Prayer flags ring the outside deck of an apartment in Kitsilano where Tibetan, Tashi Gyall, relaxes on a Saturday afternoon. Incense filters out of the living room. A Buddhist statue of Manjushri, the deity of wisdom, holds a raised sword above his head from his resting spot on the mantle above a wood burning fireplace. The raised sword is a Buddhist symbol for slashing through ignorance; striking a blow for freedom.
Nine years ago Gyall began his quest to slash through the ignorance demonstrated and imposed by the Chinese who invaded Tibet. On Sept. 14, 1994, his last night in his home village, Gyall and his best friend went to a movie.
"Im leaving tomorrow and may never be back again," Gyall, 18 at the time, joked.
Gyall didnt want to tell his friend he was serious. Friends and family members had been jailed for trying to leave Tibet. His grandparents were jailed by the Chinese army in 1950 when it invaded Tibet. They died in jail, Gyalls father never knowing which jail they were in, how they died or how much they suffered.
The U.N. pledge of tolerance and peace among neighbours hasnt been part of the Tibetan-Chinese experience for more than 50 years. Tibetans are afraid the Chinese army will invade again and are constantly on their guard because of what they have witnessed in the past.
Gyall is the fourth of five children. He was born in a wooden enclosure, shared with cows and a donkey, in YahRi, a village of about 26 families in eastern Tibet. Located in a wide valley surrounded by fields and high mountains, the winters in YahRi are very cold and the villagers stay home doing small jobs and looking after their animals. But, Gyall speaks fondly about his village, where there are apple, apricot and plum trees.
"Its so beautiful in summer," he says longingly.
For all its beauty, however, Tibet is an occupied land. Gyall was too young to understand what the Chinese occupation meant, but he remembers from a very early age having a dream of coming to Canada.
He was not happy at school, where conditions were miserable and the children were sometimes beaten. If the children cried when they were being beaten they could be beaten again. Students were directed to study Chinese culture and learn the Chinese language. The longer Gyall stayed in school and was subject to the Chinese assimilation program, the more he felt he didnt have a future in Tibet.
He heard people talk about India, a country that has some respect for human rights, and about a town in India where Tibetan exiles lived. Unable to tolerate the Chinese occupation and persecution of his beliefs, Gyall knew he had to leave Tibet. He wanted to pursue his dream of freedom, but that dream would mean a dangerous escape from Tibet to Nepal, then on to India, before he had any chance of coming to Canada.