The Tara Project: a Discussion With Its Director and Founder, the Venerable Lobsang Ngodup

The following article is from the Autumn, 1991 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Tara Project was created in 1990 to help care for Tibet's refugees living in India and Nepal. Combining Tibet's Buddhist tradition of compassion and American-style social action, the goal of the Tara Project is to provide Tibetan refugees with the resources to help themselves and help others.

The major reason for this effort is the economic hardship experienced by Tibetan refugees in their host countries. After 30 years in exile, malnutrition, disease, unemployment and poverty continue to be a way of life. In South India, home of the largest Tibetan refugee settlements, most families depend on farming for survival. India's annual drought followed by punishing monsoon rains contributes to the impoverishment of these people, already deprived of their homeland.

The Tara Project was created to address two major crises the Tibetan community faces in the care of its people: education and the elderly.

Education

Ven. Lobsang originally founded the organization as a way of helping the poorest of the poor Tibetan children. As a child growing up in the refugee camps of South India, Lobsang experienced the hardship of the refugee's way of life. I remember seeing my classmates drop out of school to help their parents work in the fields. It was a real dilemma: the parents knew that the only way for their children to improve the quality of their lives was through education, but at the same time their survival depended on their crop. They couldn't afford not having their children working with them. Even today, kids need to earn what they can to help the family. Every hand is needed to insure survival.

The situation has become worse for many families in the past ten years. With the easing of border restrictions between Tibet and Nepal, Tibetans still in Tibet often send their sons and daughters to life with their relatives in the safety and freedom of exile. While no Tibetan would ever think of refusing such a request, the family's resources are spread dangerously thin.t'

The major thrust of the Tara Project is to ease the burden on Tibetan families, enabling their children to attend either the public schools operated by the Tibetan Ministry of Education or schools run by Buddhist monasteries re-established in the refugee settlements. Based in New York City, the Tara Project matches children in need with sponsors from the United States, Canada and Europe. A sponsor contributes the equivalent of $ 15 per month to the Tara Project through the US Tibet Committee, which then channels the donation directly to the refugee's family. Because the program is run by committed monks, nuns and volunteers, every dollar goes to benefit the sponsor's child.

Tara Project sponsors receive a photograph and a biographical profile of the refugees they choose to support. In addition, they receive correspondence from the children, a feature that some sponsorship programs don't allow. Lobsang believes this is especially important: His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks of the importance of the human connection, he says. The Tara Project was founded with the belief that the act of compassion demonstrated by sponsoring a child is as valuable as the financial contribution. The benefits of communication between the sponsor and the child cannot be overestimated.

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Once a child is enrolled in the Tara Project, her/his family is assigned a case worker (often a monk or nun) to assist them in overcoming any problems they may be facing. A core goal of the organization is to serve what Lobsang calls the whole child, and that includes the family: We want to support the family unit, a traditional source of strength in Tibetan society. If other family members have problems, whether it be poverty or drinking or illness, you can bet the kids will have problems. We have to try to solve those problems, to remove the obstacles to a well-functioning family, so that the children can focus on their education. This to everyone's benefit.

In addition to work in the refugee settlements of South India and Nepal, the Tara Project is seeking to bring relief to other groups of young people in particular need-students in monastic schools, handicapped children and orphans.

Monastic education is a long-revered tradition in Tibetan society. One of the first acts of the refugee community was to build monasteries in exile. Because of the poverty of the refugees, how-ever, they are merely shadows of their former splendor. As in ancient Tibet, many parents still send their children to the monasteries which are now overcrowded and very poor. As in the villages, nutrition is a major problem, and outbreaks of malaria and other diseases are not uncommon.

Handicapped kids have unique problems that the Indian school system is unprepared to address. Lobsang remembers a classmate of his growing up: He had polio, I think, and his legs withered up. His family couldn't afford a wheelchair, so he used to push himself around on a makeshift skateboard. I felt very sorry for him. It is difficult for anyone to be handicapped, but in India these problems are magnified many times.

Tibetan orphans, too, require special attention. While His Holiness established the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) to care for orphans, there is a waiting list to get in. TCV can accommodate more children, but the organization's resources are stretched thin alreadyit can't afford to support both education and living costs (about $25 a month) of its orphan population. With the help of a Tara Project sponsor, more students could attend this model residential educational facility.

The Elderly

Elderly Tibetans face special problems in exile. In India, there is no such thing as social security or pension plans, says Lobsang. While adequate health care is available and inexpensive by Western standards, it is out of the reach of most Tibetans with elderly parents and grandparents.

There are currently two nursing homes for Tibetan seniors, one in North India and one in the South. The goal of the Tara Project, however, is not to get the elderly into these institutions, but to keep them out.

Our elders are our history, notes Lobsang. For centuries Tibetan families, from the very young to the very old have lived together. To send them off to a separate institution is a foreign idea for most Tibetans. The nursing homes are supported by the government, though, so some very poor families have no choice.

Our goal is to keep families together. It is more difficult for families to support their elders now because as refugees, most are quite poor. They may not be able to afford medicine or a trip to the doctor's office. But without the strength and support of their families, many elders deteriorate more quickly and painfully.

As with the student sponsorships, the Tara Foundation seeks sponsors for Tibetan elders allowing them to live at home while providing the resources for the family to support them in old age. Sponsors are also needed for aging Buddhist monks and nuns who can no longer work in the monasteries' fields; having renounced their families when they took their monastic vows, many have nowhere else to go.

Sponsors Needed

In its first year, Lobsang has worked to establish the mechanisms to allow the Tara Project to operate as a non-profit, nongovernmental (and apolitical) organization. He has established a relationship with the US Tibet Committee to allow sponsors to make tax-free donations, and he is currendy working with a lawyer to establish the Tara Project as a federally recognized non-profit institution based in New York City. He currently has sponsors from across the United States willing to participate in the Project's mission. In December, Lobsang is embarking on a three-month journey to India and Nepal to identify the first recipients of sponsor partnerships, and to train monastic and lay volunteers as a social service workers in the refugee villages.

In the meantime, sponsors are urgently needed. Lobsang hopes to have one hundred sponsors or more signed up by the time he departs. To obtain more information regarding the Tara Project and how to participate as a sponsor, you may contact the Tara Project directly: TARA PROJECT, 51 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012; tel. 212-966-2404; fax 212-929-8590.

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