An unprecedented migration to the United States of Tibetan refugees, displaced by decades of Communist Chinese rule, will begin this year in an unusual resettlement that promises to reshape one of the smallest and most obscure minority groups in the nation.
During the last 30 years, just 500 Tibetans have come to this country, scattered in tiny pockets from Los Angeles to Long Island.
But possibly as early as February, the first of several thousand exiles from refugee settlements in India and Nepal will begin arriving in U. S. cities, capping more than a year of work to transplant a part of the age-old Tibetan world of robed lamas and mountain monasteries to a new world of mini-malls, Nintendo and rush-hour traffic.
The resettlement brings groups of Tibetans to 16 sites around the country, including Los Angeles. The project has been a volunteer effort and, with only a few months left to go, workers are still struggling to find the necessary jobs, housing and even Buddhist lamas for the newcomers.
But Tibetans in this country say that after decades of life in exile, the difficulty of resettling in a new country is only a small hurdle.
"It is a great opportunity for our people," said Nyima Tsundu, a 29-year-old Tibetan engineering student at UCLA. "This is the beginning of something new for us here."
The Tibetan resettlement is the result of an obscure provision in the Immigration Act of 1990, a sprawling piece of legislation that found room for 1,000 Tibetan refugees amid programs to provide tens of thousands of visas for foreign millionaires, visa lottery winners and Hong Kong business people.
The resettlement provision was sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and was approved after two years of lobbying by the Dalai Lama's exile government and Tibetan supporters in the United States.
The Tibetan government in exile had lobbied before for similar programs, but failed. This time, supporters proposed a measure that required no federal assistance and deleted the politically charged term "refugee." Instead, they called the exiles "displaced Tibetans" to avoid antagonizing the Chinese government.
With little debate or publicity, the measure was approved. "It was folded into this huge bill like a diamond in a stone," said Edward J. Bednar, executive director of the Massachusetts-based TibetaS. Resettlement Project.
The program is open to about 110,000 exiles from among 47 refugee settlements in India and Nepal--the two countries with the largest Tibetan refugee populations.
The flight of the exiles began in 1950, after the Communist Chinese "liberation" of Tibet, then an independent nation that had been free of Chinese rule since the collapse in 1911 of the Qing Dynasty, China's last.
Communist forces first entered eastern Tibet and a year later, forced an agreement in which the Tibetan government conceded China's sovereignty in exchange for broad autonomy.
The accord collapsed eight years later in a revolt against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetans fled across the border to India and Nepal.
Today, the refugees continue to flow out of Tibet at a pace of about 1,200 a year, flaring with each outbreak of violence.
Their stories of escape are harrowing, and have become a binding, central memory for the generation of exiles.
Nawang T. Lhautara, 41, an insurance company executive in Diamond Bar and one of the organizers of the resettlement in Los Angeles, crossed the Himalayas with an uncle and several monks when he was 9.
Their journey through the Himalayas on foot took three months. They traveled only at night. As they moved up the mountains, their small group was joined by others, until they formed an unbroken chain of refugees on the trail.
"There were thousands of us there," Lhautara said, recalling the cold and hunger. "It was like a long, dark line in the snow."
Bednar and hundreds of other Tibetan supporters around the country have been preparing for the resettlement of the refugees for more than two years.
They have taken as their model the mass resettlement of Southeast Asians after the fall of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos nearly 17 years ago.
The Tibetans will be settled in clusters, each containing at least 50 refugees within 25 miles of each other, Bednar said.
The sites will be in such major cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago, and several small cities where sponsors have stepped forward to organize the effort, including Boise, Idaho, Darien, Conn., and Salt Lake City.
All the newcomers must have jobs before arriving and take an orientation on life in the United States.
"We're striving to dispel the illusion in their minds about America, that the streets are paved with gold and all they have to do is scoop up the money," Bednar said. "Our emphasis is making sure they know that they will have to take care of themselves when they come here."