I was about nine years old when I read the classic Seven Years in Tibet and then a few years later when the Dalai Lama fled to India I became fascinated by this inaccessible and mysterious country. I collected a small library of books about Tibet, its people, religion, medicine and even food. Eventually, when I turned 50 I decided that if I wanted to visit then I’d better get on with it while I was relatively fit and could cope with the altitude.
A few years earlier my younger daughter had turned 21 and I, mistakenly, thought that my two lovely girls were now relatively independent. I had heard of SOS Children’s Villages several years before so asked them about sponsoring a young Tibetan child. I chose Khechok, not an orphan but the eldest child of a Tibetan couple in Kathmandu who needed help bringing him up. He had been accepted by SOS Tibetan Children’s Village, Pokhara.
So my elder daughter and I joined a trip with the Tibet Society which included a flying visit to refugee camps in Pokhara. I persuaded the organiser to make a small diversion to the SOS Village and Khechok, then aged seven was brought out of school, so smart in his uniform. I’d brought him a Manchester United T-shirt and a few photos of my family and life in England and we tried to communicate as best we could.
I’m not a good letter writer but sent him birthday and Christmas or New Year communications, always enjoying the cards I received and his progress reports. Time passed, daughters married, I downsized and life became busier and busier. Suddenly, it seemed, Khechok had left college and had a job and didn’t need my sponsorship anymore. I was so pleased to hear of his success but with a twinge of sadness that one more had fled the nest and could cope independently. I decided to change to sponsoring the SOS Village in Pokhara as I had been so impressed on my first visit and managed to take friends there when on a trek to Mustang in 2013. This led to an Open House day on my return which surprisingly raised over £500.
Social media then stepped in. My daughter helped me with Facebook and SOS Pokhara found me Khechok’s email and about eight months ago I tracked him down in Kathmandu. We were both so excited to be in contact again, exchanging photos and news. I was planning a trip to Ladakh in north India, an area with a strong Tibetan culture and then on to Kashmir. I decided that while I was so near then a short trip to Kathmandu would be relatively easy.
I stayed in a Tibetan hotel in Kathmandu where Khechok, now aged 28, found me on a Friday afternoon. Such a handsome young man, a little taller than me and so welcoming. I felt that I just wanted to hug him but wasn’t sure of the protocol! So a quick embrace and we went out for a ginger tea.
Khechok’s first job after graduation was with a human rights organisation in Kathmandu. He presently works as Assistant Director of a school for Tibetan nuns in Kathmandu and although he constantly thanked me for the help I’d given him, I felt that this was being repaid many times as he helped in the education of these girls and young women.
He told me that he was really angry with his mother for leaving him at SOS as a very young child, that is until she visited him bringing sweets! But he is also very fond of his housemother with whom he keeps in regular contact. He must have been tired of all my questions as he took me around Kathmandu, visiting his grandmother, uncle, brother and girlfriend’s family. All gave me such a warm welcome and I enjoyed delicious momos with his girlfriend’s grandmother.
On Monday morning I visited the school where he works and watched even the youngest children being taught in English. They all learn Nepali, Tibetan and English. Some of the older girls were reciting Tibetan poetry and others learning about centrifuges. Some stay as nuns but others will take their skills out to the local community.
He impressed me so much with his gentleness and caring but also determination and strength. The one thing that does upset me is that as a Tibetan refugee he is stateless and to get Nepalese citizenship is very expensive. However, I feel certain that if he decides on a course of action then his strength of character will let him achieve his goals. He is a credit to SOS Children’s Villages.