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What's Behind the Success of the Tibetan Resettlement Project?

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Bill Muhlenfeld, owner of a mortgage company, got the message about the Tibetan cause while walking past the building housing the Chinese consulate at Michigan and Monroe, where a group of picketers offered him a leaflet.

Michelle Donnelly and Peter Quinn were traveling in Nepal, listening with fascination to the stories told by the refugees they met. Donnelly, an account executive with a firm that organizes industrial meetings, and Quinn, a high school swimming coach, agreed to take action when they returned to the United States.

Chris Panos, a bond-futures trader, read an article in New City.

Patricia Lane, a shiatsu practitioner, was moved by the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks who visited Chicago. "It really touched me," she says. "Something deep inside resonated with them."

Steve and Nina Schroeder--a banker and a museum curator--became converts during a 1987 sight-seeing trip to Tibet. They were unprepared for the misery they witnessed. An old monk pulled them aside one day, took a notebook from the folds of his robe, and showed them a picture of the forbidden Tibetan flag he had carefully drawn. "Please help us," he said.

All of these relatively affluent, mostly thirtysomething people have hurled themselves into the Tibetan Resettlement Project-Chicago, helping strangers from one of the most remote regions of the globe establish the first Tibetan community in Chicago. Rarely has so complex a resettlement program been organized so quickly by people who had no previous experience, no initial funding, and no government or corporate sponsor.

It's a Monday afternoon in mid-August, and a couple dozen people, each of whom has agreed to sponsor a Tibetan, are gathered around a table at the Hull House center in Uptown, a traditional port of entry for immigrants. Leading the discussion is Jeff Libman, the resettlement project's executive director and its first and only paid employee. Libman, 29, who met many Tibetans while teaching English in India and Nepal several years ago, wants to make sure that those assembled understand the responsibilities they've agreed to.

The sponsors don't have to find housing because the project has already taken care of that--just as it is arranging jobs, health care, language training, household goods, clothing, and initial funds for rent and living expenses. "It doesn't mean they will live in your home or that you will be financially responsible," Libman explains. Sponsorship, he says, means being the Tibetan's "first good friend in Chicago, someone he can turn to with his questions."

Ann Connors, the 33-year-old sponsorship coordinator, urges the novice sponsors--including Muhlenfeld, Quinn, Donnelly, and Lane--to decorate the apartments and stock the refrigerators before the immigrants arrive, to put their "own personal touch on the place." This, she says, is an opportunity to "develop a long-lasting relationship with someone who is very special." Connors, who works for Price Waterhouse, knows the Dalai Lama's brother, who was a colleague of her father's at Indiana University. Connors has become a Buddhist, and two of her sisters have married Tibetans.

Connors and Libman urge the sponsors to "introduce the Tibetans to your friends. . . . Go with them on their first day of work. Introduce yourself to their supervisor." But Connors also points out, "They're not possessions to take care of."

Libman says the Tibetans have virtually no familiarity with Western civilization or customs. He says a lot of things Americans take for granted will be strange and new to these immigrants: using a washer and dryer, using a toilet, knowing what goes into the toilet and what doesn't, using a telephone, getting around on public transportation, setting up and using a bank account, even mailing a letter. Sponsorship, Connors warns, will involve a lot more than a friendly handshake and an occasional pat on the back.

The project organizers have prepared a 33-page booklet covering everything from meeting the newcomers at the airport and helping them overcome jet lag to showing them where to find the kinds of food they're used to. The booklet includes some favorite Tibetan recipes, including salt tea, a whipped concoction of black tea, butter, milk, and salt. There are also translations of basic Tibetan words and phrases.

Besides the sponsors, the project has volunteer committees that deal with employment, health, housing, education, and publicity. All of which represents a lot of work for a relatively minuscule group of immigrants. Thus far 14 Tibetans have arrived in Chicago, and 86 more will come in the next nine months. But the elaborate support system is necessary, Libman explains, because Tibetans, unlike almost every other group of immigrants, have no community of their own here to rely on. Until the first arrivals came, there were only two Tibetans in the entire Chicago metropolitan area--for that matter, only 500 live in the entire United States.

Chris Panos, the project's employment coordinator, has firm commitments already for about 80 jobs. Some of them came through friends and friends of friends; many are with companies Panos called blind. Most are low-paying, entry-level positions; many are in hotels, restaurants, laundries, and retail stores. Panos, a low-key 32-year-old, admits he's surprised at how many favorable responses he's had from prospective employers. "Once they understand that these are special people coming from a horrific situation they're usually really anxious to help."

But not always. Panos has been turned down flat on occasion by people who declare somewhat indignantly that the United States has enough problems without bringing in any more of the world's castoffs, who add that this country already has hordes of homeless Asians, expatriate Russians, persecuted Guatemalans and Haitians--not to mention millions of Hispanics and African Americans who desperately need the kinds of jobs and opportunities being offered on a silver platter to the Tibetans. Panos says he tries to explain that if anyone merits extraordinary treatment in the world, it is the long-suffering, usually ignored, highly principled inhabitants of Tibet.

Today the country of Tibet has more in common with the killing fields of Cambodia than with Shangri-la. Or so Nina and Steve Schroeder discovered when they spent three weeks there in 1987. "We were overwhelmed by the contrast between the natural beauty of the place and the utter destruction," says Nina, who's now 33.

With the towering Himalayas as a backdrop, the Tibetan plateau averages 15,000 feet (almost three miles) above sea level. Isolated from the rest of the world for centuries, Tibetans developed their own language and their own form of Buddhism under the leadership of their political-religious leaders, the Dalai Lamas. But Tibet's 600 years of independence as a theocratic kingdom ended in 1950, when China, claiming historic precedents, invaded. Some nine years of sporadic struggle ensued. Revolts were put down brutally, and in 1959 the Dalai Lama, along with thousands of his closest followers, many of them celibate monks, fled on horseback over the Himalayas to India. There he established a government in exile, which continues to this day.

China has since relocated part of its teeming population to the wide-open spaces of Tibet, offering large bonuses to anyone willing to move, and today the number of Chinese living in Tibet (7.5 million) exceeds the number of Tibetans (about 6 million). In addition, some 500,000 Chinese soldiers are billeted there to discourage any moves toward independence. Nina Schroeder says the soldiers consider Tibet a hardship post, and the Chinese immigrants seem none too pleased with the thin air, the cold weather, or the land, most of which can't be used to grow rice.

According to Amnesty International, the treatment of the native population by the Chinese has been exceptionally cruel. Some 1.2 million Tibetans have reportedly been killed, some 200,000 are held in labor camps, and more than 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed. In an attempt to root out Tibetan culture, the Chinese introduced "reeducation" sessions, allegedly torturing the uncooperative. The Tibetan language may not be taught, the Tibetan national flag is banned, and anyone caught with a picture of the Dalai Lama is liable to be fined or arrested. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has called the occupational government "more brutal and inhumane than that under any other communist regime in the world."

Chinese and Tibetans are strictly segregated in day-to-day life, with Tibetans having no opportunity for higher education or professional advancement. In addition, China is reportedly stripping Tibet of its minerals, including uranium, using large areas as dumping grounds for nuclear waste, and deforesting sections of the country without regard for the environmental effects. Much of Tibet's wildlife, including the snow leopard and the wild yak, is now endangered.

In the cities they visited, the Schroeders immediately noticed dozens of ruined Buddhist temples and monasteries, some with only a few walls standing, some just piles of rubble. Just as alarming, says Nina, was the absence of friendliness on the part of the Chinese, who seemed to be everywhere. "Tibet is an occupied country. There were Checkpoint Charlies everywhere, all kinds of restrictions on the native population. The atmosphere was one of repression and fear." So she was surprised by the attitude of the Tibetans toward the Chinese. "There was no hatred or bitterness in them despite all they've been through. You just can't help respecting and loving them."

The U.S. government was fully aware of the situation in the 1950s and pressed for China's withdrawal, even training CIA operatives to work undercover in Tibet. But American opposition ended in 1972 when President Nixon toasted his newfound Chinese friends. Henceforth China would be our ally, receiving highly favorable trade status and a pledge of noninterference in its national and international affairs.

American silence about the situation in Tibet was broken only occasionally, as when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his insistent call for world brotherhood. Instead of urging Western nations to use their militaries to liberate Tibet, he appealed to the world's imagination. The entire Tibetan plateau, he suggested, should be designated a "zone of ahimsa," a kind of sanctuary dedicated to peace and nonviolence where human beings and nature could learn to live in harmony. Yet when he visited President Bush in the spring of 1991, he was not invited to address Congress, and Bush did not ask the media to photograph the two leaders conferring; the visit seemed to be a nonevent as far as the major radio and television networks were concerned.

Some 120,000 Tibetan refugees now live in large camps in India and Nepal, two countries that have agreed to accept them. Many were born in the camps and have never set foot in Tibet. The Dalai Lama's great fear is that if the persecution and exile persist the culture and traditions of Tibet will perish.

Since 1989 the New York-based U.S. Tibet Committee has lobbied for a change in the American policy that denies refugee status to Tibetans because they have no "well-founded fear of persecution" in their own land. The committee has not yet succeeded in persuading Congress to make this change, but it did get some congressmen to plant in the 1990 U.S. Immigration Act an almost-unnoticed provision allowing 1,000 Tibetans from the camps in India and Nepal to move here. Since they would not be arriving directly from Tibet, they would technically be immigrants, not refugees. The immigrants would be chosen by the Dalai Lama's government in exile from volunteers between 18 and 45 years of age. Half of them would be well-educated, half would be poor and less educated. The U.S. State Department agreed to give each of them a green card, which would permit them to live in this country permanently, but the department declined to take any responsibility for the cost of relocation. That task was left entirely to private volunteers.

When the Schroeders returned from their Tibetan trip, Steve became a board member of the U.S. Tibet Committee. The couple were living in New York at the time and met regularly with a small group of other people interested in Tibetan affairs. When they moved to Chicago in 1990, they found only four or five people who wanted to have a discussion group. Together they reviewed news articles when they could find them, showed films, celebrated Tibetan National Day (March 10), and picketed the Chinese consulate, handing out literature to passersby. "We were just a little voice out there," says Nina. "Nobody was paying much attention to us."

Nevertheless, she thought it would be great if Chicago were one of the relocation sites. She discussed the idea at length with the group and with Gigi Pritzker Pucker, whom she'd met through the U.S. Tibet Committee. Pritzker Pucker, who's now 30 and the head of her own film-production company, had studied anthropology in Tibet for a year as a University of Wisconsin student, and had developed "an intense admiration for the people, the culture, the religion."

In August 1991 the two women, both with young babies and absolutely no experience in resettlement work, decided to create the Tibetan Resettlement Project-Chicago--and were quickly designated one of the 15 resettlement clusters in the United States and told to expect 100 Tibetan arrivals. "It should be fun," Schroeder told Pritzker Pucker in a flurry of naive enthusiasm. "We'll be just like a couple of den mothers!"

Dan Cervone, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the original Chicago discussion group, was skeptical. "There was just this handful of us," he says. "Five or six. We had no experience and a ludicrous budget. I couldn't see how it could ever get off the ground." That fall he left for the west coast to serve as a visiting professor at the University of Washington. When he returned to Chicago four months later, he was stunned to find a high-powered, grass-roots, amateur public-relations campaign well under way. "Here were all these people from all over the city sitting around discussing details of resettlement. And I hardly knew any of them. They had just popped up. It really beats the heck out of me how it all happened."

Nina Schroeder insists that it's all a team effort, but her missionarylike enthusiasm is clearly critical. She contacted Edwin Silverman, head of refugee services for the Illinois Department of Public Aid, who agreed to share his expertise. She got in touch with Tibetan resettlement organizers in other cities and with experts from church relief organizations in Chicago. Schroeder, Pritzker Pucker, Jeff Libman, and a few other key people made phone calls, did mailings, gave interviews. Officials from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago agreed to provide downtown office space, a phone, and a copier (1 S. Franklin, suite 826; 346-6700, ext. 3207). Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center offered free health care for the new arrivals. The Fragomen Del Rey & Bernsen law firm agreed to do all the immigration paperwork. Combined Property Management offered reduced-rent apartments in Uptown. The Levy Organization of restaurants and the Hyatt hotel chain, which is owned by Pritzker Pucker's parents, provided jobs. Dozens more companies also came forward with offers of goods or services free of charge.

When the organizers learned that 17 Tibetan monks were coming to Chicago during a U.S. tour to raise funds for a new monastery in India and to encourage people to become sponsors of the new immigrants, they saw an opportunity to reach the larger public. They arranged appearances by the monks at the Harold Washington Library, the Daley Center, the Museum of Science and Industry, and other locations, and recruited many of the volunteers now working with the project.

More phone calls, mailings, and shameless appeals to friends and friends of friends led to the formation of an advisory council, which includes some high-profile types like former Bear Gary Fencik, Channel Two's Bill Kurtis, and Congressman John Porter. A June breakfast for business and banking leaders netted $18,000, and the Chicago Community Trust later weighed in with the project's first grant, $7,500.

People kept calling, says Schroeder, wanting to act as sponsors, volunteering their services, offering clothing and furniture, sending in small contributions. Yet the project still doesn't have enough funds to cover the estimated $3,500 it will cost to resettle each of the 100 Tibetans (the U.S. government has spent an average of $7,000 for each Indochinese refugee brought here in recent years).

When the first three Tibetans arrived at O'Hare Airport on July 31, 30 Chicagoans--including Choephel Bhutia, one of the two Tibetans who'd been living here--stood at the gate, most of them grinning excitedly. Some had cameras ready, some held bouquets of flowers, some held placards reading "Tibet Resettlement Project-Chicago." Several waved the red, yellow, blue, white, and green Tibetan national flag. Copies of welcoming letters from Congressman Porter and Mayor Daley were handed out. Libman talked to a Sun-Times reporter. Pritzker Pucker paced nervously. Nina Schroeder had tears in her eyes.

It had been decided to let all the other passengers on the flight disembark first so they wouldn't get caught in the celebration. For what seemed an eternity, people poured off the plane, blinking in bewilderment at the unfamiliar flags. At last the three emerged to a round of cheers, looking somewhat bewildered themselves: two men, Sonam Wangdu and Nyima Tsering, who are both 31, and one woman, Dolma Lhazom, who's 25. They were greeted and hugged repeatedly by people they had never seen or communicated with, who placed traditional Tibetan white scarves gently around their necks.

Then the sponsors and well-wishers accompanied the immigrants to their new home--a two-bedroom, second-floor apartment in a renovated building in Uptown's Sheridan Park. After a week of getting acclimated the newcomers started work, and the project organizers geared up for the next contingent, an 11-member delegation that arrived August 28.

Asked why so many Americans have volunteered to help the Tibetans, Pritzker Pucker suggests that it's partly the fact that they come from so far away and have no roots here, partly that there's no official relief agency to help them--and no rigid bureaucracy for volunteers to contend with. She also points out, "This country was built on the strength of immigrants, people who came with no contacts and no government guarantees. Many got a helping hand when they arrived. There's no reason why that has to stop or should stop." She makes no apologies for using her family connections to generate jobs. "We have a constant turnover in Hyatt hotel jobs," she says. "A lot of the openings at the entry level go unfilled all the time."

Nina Schroeder stresses the serenity of the Tibetan people, their devotion to peace, their good humor. "This is a society built entirely on compassion, not on competition. Yet the Tibetans have such determination to succeed, such a strong work ethic. Don't you think they might have something to contribute to a society like ours?"

Libman cites the tendency of Americans to side with the underdog, with those who have been persecuted. It's impossible, he says, not to be reminded of the indifference of the world when Jews were being slaughtered in Europe during World War II. Indeed, the Dalai Lama has forged friendly relations with Jewish leaders worldwide, stressing their common experience of genocide.

Many of the project volunteers point to the informality of the operation. "It's not run like a business," says Chris Panos. "More like a bunch of friends helping out and having fun together."

Three weeks after her arrival Dolma Lhazom is making tea in the kitchen and reflecting on her new life. The window is open and the rhyming chant of some children in the alley below reverberates through the apartment. A slight, almost delicate young woman with a ready smile, Lhazom is very polite, very careful not to offend. "Everyone has been hospitable," she says in fluent English. "I could not have imagined anything better."

Despite being raised in an Indian refugee camp, Lhazom received a college education, thanks to a scholarship, and became a high school biology teacher. She was selected for resettlement because her skills, particularly as a translator, will help the less-educated Tibetans as they arrive. Her job these days is being a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency Suites on North Michigan Avenue. Six days a week she cleans bathrooms, makes beds, turns mattresses, and vacuums carpets. She confesses that the work is tiring. "Yes, it's a bit hard to get used to the pace in the United States. You have to keep moving all the time--only 30 minutes to rest all day. In India it's different, the pace is slower." But, she adds, she feels "very lucky" to have such an opportunity, and doesn't mind that her elbow and back are sore.

Lhazom has never been in Tibet, but her parents, who fled the country in the late 1950s, have clear memories and exchange letters with countless relatives who are still there. "It is a sad situation," says Lhazom. "We shed many tears."

She grew up in the largest refugee settlement in India, a village of small tile-roofed buildings, each housing several families. Lhazom seems aware that great things are expected of her. "My family is proud of me," she says, "but they do not want me to get the big head."

Her immediate hope, besides assisting her arriving countrymen, is to make Americans more aware of the situation in Tibet. Ultimately she wants to go home, and she doesn't mean to India. When the occupation ends and the Dalai Lama returns to reclaim his rightful place, she says very seriously, "there will be much work to do. I would like to contribute."

The other newcomers also appear to be taking their new world in stride, though the adjustment requires patience on all sides. Sponsors report spending more time than they anticipated teaching the intricacies of things like flossing one's teeth, unlocking doors, and using apartment intercoms. "It takes real dexterity to talk to someone in the outer lobby, then listen for a reply, and then press the door buzzer," says one weary sponsor. "It's not easy if you're not familiar with pushing different buttons."

Another sponsor, Jeff Hoke, a 38-year-old Field Museum exhibit designer, says the biggest initial problems he's seen have been with negotiating doorways and escalators. When he accompanied a group of immigrants downtown to get their Social Security registrations, they gasped in amazement at the moving stairways and had some trouble keeping their balance. They also eyed suspiciously the doors that open on their own when someone gets close.

Revolving doors posed a special hazard, because Tibetan culture calls for all circular motion to proceed clockwise. "We came to this revolving door at the State of Illinois Building," Hoke says. "They studied it carefully, then crowded into both sides and started pushing like mad the wrong way. After a few seconds they backed out, and we all broke up laughing. At the end of the day I asked one of the men if he wanted to go to a movie, maybe see Batman Returns. 'No,' he said, 'Every day here is like a movie.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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