom of speech, the press, and religion, and people can be thrown in jail just for having a picture of the Dalai Lama.
Almost all the world’s 6.4 million Tibetans live in Tibet, and few are able to leave. Clandestine Tibetan immigration to India has dropped from 2,500 to perhaps 100 a year, which in turn has choked off the flow of new members to communities in the West.
The worldwide exile community consists of only about 130,000 people, with 80,000 or so in India and an estimated 20,000 in North America, statistics show.
Tibet is not just their country of origin but their spiritual home. TAP members will soon gather for Losar, the Tibetan New Year, which this year falls on Feb. 24.
The loss of its rented space forced TAP to stop its Sunday school, central to children learning to read, write, and speak Tibetan, and then restart it on Saturdays, when many parents are at work.
A dozen or more children gathered on a recent Saturday in a rented Unitarian Society of Germantown meeting room. They sang the Tibetan national anthem and "The Star-Spangled Banner,” then offered prayers for wisdom and truth before taking up formal studies.
“We don’t have a classroom. It’s a hard thing for us,” said school director Dechen Kunsang.
Kunsang envisions a center where members can meet, learn, teach, cook, and worship, and where older members can socialize. All draw encouragement from elders like Lobsang Dhargyal, 87, who helped the Dalai Lama escape in 1959 and has remained a friend. He served in the Tibetan government-in-exile in India and now lives in Glenside.
Tibetans first began immigrating to the United States in the early 1960s, and their numbers grew after Congress granted 1,000 visas to Tibetans in India as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. Family members came, too. Many settled in the New York City and the Washington metro areas, but some came to the Philadelphia region.
Years ago, when only a handful of families lived here, events were held informally at people’s homes. But now the community stands at about 200 people, and more are arriving from New York, pushed out by high living costs.
Jurme, 47, like many other Tibetans, has never set foot in Tibet. He was born in India to exiled parents. But it’s his generation, he said, that must keep the ways of Tibet alive.
“Our members have decided,” Jurme said, “we must keep our community together, our culture, our tradition.”