Sonam's Story

FAMILY'S TIBETAN LINK SPANS DECADES, CONTINENTS, ORGANIZATIONS

by Don Daniels

In the spring of 1969, I took an R&R (Rest & Rehabilitation - Army jargon for vacation) from my civilian job in Viet Nam to visit India.  On sort of a spur-of-the-moment decision, I changed my itinerary to try and visit a child that my parents had supported for several years through a non-denominational relief organization known as the Christian Children's Fund.  All I knew was the name of the child, a fifteen year old girl, and that she attended the Stanes School in a town called Coonoor in the south of India.  I'm not sure that I realized it all at the time, but Sonam was not Indian.  Rather, she and her parents were Tibetan refugees who were considered to be wards of the state and had been resettled in a refugee camp in Bylakuppe after fleeing from the Chinese invasion and persecutions in Tibet. 

I flew to Coimbatore and hired a car and driver for the trip up into the Kunda Hills and Coonoor.  Arriving just after dusk, we found the Stanes School tucked on the edge of town.  We pounded on the gate, only to be told that it was a vacation period and that the child was not there.  Our deep disappointment lasted only a minute, however, as we soon learned that the child was staying with a girl friend in town.  We drove to the address given (which proved to be the local Chinese laundry), knocked on the door, and asked for Sonam, explaining that I was her "brother" from America. 

Well, you've never seen anyone so dumbfounded.  "Struck dumb" was an expression that honestly applied as Sonam could hardly speak in answer to our questions and couldn't think of a thing to say.  But it was a happy meeting and plans were made to share breakfast at our hotel in town the following day. 

Next morning, which had dawned beautifully with the sun's rays shining through the cool mists of the lush hills -- a scene for which I was fully unprepared having had the misconception that India was all hot and dusty, we awaited the arrival of Sonam.  By now she had recovered her voice and not only was full of questions of her own, but was also able to answer my questions as well.  It turned out that she was rather a celebrity at her school, for the simple reason that she was the only one in the school who had not had multiple sponsors through CCF.  You see, what often happens is that people decide to become sponsors, pay the small monthly amount for a period of time and then lose interest.  The result being, of course, that a child in the program for a few years may well find that he or she has had three or four sponsors during that time. 

Indeed, my parents had considered dropping their sponsorship.  When they first became sponsors they received these very cute and pleasant letters ostensibly from the child in India which they showed to a few of their friends.  As one, the friends doubted that such letters could be written by the child in such respectable English, believing that the organization's leaders prepared the letters as a form of come-on.  In time, my parents stopped showing the letters and lost some of their enthusiasm for the program, although never to the extent of failing to send in the small monthly donation.  Because Sonam had had but one set of sponsors for several years, the other children were convinced that she was very fortunate, having such wonderful sponsors who obviously loved her very much. 

I was very taken with Sonam, who clearly was very appreciative of my parents' support.  Even though her own parents were still living and trying to support her as best they could, she referred to my parents as "Mummy" and "Daddy" and clearly exhibited a love for them.  When I returned to Viet Nam, I went to the PX (post exchange), purchased a $15 tape recorder, and shipped it off to Sonam in India so that she could exchange small audio tapes with my parents (my personally preferred mode of communication). However, many months later the battered package was returned to me in Sai Gon -- It seems that there was no way that the project at which Sonam lived could afford to pay the triple duty required to import the small present!

Sonam also was an influence in my decision to send around-the-world air trip tickets to my parents.  [Some people think this an extravagant gift, but I saw it as an easy (and actually inexpensive) way to pay off my college education].  On their way to visit me in Sai Gon, I encouraged my parents to take the time to visit Sonam in India.  This was pre-arranged through the local office of CCF in Bangalore and Sonam and her grandfather spent several days there with my parents, sight-seeing, exchanging gifts, and getting to know one another better. 

Eventually Sonam became too old for CCF to continue supporting her under their strict procedures and a new child was assigned to my parents.  But by that time, a direct link had been established between Sonam and my parents and they continued her support as well.  Had Sonam wished to continue her education in college, I'm quite sure that my parents would have sponsored it, but she instead chose to enter the work place, becoming a clerk in a local bank, and eventually married and had two children. 

[Incidentally, the child who was then assigned to my parents after Sonam, by CCF, the son of an unmarried woman in New Delhi, has since become a commercial artist with my parents' support.  He was responsible for designing the logo for the Asian Games recently hosted by India and his design appeared on one of India's commemorative postage stamps.]

In 1991, due to her labors supporting the Tibetan cause, Sonam was chosen as one of the candidates for the 1,000 additional openings that the U.S. Congress had designated for Tibetan refugees to enter the U.S. in honor of the Dalai Lama's award of the Nobel Peace Prize and subsequent visit to Congress. 

This opportunity, however, was not an easy decision for Sonam to accept.  As a white collar worker in a bank all of her working life, she wasn't sure how she would respond to perhaps finding herself in a manual or domestic situation, as the type of job was not always possible to be guaranteed by the resettlement teams working in the U.S.  She had also heard of the current difficulties with the U.S. economy and realized that this could increase the risks of making the jump to a strange land and culture.  But more than anything else, the necessity of leaving her family for what she understood to be two years or more weighed very heavily on her, despite the fact that she may well be able to then have them join her here under, hopefully, quite improved circumstances. 

She wrote to my mother [my father having since passed away] and expressed her concerns.  My mother discussed them with me and I, in turn, contacted the Tibetan Resettlement Project office in New York as well as spoke to some of my colleagues at work, emigrés from the Philippines and India.  From the information I gained from all of them, I was able to write Sonam and encourage her to make the trip, provided she could overcome various obstacles she was experiencing in India. 

Eventually the processing problems were all settled satisfactory and late in July of 1992, Sonam flew from India to her new home in Madison Wisconsin, where she was given temporary shelter with one of the American volunteers and was looking forward to the job that had been arranged for her in one of the local banks as a customer service representative.  Sonam would also be using her financial expertise to assist the local Tibetan community effort in the Madison area. 

A week after her arrival in Madison, my mother, who had moved and lived in Phoenix until her death in March of 2012, but had been in Detroit cleaning out her sold condominium, drove to Madison for a reunion with Sonam.  Again there was a time of getting to know one another, sight-seeing, and exchanging gifts.  The latter was much more involved this time as it seemed that Sonam had "brought more gifts than clothes" according to my mother, and my mother had found a new owner for some of the things that she had cleaned out of the old condo and would not be able to use in her smaller place in Phoenix. 

While my mother was there, I spoke on the telephone to Sonam who was looking forward to her job that would start the following day.  She would be undergoing two weeks of computer training [something she had never used in India] sandwiched around a week of on-the-job training before she would begin work in earnest at the bank.  She was a little nervous, but obviously very excited about her new prospects. 

An update a few years later indicated that Sonam was still happy with her job in Madison, had long since found her own place to live, and was even able to have visited India for a brief reunion with her family.  However, she was then sad in that there had been many delays with the paperwork and procedures necessary to allow the rest of her family to come to live with her here.  As one example, in the five years since Sonam arrived in the U.S., her daughter had since turned 21 and therefore was no longer seen as a dependent, which required an additional wait until the family was all able to be together again. 


Christian Children's Fund may be contacted at P.O. Box 26511, Richmond Virginia 23261-6511, 1-800-776-6767.  They usually can meet specific requests, such as country, boy or girl, and age.  Why don't you choose to make a difference in one small life far away? Or, sadly, some child here in America on an Indian reservation, living well beneath the poverty level?

Read the story of Angie, another CCF sponsor whose life is enriched through giving to children. 


The author, Don Daniels, was at the time, an independent computer consultant living on Long Island, NY, who occasionally provided pro bono computer services to the Office of Tibet in New York City.  He has supported several children in India through CCF since 1969.  He has no other affiliation with CCF, which subsequently changed its name to Child Fund International. 

A recounting by my mother and father of their trip around the world wherein they visited with Sonam in person for a few days can be read here


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Last modified: September 16, 2012