Nearly 25 years ago, Tamdin Wangdu left his homeland of Tibet and risked his life to walk out from under the thumb of the Chinese government and on to freedom in Nepal, India, and then Colorado. A strong work ethic prepared Wangdu to be a productive corporate workhorse, but the sudden, seemingly preventable death of his 57-year-old father in Tibet set a new course, prompting him to focus on the health needs of his countrymen.
Under the umbrella of the Tibetan Village Project, that effort continues growing, now including five health clinics, a scholarship program that’s sent more than 50 young Tibetans (mostly girls) to college, a microloan program to prompt small business development, and a voluntourism program called Conscious Journeys. He’s coming to Santa Barbara this Sunday to discuss his work, with the hope of raising more money to fund the project. But he believes those who give also have much to gain. “I’ve always thought that the impact would only be on those receiving the support, but it has as much impact on the donors,” said Wangdu, who tells more of his story below. “It transforms their lives.”
How did you leave Tibet?
I was born and raised as a yak herder in a small central Tibet village called Drikung. I left Tibet in 1990, crossing the Himalayas into Nepal and then India. It was a very difficult. I try to minimize the political side, but I basically escaped from Tibet and walked for 24 days through western Tibet into Nepal. That’s the story of most Tibetans who leave.
Why’d you want to leave?
For better opportunities. Tibet is under such difficult political repression, and so many kids never really have an opportunity to go to school. I went to primary school for three years. There was hardly any classroom. I wanted to go study and also be in the free world. In 1993, the U.S. government offered 1,000 immigrant visas to come to the United States. Those people were chosen from different backgrounds, and I happened to be one of them. When I first came to Boulder, Colorado, in 1993, I had $2 in my pocket, and I didn’t speak any English. But when I landed in Denver, I felt that I didn’t have anything to lose, and everything to gain.
Where did you go?
My sponsor was a plumber, so I worked with him as an apprentice. I also worked as a housekeeper, janitor, and dishwasher. I learned English and got into the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I studied business and computers and got a job at a top consulting company. I managed 16 years of education in just six years, and that transformed me.
When did you hear your father died?
During my last year of school, I found out my dad died in our village, where there were no health clinics. My brother took him to the nearest clinic, which at the time took five hours on a horse. Before he reached the clinic, my father died. We still don’t know why. It could have been a heart attack. He was 57 years old and had acute stomach pain. I made it my mission to save someone else’s life.
What did you do?
I raised $3,000 to build a clinic with a booth at the farmers market and other things like that. It was nothing fancy, but a room with a bed and a nurse who can deliver babies and do CPR, which could have saved my dad’s life.
How did the organization grow?
I was working 50 to 60 hours a week at my consulting job and then another 10 hours on the Tibet project, so I was thinking of scaling back. Then I was finally able to return to my village in Tibet and got a chance to meet many of my fellow villagers who I grew up with. One woman handed me her baby and said, “Tamdin, this baby would not be alive without the clinic,” because infant mortality is really high. I was just in tears. For me, one was enough. Then I met others who told me that of all the people who’d left, I was the only one to come back to help. So I quit my job in 2007 and started working for Tibetan Village Project full time. There’s not a single day that I miss or regret.
Is it difficult to work in Tibet?
Tibet has added challenges of political sensitivity. Fundamentally, the Chinese government questions the motivations of nonprofit organizations. They think they’re there to overthrow the government, so that’s difficult, and a lot of nonprofits left. For me, that doesn’t justify leaving. You cannot just walk away.
We find ways to make it work, and through entrepreneurship, it’s less threatening to the Chinese government. They promote capitalism and economic development. That’s appealing to them. I’ve been able to do that. By no mean is it easy, but people are people, and I have wonderful Chinese friends who help and contribute to the villages. The government officials need to do their jobs, but at the end of the day, they’re humans.
Tamdin Wangdu will discuss the Tibetan Village Project during two free events on Sunday, September 28: at the Unitarian Society (1535 Santa Barbara St.), 1:30-2:30 p.m.; and at Himalaya Restaurant (431 State St.), 4-6 pm. See tibetanvillageproject.org.