By Lobsang Wangyal
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands, 28 September 2016
Amsterdam is a global village, to which tourists flock from around the world for its famous coffee shops and the red light district. But these are not the only reasons. It is also about the history of the city, how it has been built with canals connecting the entire city, the architecture, the festivals, and the art including the wooden shoes. Dutch food may not be very well-known but the cheese definitely is, and the beauty of the tulip flowers.
At the end of April on the King’s Day (used to be Queen’s Day until a few years ago), the whole country becomes orange in celebration. Then the already good vibes in Amsterdam multiply many times, becoming great vibes.
Among many notable persons — artistes, scholars, and athletes — from Amsterdam was the young Jewish girl Anne Frank. She lived most of her life in or near Amsterdam, where her family took refuge to escape the Nazis in Germany. and wrote her famous diary here while in hiding from the Nazis during the Second World War. Her hiding place is now a museum, with tourists from all over the world thronging to it everyday.
Over the years, hundreds of Tibetans have also taken refuge in the Netherlands, with around 1,000 Tibetans who have come and settled there, and most of them live in Amsterdam.
One of these, who sought refuge here and made the city his second home (third actually), is Nawang Gyalwa. He was born in Sog Dzong in eastern Tibet, escaped to India in 1996, and lived there for a few years before moving to the Netherlands.
“I came here in 2001, and sought asylum after coming here. I soon got the papers, and started working at a company. I later ran a restaurant in partnership with two other Tibetans,” was how Gyalwa introduced himself.
“While seeking asylum, one has to speak about one’s problems. If you speak honestly about your problems, you will get asylum here. I spoke about the problems in Tibet.”
During the interview, Gyalwa was initially not able to speak, as the process reminded him of the Chinese police interviewing him in Tibet — which leads to beating and torture. “The translator was not understanding what I was saying, and I was not able to speak properly. But when the translator explained he was not able to understand what I was saying, I realised that I was not in Tibet, but in another country.”
He then started telling his story making the case for asylum. “As I went on speaking, I even showed the interviewer how the Chinese police would beat Tibetans.”
“I thanked the interviewer for asking questions humanely, and wished him well.”
He explained that the Dutch government has been very supportive in providing asylum for Tibetans. The few who weren’t able to get asylum recently went to France.
At the beginning he was on welfare, living on government funds, but was soon able to support himself working in a private company as a stock-checker. He eventually became part owner of the restaurant, and is now also one of the cooks there.
“Here it is important to be self-reliant, and to be able to work shoulder-to-shoulder with others. We are doing that with this restaurant and the business is good.”
Gyalwa said that the infrastructure and welfare systems in the Netherlands are famous for their efficiency and humanity. The welfare system is highly commendable. The country cares well for the refugees, and education, health, and the infrastructure. They are all well-organised and funded.
“It is the tax that people pay that enables the government to run various schemes successfully. The tax payment is very important, it is well managed. We happily pay tax as per the rules, as we see the benefits of it.”
Three families run the Tashi Deleg, one of three Tibetan restaurants in Amsterdam. The menu at the restaurant has many original Tibetan dishes, and some improvised. I and a friend who had travelled from England for the weekend sampled a few with a glass of red wine, and found them sumptuous. (And we were treated with more wine later on.)
The oldest Tibetan restaurant in Amsterdam is Tibet Restaurant, located close to the famous Red Light district. The Tibetan owner of the restaurant is friendly and popular Tsewang Dolma. She gets high praise from Gyalwa for her community service.
“She was instrumental in bringing the Tibetan community together and in the formation of the Tibetan Association in the Netherlands. She organises a prayer service for the Tibetan martyrs and the Tibetan movement once a month,” Gyalwa says.
Unlike in other countries, where there are a number of organisations, the Tibetan Association of the Netherlands is the only Tibetan organisation in the country.
“Tibetans here decided to have only one organisation as that keeps Tibetans in unity. We have heard stories about the problems and issues among Tibetans in other countries where there are many Tibetan organisations. People here are not for having any organisations other than the Tibetan Association,” Gyalwa says.
The Association brings together Tibetans during the major Tibetan social and political events such as Losar (the Tibetan New Year), the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Tibetan Democracy Day, and Nobel Peace Prize Day. The Association also organises Tibetan language classes for children during the weekends. The teachers are all volunteers.
Speaking Tibetan properly among Tibetans is taken seriously here. Gyalwa said that parents speak Tibetan to their children, and parents and others correct the children and elders as well, if they speak wrong or mixed languages.
“Children here speak very good Tibetan, and the entire Tibetan community pay great attention towards the Tibetan language.”
The Netherlands has a Tibet Support Group, and now also has a branch of the organisation International Campaign for Tibet. The awareness and support from the Dutch people for Tibet is strong.
“When there are political activities [for Tibet], such as protests, there are many Dutch participating in them,” Gyalwa says. However, “we don’t hear the government speaking much about Tibet.” He feels that the government has good business relations with China, “so maybe it’s because of that.”