'At home' in Toronto's Little Tibet

by Paola Loriggio, Toronto Star, May 15, 2008

In numbers of about 1,700 and growing, Parkdale Tibetans find comfort in their burgeoning community and the culture they're preserving

Toronto, Canada -- Walk down the streets of west Parkdale, and you'll likely catch a conversation or two in Tibetan.

The neighbourhood bound by Queen St. W. to the north, the Gardiner Expressway to the west and south, and Atlantic Ave. to the east is rapidly becoming Little Tibet, with Tibetan shops and restaurants catering to a booming immigrant population.

In the last decade, more than 3,000 Tibetans have moved to Toronto, making it the largest Tibetan community in North America, according to the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario. Of those, roughly 1,700 settled in Parkdale, which had no Tibetan residents prior to 1996, according to Census data.

There are more on the way, according to Ugyen Norbu, co-host of Radio Tibet Toronto, which began broadcasting a Saturday morning show last summer on 101.3 FM.

"It's only going to grow," said Norbu, who projects the population will reach 10,000 city-wide within five to 10 years.

Most Tibetans say they came to Canada because it's easier to apply for refugee status than in the U.S, particularly since 9/11. But they also acknowledge the snowball effect: once a few Tibetans moved here, others followed.

"Tibetans come here (to Parkdale) because it's easy to find a place to live, and Tibetans are here," said Lhakpa Tsering, who came to the neighbourhood from India two years ago. His wife and two children were already here.

He said the community helps newcomers find their feet, showing them how to apply for asylum and where to look for work.

It's a familiar story for Salden Kunga, a former Buddhist monk who fled India and came to Toronto through New York.

"When I first started to stay in this area, I feel like I'm still at home, because I still see all my friends, all the familiar faces who talk the same language," said Kunga, now a board member of the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario.

"My friends were so welcoming, they invited me to stay in their house and they feed me because I'm totally new. Likewise, right now, I'd do the same."

He said Parkdale Tibetans are cohesive and work hard to preserve their culture, partly out of fear for the future of their homeland, which has been under Chinese control for a half-century. Pro-Tibetan protests targeting the Beijing Olympic torch relay have put the fate of the tiny mountainous country and its people in the public eye.

"I used to fear that Tibetan culture would be destroyed outside of Tibet," he said. "Now I fear Tibetan culture will disappear more in Tibet."