Dissident Tibetan Monk Finds New Life in Charlottesville

Refugees from around the world have come to Charlottesville, escaping oppression and persecution in their homelands. Many have found a home working for the University of Virginia and making valuable contributions to the U.Va. community. This is the first in an occasional series looking at the lives of some of these refugees. 

July 15, 2008 — "Charlottesville is like dreamland," said Rabten Shatsang, a Tibetan refugee who now works as a housekeeper in Clark Hall at the University of Virginia but cannot forget that his homeland is occupied by China. 

In his 40 years, Shatsang has been a nomad, who became a monk, who became a fugitive, who became a refugee.

Shatsang grew up in a nomadic herding family, not receiving his first schooling until he entered a Buddhist monastery at age 16. He learned how to pray and meditate, and also how to read and write.

He then read the history of his country. "I realized that the Chinese took over Tibet and then everything was different," he said. "After 1959, they killed 1.5 million Tibetans, and there is no freedom."

His newfound knowledge haunted him, in part because so few of his countrymen seemed aware of it. He felt the need to educate them.

"So many of the younger ones did not know Tibet's history, and the older ones who know it are aware that if they talked they would be killed or imprisoned," he said. "We were losing our culture and our religion."

Shatsang's own family had already run afoul of the authorities, with his father imprisoned and tortured for 14 years and an uncle slain by the Chinese army. Other family members are currently in jail.

Shatsang first took action in 1993, writing a paper about Tibetan history and posting it around a teaching monastery where about 45,000 students were gathered. He knew he would be in trouble with the Chinese if they caught him.

He was betrayed to the police for money by someone who was familiar with his activities. The police came to his monastery looking for him.

But Shatsang was already away, visiting family in a nomadic region of Tibet. Informed that he was a wanted man, he fled by horseback and escaped because a pursuing police car broke down on the rough roads. He hid for a week and then returned to the nomadic region.

While he roamed, the Chinese police continued to visit his parents and his monastery looking for him. In 1994, Shatsang traveled to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and secured from friends the guide he needed to cross the border into Nepal.

Shatsang walked for 20 days, hiding by day and traveling at night, to get to Khatmandu, where he stayed a month at a United Nations refugee center. From there, he went to Dharamsala, India, home to the Tibetan government in exile, and studied in a monastery for two years.

Shatsang wanted to come to the United States, but found it was difficult to get the required papers from the Indian government. Finally, some American and Canadian friends helped him secure a visa.

"These guys made me feel human," Shatsang said of his benefactors. "I didn't feel like a human being in Tibet."

In 2000, he flew from New Delhi to New York City, where he eventually gained refugee status and found work as a laborer. He learned English by listening to others.

The former nomad had a difficult adjustment to New York City. "It was a different world," Shatsang said of the overwhelming concrete structures and the caverns of people. "It was like a dream."

At times, he longs for his old life, herding sheep horses and yaks. "I miss riding a horse all the time," he said. "It was quiet in the mountains, fresh air, clean water, a fire to cook food. I was used to that. It was very nice.'

He moved to Charlottesville in 2005. He had Tibetan friends here; he had married a Tibetan woman and saw Charlottesville was a better environment in which to raise children. "I was a monk, and monks like quiet places," he said.

But while his life here is peaceful, Tibet remains in his thoughts.

"The situation in Tibet is bad," he said. "I feel bad, because I am in a free country, but the Chinese are too strong, they won't listen."

He said many people ignore Tibet because of business interests with China. He tries to avoid purchasing Chinese-made products.

Shatsang said he enjoys working in housekeeping at the University. "In the monastery we learned it was healthy to clean up after people," he said. "This is a nice place to work, because it's very relaxed, especially in the summer."

"He was a very good worker who went above and beyond," said Doris Vest, Shatsang's former supervisor at Medical Research Building 4, where Shatsang worked before recently transferring to Clark Hall. "He got on well with people and I think he made a few friends."

"We have come into a free country here," Shatsang said. "Whatever we want to do, we can do here. We are not rich, but life is good."

He would like to return to Tibet, but said he would be arrested at the airport. His father is 89, his mother is 78, and they are too old to leave.

Part of a small local Tibetan community, Shatsang is afraid his culture is being lost, at home and abroad. He talks to his children in Tibetan, but knows they will speak English in school and they are immersed in American culture.

After nearly eight years here, Shatsang still has some adjustments.

"Sometimes my heart stops when I see a policeman," he said. "I have to remember that over here, the police are on my side. That is a really big change."

-- By Matt Kelly