A home away from home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am


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Over the past decade, a haven for Tibetan exiles has sprung up in the shadow of CN Tower, just a few kilometres west of Toronto's Chinatown. Within four square blocks along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, at least half a dozen Indian-Tibetan restaurants can be found. In the 'salad bowl' that is Canada, where immigrants are encouraged to keep their cultures alive, the Tibetan diaspora has been growing by leaps and bounds.

Roughly 100,000 Tibetans are scattered outside China, and those who live in Toronto represent the largest group outside Asia. Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, the number of Tibetans here more than quadrupled, from just under 1,500 to an estimated 7,000.

Some come straight from the mainland, but far more make their way out of India and Nepal, followed by a pit stop in the United States, before arriving in what they see as a more hospitable environment.

'People find it easier to start a new life here,' says Tsering Lhakpa, who works at the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre. 'I get a sense of belonging. You no longer feel you have to move somewhere [else].'

Born in Tingri, in southern Tibet, Lhakpa was ferried across the border to Nepal and then India at the age of 12. After getting a master's degree in the US, Lhakpa had a difficult time finding a job and securing a green card. So he settled in Toronto six years ago.

Canada opened its doors to Tibetans as early as 1971, and the recent influx from the US highlights the neighbouring countries' diametrically different asylum policies. In the US, only Tibetans who haven't settled in a third country can seek asylum. But Canada takes into consideration the stateless plight of Tibetans in India and Nepal, and grants refugee status to most Tibetans who want to settle on its shores. Once here, the Tibetans are helped onto their feet with generous government subsidies, and education and business loans.

The Tibetans putting down roots in Toronto are also importing their culture. This year, the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre moved to new premises on the 50,000 sq ft site of a former factory. Two three-storey prayer wheels flank the still-spartan facility, but it's teeming with children taking Tibetan-language classes and throngs of believers attending prayer sessions.

Volunteers such as Tsering Dhundup, a maths and physics teacher, help run the centre in their free time. 'This is for the preservation of our culture,' says Dhundup. 'And that is what all Tibetans struggle for.'