29 November-5 December 2013 #683

Little Tibets

As the number of refugees decline, Tibetan schools in Kathmandu replace them with Nepali students
Tsering Dolker Gurung

TOUGH TIMES: Children of UKG at Atisha Primary School in Ekantakuna which is struggling to survive because it is running out of students.
It is morning assembly at Atisha Primary School in Ekantakuna and the students are chanting a Tibetan Buddhist prayer and singing two national anthems. The principal speaks to the children in Tibetan.

But the school, opened in 1984 for the children of Tibetan refugees and one of four in the Valley, is running out of students. There are now only 54 students from Kindergarten to Grade 5, the lowest number enrolled in a school that used to have 130 children.

“Each year we have more than two students who leave because their family has migrated to either the US or Canada,” explains principal Buche, who thinks the school’s days are numbered.

In the 1990s there were still 20,000 Tibetan refugees living in Nepal and today the population has dwindled to 13,000. Limited rights and lack of legal recognition in the host country have sent many looking for a better life abroad.

Although there is no strict code that bars non-Tibetan students into the Ekantakuna school, students have been deterred by the compulsory Tibetan language. This may have to change if the school wants to attract non-Tibetan students in order to survive, Buche admits. Currently more than half the students in Tibetan schools are sponsored by benefactors.

The school was set up so refugee children could learn in their own language, and earlier that was the reason parents sent their children here. But now, even Tibetan parents prefer the private school system which has better English instruction.

“Most children find Tibetan difficult and force parents to send them to private English schools,” says Norbu Tsering, headmaster of Namgyal Higher Secondary School in Sundarijal which is the only Tibetan school offering 10+2 and has 450 students. It is seeing a decrease in enrolment even though it was number four in a college ranking by Himal Khabarpatrika last year.

Tibetan schools would have been much worse off had it not been for the influx of students from Nepal’s northern districts whose mother tongue is Tibetan. In fact, the Srongtsen Bhrikuti Boarding School in Boudha has reported an increase in enrolment with half its 750 students Nepalis.

“It is easier for these students to fit in because they share the same culture as Tibetans and they get quality education at half the price of private schools,” explains Tsering.