The SAJA Photo Forum presents the work of photographers covering South Asia and its global diasporas in order to highlight important but often overlooked stories.
Tibetans in New York
Text and photographs © Albertina d'Urso
At the end of last year I moved to New York city for few months. One of my goals was to pursue a story on the Tibetan community because I am involved in a long-term project about the Tibetan diaspora. I had already shot extensively in India and Nepal, and I knew that about 2,000 refugees live in New York, so I was curious to see how the Tibetans could settle in a place so different from their homeland.
The story began the day after I arrived. I was walking around Soho when my roommate called and said, "Run to Union Square. It's packed with people who may be Tibetans. I am not sure, but you should come and check." I recognized them as soon as I arrived. They were all dressed in traditional customs and were celebrating the Gold Medal awarded to the Dalai Lama by the United States Congress. If it were not for the skyscrapers in the background, I could forget being in New York. That same evening, I joined them at a fundraising party, where they were all dressed in Western styles, especially the teenagers. But I was still amazed at how, even if they were not wealthy, they are always thinking of ways to help their needy compatriots back home.
During the celebration, Dolma (right) asked if she could have prints and gave me her address. A few days later I showed up at her house in Brooklyn. I have visited so many Tibetan houses in the last few years -- all in camps with no street names, up on a mountain, difficult to find -- it was so strange to ring the bell of a large building near the subway. But as soon as I entered, I recognized a Tibetan home -- prayer flags, prayer wheels, tankas, pictures of the Dalai Lama, traditional items hanging everywhere.
Dolma has never been to Tibet. She was born in Nepal after her mother crossed the Himalayas to escape Chinese repression. Six years ago she decided to try the "impossible," moving to the US with her husband and her daughter Tenzin. She now has a job as a babysitter and speaks decent English. Her husband is less happy, since he does not speak English and the only job he could find was in construction. Tenzin is studying nursing in a local school and says she is slowly feeling at home here.
Unfortunately they had to leave behind the rest of family -- brothers, parents, and even an other daughter, who had already turned 21 and couldn't get a visa as a dependent. Dolma cries every time she mentions her, but they had no choice. The money they can make in the US is necessary to feed many relatives back in Nepal. When they learned I had been to Tibet, they spent a lot of time asking me how it looks, if the Chinese are taking care of the Potala Palace, if the people are still dressing traditionally. They are still attached to their origins and their land, even if they have never seen it.
Many Tibetans who now are in their fifties were born in India and Nepal, but there they are organized as a community. They stay together in camps, and they have their schools so they never lose their traditions. But now Tibetans are starting to be born in New York, and here it will be more difficult for them since they are few in number, are not all living all together, will go to American schools and have American friends, and may end up marrying Americans.
In New York, to avoid the risk of children losing the language, the community established a Tibetan daycare center in Astoria, Queens, and a Sunday school at the Latse bookshop in Manhattan, where kids are taught the Tibetan language. There are also meeting points where the Tibetan community gathers. The most poplar are in Jackson Heights, Queens. This is the place where most of the refugees live and where it is easier to find traditional restaurants, along with every kind of Tibetan videocassette and musical CD. Even elderly people, who really rarely venture out of their houses since it is hard to adapt to the traffic and highways, sometimes show up here on their own.
Also, a few monks live in New York, but most of them have taken off their robes temporarily. They are here to raise money to feed poor relatives. So they take humble jobs as dishwashers, taxi drivers, and construction workers. There is not a proper Tibetan monastery in the city, but many Tibetans like Lama Gyaltsen of the Nechung Institute have a small prayer rooms, where pujas and teachings sometimes take place. I also met Gyaltsen last month in Karnataka, India, and together we shared a rare experience -- we assisted while the Nechung oracle went into a trance.
Albertina d'Urso, 31, is an Italian documentary photographer. She published two books -- "Bombay Slum" (2004) and "Lifezoom" (2006) -- and two collections -- "Respiro del Mondo 5, Afghanistan" and "Km 5072, Milano-Kabul No Stop," which was widely exhibited and received the Canon Young Photographers Award in 2007. She has traveled to more than 70 countries and has a special interest in Tibetan culture. She has been photographing Tibetan refugees around the world since 2004. More info, news, and more of her work can be seen on her website.