In their modest home in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala, Lhamo Kyi prepares her bag for soccer camp while her mother makes tea.

Clutching a photo of her brother, activist and author Lingtsa Tseten Dorje, the 18-year-old midfielder says, "My mother and I marched to the Nepal-Tibet border with him [in 2012], to raise awareness of Tibetan rights.

"Since [2008], Tibetans are not welcome in Nepal. The Nepalese army put a gun to his head. He told the soldiers they could kill him, so long as they didn't kill me and my mum." The young woman chokes back her tears. "They sentenced my brother to five years in jail … and two years ago he disappeared. Now, I play football for him."

Lhamo Kyi returns to her packing.

Further down the valley, Cassie Childers pauses for a moment at the Dalai Lama's temple.

"To be honest, it's a challenge," says the American manager of the Snow Lionesses, the name by which the Tibetan women's soccer team is known. "China sees us as a threat. Fifa refuses to acknowledge our existence because of Chinese pressure. But perhaps most sadly of all, these young women are marginalised by an influential minority in the Tibetan community who don't understand that women want, and have the right, to enjoy playing sport."

Childers has shortlisted 27 players from the thousand or so refugees who participate in the Tibetan women's soccer programme across India. The programme was established by Childers three years ago, under the auspices of the Tibetan National Sports Association (TNSA).

"We're taking them to Selakui, in Uttarakhand state, for a 21-day training camp," says the high school teacher, over the sound of chanting monks. "Then to Delhi to play three of India's best women's teams.

"The real goal is to empower these players so they can fight for gender equality, and use sport as a tool to represent their homeland," she says.

The New Jersey native has ambitious plans, not least of which is to take the Snow Lionesses on their first overseas tour, in 2017. The coming weeks are crucial to that process. But trouble lies ahead.

IN HIS DUSTY OFFICE, the chairman of the TNSA executive committee rummages through a stack of folders balanced precariously on his desk. Unable to find what he is looking for, Childers' boss turns to the bookshelf, where a clock ticks somnolently.

"Fifa, Fifa …" mumbles the 50-something bureaucrat.

Giving up his search, Kelsang Dhundup peers at his computer and clicks the mouse. At the third attempt, he sends a document to the printer.

"This is the reply we received," he says, jubilantly, handing over a warm sheet of A4 that bears the Fifa logo.

Among his duties, Kelsang Dhundup is responsible for lobbying Fifa to achieve international recognition for the soccer teams playing under his association. His modus operandi would appear … unhurried. The paper in hand is Fifa's unequivocal rejection of a request for Tibetan membership of football's governing body. It is dated 2004.

Centre back Yangchen, enjoying tea on a nearby cafe terrace, clarifies the issue while kites ride the thermals above: "Fifa recognises 23 non-sovereign entities like Palestine and Hong Kong, but refuses to recognise Tibet. That's not logical, right?"

The 16-year-old defender, an academic high-flier, was sent by her parents from Tibet to be educated in India a year after the correspondence between Kelsang Dhundup's TNSA and Fifa president Sepp Blatter's cronies. In the intervening years, the status quo between Dharamsala and Zurich-based Fifa has scarcely shifted.

IT IS A 10-HOUR, nausea-inducing bus ride down the mountain from Dharamsala to Selakui. But in Uttarakhand there is uncontained euphoria. Many of the players, identified while playing for school teams established by Childers in Tibetan settlements across India, have travelled a long way to be here.

"It was my first journey on my own," says Sonam, 18, who lives 2,500km to the south. "Three days it took," says the left back, still incredulous that she has so successfully negotiated the Indian public transport system.

"I am not a good player, but as a Tibetan woman, I will do my very best."

With all 27 women safely at the vocational training centre that will be their home for the next three weeks, a routine is established. A 5km run to kick off the day; breakfast in the refectory as the sun begins to burn off the mist lingering over the baked pitch; the remainder of the morning in the classroom, studying sports medicine, tactics, empowerment and diplomacy; with afternoon practice back on the field.

"We're making progress," says the cheerful head coach, Erik Boyd, as his players go through another set of drills at the end of week one.

This is Boyd's first trip outside the United States; he heard Childers give a speech in Portland, Oregon, and signed up for the camp there and then. He soon gets a taste of the long-distance management exercised by the TNSA from Dharamsala.

We play for all Tibetans. We must keep going, and must do better
Striker Rinzin, a nurse

 

 

Entering the bustling dining hall and depositing herself at a table, Childers confirms Kelsang Dhundup has telephoned with orders that only 18 players can travel to Delhi. A third of the squad must be dropped.

"The money should be there," says Childers, attempting to fathom the logic for the decision. "As the person responsible for fundraising, I know there was enough money for everyone to come to Delhi - and the grant we received from the Rowell Fund [set up by late photographers Galen and Barbara Rowell to support Tibetan organisations] was specifically for this camp …"

The coaches half-heartedly explain to the players that, in two weeks, a winnowing of the squad will take place, and that most teams undergo a similar process before competition.

"It's not significant enough to have an enforced cut, I feel, and it's not good for morale," says Boyd. "One of our longer-term aims should be for the team to have a Tibetan woman coach. So it's worth keeping the players around to get that bit extra [experience]."

The Snow Lionesses take the announcement with grace. This is not the worst predicament they have faced.

Midfield dynamo Chonsum was 12 when her parents sent her with guides across the frozen Himalaya into exile, she says, resting under a tree before afternoon practice. On the journey, a boy in her party lost fingers and toes to frostbite.

"The Chinese army scared us most, though. Barking dogs gave us away and we ran, and I fell on the rocks and lost consciousness. A brother carried me on his back. I am so grateful," says the gentle, ebullient student.

It would be seven years before she could let her parents know she had arrived safely in India.

"PALESTINE IS FASCINATING," observes midfielder Dolma, as she and the squad take a break from a film about the success of women's soccer on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "They are a non-sovereign territory like us but recognised by Fifa, and the players there receive equal support as the men."

Before the camp began, the Palestine men's team played China in an international friendly, in Chenzhou, Hunan province. I spoke with Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, on his way to the stadium, and he gave little impression that brandishing a 10-year-old letter to Fifa would meet even the most basic Palestinian definition of lobbying for international recognition, or act as a reprimand to Israel, which impedes the movement of Palestinian players.

Acknowledging the power of women athletes in sports diplomacy, Rajoub purred: "Let us keep our young generations far from enmity, hatred and violence, and promote our aims through such peaceful means as sport."

His hand flashed into his pocket: "But if by the next Fifa congress the Palestinians do not enjoy the same rights as others, we are going for Israeli suspension from Fifa … And here, the red card is ready," thundered the imposing official, who spent years in an Israeli jail.

Back in Dharamsala, Kelsang Dhundup is in pensive mode: "Once, I saw a woman driving a taxi," he says. It is not obvious whether this represents progress in his eyes or a contravention of the natural order, like pigs flying.

The Tibetan sports chief crystallises his views: "Women's rights? Women's rights? They are talking too much about women's rights. That is what I said to Cassie."

Tibetan society is notoriously introverted when it comes to publicly airing dirty laundry but author Kunsang Dolma, who worked as a life coach at last year's soccer camp, is prepared to address the issue.

"I was 15 when I was raped … abuse against women and girls is still accepted in Tibetan society." The mother of two weeps quietly. "My stomach swelled. My mother said, 'Oh my god; yes, you are pregnant.'"

Kunsang Dolma shattered the myth of Shangri-La in 2013, when her autobiography, A Hundred Thousand White Stones, hit the shelves. The book is an empowering narrative and she references the suffering still common to many Tibetan women. "My father, when he saw my belly, grabbed me and started beating me.

"I tried to run, but my brother grabbed me, too. They shut the door and both started beating me. I could hear my mother scream. She begged them, 'Stop!'" Kunsang Dolma fled to a monastery, where she remained for three years. But only after doctors had aborted her child, at seven months' gestation.

A HERD OF BUFFALO wanders by the soccer-camp pitch. Several players break from their drills to refine their understanding of the offside law, with the aid of a diagram in the dusty six-yard box.

Meanwhile, Kelsang Dhundup is back on the phone. The Tibetan youth hostel in Delhi is full and he will not sanction the team staying anywhere else. The Delhi tour will be cancelled.

Childers takes a deep breath: "Yes, it is conservative," she says, composed. "Sure, Delhi is a dangerous city and safety is paramount. With research, it's not like we couldn't find another safe place to stay.

"If this were a men's team, I don't think we'd face the problem. This is about lost opportunity, a lack of understanding of sports diplomacy and demeaning these women - treating them like little girls. The Palestinians risk their lives to play for their homeland. If we can't get ourselves to Delhi, how are we ever going to represent Tibet abroad?"

Despite the typical Tibetan deference to an office holder such as Kelsang Dhundup, one official subsequently refers to the TNSA as "the Titanic". A player suggests a systemic prejudice in the men-only TNSA executive.

She recalls an incident at the Gyalyum Chenmo Memorial Gold Cup, the annual Tibetan soccer tournament organised by the TNSA and named in honour of the Dalai Lama's late mother. The women were asked to attend, but only to sell ice creams and souvenirs, while the men "got on with the serious business" of playing the game.

Amid the activity on the pitch and the uncertainty off it, news spreads that His Holiness Sakya Trizin, head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, has offered to bless the team. The significance is not lost.

"It says we have the support of a very enlightened and respected leader in our community," says Yangchen.

The next day, standing nervously outside the Rinpoche's temple, in nearby Dehradun, the squad is abuzz.

"It is a pleasure," says the holy man, welcoming the players into a wood-panelled room. "I believe women are far more spiritual than men. These players," he says in lilting English, "are like modern-day nuns."

A gale of laughter; twinkling eyes. He pauses to tap Dolma on the head with his wooden baton, incants a prayer and then offers the awestruck youngster a chocolate.

Sakya Trizin acknowledges a Tibetan woman's lot is not necessarily a happy one, nor founded on equality with men. But, as the hereditary leader of a school that traces its history back 1,000 years, he explains that his own daughter could one day be his successor.

These women, they should play in the World Cup
His Holiness Sakya Trizin

 

 

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his great wisdom, has done everything to promote women," he says, looking over the bowed heads of the players. "For example, in the past there were no women cabinet members; now there are several."

Sakya Trizin concludes, resolute: "These women, they should play in the World Cup."

Inspired and rejuvenated by the blessing, the team returns to camp via Ngoenga, the school for Tibetan children with special needs in India. A hall full of youngsters cheers ecstatically as the squad enter; dancing and singing ensue.

"We play for all Tibetans. We must keep going, and must do better," insists striker Rinzin, a nurse.

Good karma flowing, the Tibetan youth hostel in Delhi miraculously finds space for the team, and Kelsang Dhundup agrees the tour can go ahead. However, with only 18 players heading to the Indian capital, the TNSA boss decrees that two volunteer coaches must be sacked.

Childers refuses point-blank to relay such an insensitive order to a pair that includes team therapist James Ryle, who has come from Ireland at his own expense to support the team. The two will remain.

On their last night in Selakui, as the players convene around a campfire, it becomes clear how Sakya Trizin's words have been taken to heart. A multicoloured banner bears the words, "Fairplay Fifa".

"We play football, not politics. It is a matter of time before we can join the world football community," predicts Chonsum.

As the embers glow, the festive air around the bonfire is tinged with sadness. Three hours earlier, Childers announced the shortlist of players who would travel to Delhi. Sonam, who came so far, was among those who did not make the cut.

"I knew I would not make it," she says, amid the tears and goodbyes. "Depending on my exams, next year I will be back."

ARRIVING IN DELHI BEFORE dawn, fast work is made of unloading the baggage at the youth hostel, in the Rohini suburb. After a short rest, Boyd gathers the squad and announces, over momos and noodles, that Phuntsok will be team captain for the three-match tour.

"It is an honour," says the 21-year-old, "that I accept for Tibetan men, women and children."

There is excitement the next afternoon, before the first match, against Sanskriti School. The squad don their blue shorts and white shirts sporting the Tibetan flag and snow lions. A cheer goes up from the huddle: "Shine on Tibetan girls!" The starting 11 bound onto the pitch, no sign of nerves.

The Snow Lionesses sweep Sanskriti aside, 2-0. Phuntsok scores a wonder goal from the halfway line, afterwards confessing, "I have no idea how it went in!"

In a tense second match, versus Punjab Heroes, the captain is injured. Within minutes the team ships a goal, the offside trap studied in the dust having failed to snap. But the Snow Lionesses claw their way back into the game, scoring a late equaliser.

That evening, there is tension in the ranks.

"We desperately want to win, to show our people just what we are capable of and make them proud," explains vice-captain Chonsum.

Manthan Foundation are the Delhi under-19 champions. On a baked pitch, with home support maintaining a barrage of chants, the final match of the Delhi tour kicks off. Tackles are hard and the defending solid, and the difference between the sides is the strength of the Tibetan front line. Excellent play by centre-forwards Rinzin and Michael Jackson (some players go by nicknames and adopted names, mainly for fun, but also to protect their identity) sees the Tibetans romp to a 3-0 victory.

"I am so proud of this group," says Boyd to his players. "We want you to get out there and fight outside of football; make a change in the world, because you [have all shown] you are all capable of doing it," he says, before uttering the words no one wants to hear: "So, I guess, this is goodbye …"

The team disperses across India, back to schools, colleges and careers; each young woman dreaming of a home across the mountains and of playing again one day for their beloved Tibet.

THAT OPPORTUNITY ARISES sooner than expected. This weekend, as the Fifa Women's World Cup comes to a close in Canada, a team of Chinese women and seven Snow Lionesses - Phuntsok included - are in Berlin, participating in a football tournament and conference partly sponsored by the German foreign ministry.

"For reasons that are obvious, a month ago I took the decision to disassociate myself from the TNSA," explains Childers, ahead of the tournament. "In leading these players to Berlin, our new organisation, Tibet Women's Football, has already achieved more in terms of internationalising Tibetan women's sport than the TNSA managed in over a decade.

"This is history. These are the first female athletes to represent Tibet overseas. And, with players from different countries and territories being mixed into joint teams, the prospect exists - perhaps for the first time since 1959 - of Tibetan and Chinese athletes, of any gender, playing competitive international sport side by side."

For this story and more, see Post Magazine, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on July 5, 2015