Full Name: Amberjade Mwekali
Location: Dharamsala, India
Hometown: Charleston, SC
Job: Secretariat Assistant for the International Tibet Network
Q: Why did you decide to move to India?
A: I’ve always been motivated by ethical/existential questions: How do people frame suffering in their understanding of the world? How do we make decisions when we know our actions will effect others? I studied philosophy and religion from an academic perspective throughout college. The immediacy of India, the juxtaposition of beauty and death, its simultaneous generosity and lack made me want to learn more about the diversity of its histories, religions, and cultures.
When I graduated college, I had already traveled to India twice – once after high school when I went to see a friend’s family in Bhopal, and again with my academic adviser and a group of other college students when we went to Ladakh. I fell in love with the compact knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism – its bluntness and expanse: everything is impermanent, and the world is characterized by suffering, yet all beings naturally seek happiness and depend upon each other. I went on to complete a Summer Language Intensive program in Tibetan language at the University of Virginia, postponing my graduate studies until my language skills were better.
Q: Where did you meet your husband?
A: A few friends and I had gone hiking in Dharamsala and returned late, exhausted, with only one thing on our minds: lamb for dinner. We went to a steamy little restaurant where Dorjee was laughing with his friends who worked there. He was so beautiful and relaxed, clapping his hands as they joked. His friends sent him to take our order. He smiled and tried to read the pitiful Tibetan script I had scrawled on some paper with what we wanted to eat. We chatted in Tibetan. I was embarrassed about my handwriting, but we couldn’t stop looking at each other. I left thinking I’d never see him again for some reason, even though Dharmasala is a very small town.
The next day, my favorite cafe was re-opening for spring, and as I passed by I saw his long hair. I finishing my meal and asked to thank the chef. The chef was Dorjee. He dropped his knife and started cracking up, acting really shy. We started going for walks around the temple, hanging out to drink juice and talk. We’d make momos (Tibetan dumplings) for our friends.
We fell in love very fast I think. It was this undeniable feeling I couldn’t quite comprehend. Everything was different about our lives, but somehow there existed this palpable energy that animated our interactions. Dorjee is from a traditional nomadic family. He grew up living in a yak hair tent, herding sheep and riding horses. He became a monk and studied Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and ritual, as well as Tibetan language, culture, and history. He tried several times to escape Chinese occupation and come to India to study and seek the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but was caught and put in a labor prison. After he was released, he tried again and made it to Nepal after walking through the Himalayas for two months in winter. He carried two small orphan children with him the entire way and fed them from his ration. All this happened almost seven years ago. The orphan children are 13 and 10 years-old now, healthy, and growing up safely in the Tibetan boarding school in Dharamsala. Dorjee is so capable and compassionate. I never doubt his ability to adapt to any situation. He has such a vast range of life experience and still retains this wondrous quality of appreciation for everything.
Q: How would you describe a typical work day?
A: I wake up in our sunny room under our sheepskin tsarer (heavy nomadic jacket), make French press coffee and breakfast. I check my email, set the day’s priorities and meetings, scan the news about Tibet and China, and head out of our neighborhood to the main market area.
The International Tibet Network is a global coalition of Tibet-related NGOs dedicated to ending human rights violations in Tibet. As the Secretariat Assistant, every day holds a different shifting set of online tasks and in-person negotiations. At our office or in meetings with individual activists and Tibetan NGOs, we strategize for our current campaigns and plan workshops and protests. I connect with my bosses in England and Washington D.C. and update our websites, digital archives, and publications. We respond to questions or concerns from about 200 member groups around the world and help them coordinate with each other to have a bigger impact. We write press releases, speak to the media, and collect data on topics like nomad resettlement, political prisoners, censorship, and violations of freedom of religion and speech under international law. Every day is a challenge to learn more and more about the complex issues surrounding Tibet’s political and cultural situation.
Q: What made you decide to get married?
A: We are in love. We want to have a family and a future together. We work together, depend on each other, and want the security of a legal bond to protect us against being separated due to political issues and to allow Dorjee to come to the U.S. to see my family.
As a ‘stateless person’ Dorjee is not classified as an official refugee in India, instead he is a ‘foreigner’ with a Registration Card that gets renewed each year due to the generosity of the Indian government. This provision could change at any time (especially due to pressure from China).
Now that we are legally married, we can apply for him to get a Spouse Visa to the U.S. and come visit my family in South Carolina. When we arrive in the airport in the States, there’ll be a Green Card waiting for him, and in three years he can apply for citizenship. Only then could we ever safely go back to Tibet to see his family and homeland. We need the protection of U.S. citizenship and the legal benefits it provides. Ultimately, we want to stay in India and have our family here, but first I want to get further education, and he needs to get papers.
Our wedding would not have been possible without the selfless love and hard work of our friends and community here. All the Tibetans from Dorjee’s region cleaned, chopped, and cooked food for 200 people for 48 hours straight. Our friends made the ritual juniper bonfire, properly arranged the Buddhist altar, drove two hours to pick up our marigold garlands. Everyone helped.
Q: How have your family and friends reacted in America?
A: They’ve been incredibly supportive. Dorjee talks to my parents and grandma on Skype at least twice a week, and they are already making plans to receive us when we decide to go back. My family loves him. Dorjee’s family knows about our marriage, and they are also very supportive and open-minded.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
A: Stepping off a dusty bus in Tibet with Dorjee, white blessing scarves from His Holiness Dalai Lama in hand, to greet his mother and sisters and their children at their tent after a very long separation.