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Utah Immigrant Dreams of a Free Tibet

June 1, 2008

By Cathy Free
Deseret News
May 29, 2008

She is a woman without a country, awakening every morning with
memories of India and of her new life in America. But Lhaksam
Choedon's heart belongs to a place she has never been: Tibet.

"It's part of my soul -- I dream about it all the time," says the
22-year-old University of Utah health education student. "I live for
the day when the people are free and I can finally go there."

Lhaksam grew up hearing stories about how her parents fled Chinese
occupation of Tibet in 1959, taking refuge in India, where they met
and married, raising two daughters.

"My sister and I heard stories all the time about how our parents had
grown up in peace, raising cattle in the mountains," Lhaksam says.
"They were poor, but they were happy. Then one day, everything they
knew was stripped away."

Hoping to shine a light on the situation in Tibet, especially now
that China is about to run the Olympic torch through the streets of
the mountainous nation it invaded almost 50 years ago, Lhaksam met me
for a Free Lunch of vegetarian chow mein at Cafe Shambala in the Avenues.

The restaurant is owned by family friend Tsewang Rinzin, one of 20
Tibetans who came to Salt Lake City with Lhaksam's mother, Pema, in
1994 after their names were drawn in an immigration lottery.

Working as a hotel dishwasher and as a janitor at the state Capitol,
Pema saved money for six years until she could bring the rest of her
family to Utah. The long separation was hard for Lhaksam, but she
admired her mother's devotion and determination.

"It taught me how important it is to follow what you believe,"
Lhaksam says. "My parents wanted my sister and I to grow up knowing
freedom. Now it's our turn to carry on that dream."

When the Olympic torch was brought to San Francisco last month,
Lhaksam was among the thousands of protesters who marched in the
streets against China's harsh rule of Tibet. The torch was quickly
whisked back to the airport before anyone could disrupt the symbolic relay.

"It's not that we don't want China to have the Olympics -- the
athletes have worked for this all their lives," she says. "But we
need to raise awareness. People are still being arrested and killed
for speaking out in Tibet."

Even after five decades, Lhaksam's parents still don't know the fate
of the majority of siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins that they left behind.

"Some of them could have died during the invasion," Lhaksam says.
"Others probably had their land taken away and were relocated. It's
not like you can just make a phone call to find out -- there has been
no communication. They're basically cut off from the rest of the world."

With everyone in Tibet under order to speak only Chinese, Lhaksam
worries that her language and culture may one day be lost. To help
preserve the last links to her heritage, she speaks Tibetan whenever
possible and helps her mother cook spicy dumplings and other native
dishes at home.

At some point, Lhaksam will likely become a U.S. citizen, which will
enable her to go to Tibet as a tourist, accompanied by Chinese
chaperones. "But it won't be the real Tibet until there is a free
Tibet," she says. "I can't give up faith that freedom will win in the end."

Have a story you'd like to share? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail
your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to You can also write me at the Deseret News,
P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.
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