Talks to

Ken Eisinger

Surmounting language and cultural barriers with ease, Tibetan refugee Tashi Yangzom said the hardest challenge she’s faced since coming to the United States has been overcoming prejudice.
“I really don’t like when people don’t mix around, only hang around with their own groups and don’t try to learn about other cultures and countries,” Yangzom said.
Community leaders and professors at a roundtable discussion at 4 p.m. today in Coffman Union aim to broaden the conception of refugee groups in Minnesota to include communities like Yangzom’s. Typically, organizers said, people think of refugees as either Hmong or Somalian.
The discussion, “Emerging Refugee Communities in Minnesota: Burmese and Tibetan,” highlights the two lesser-known refugee populations in Minnesota. The Refugee Studies Center and the Institute of International Studies and Programs will sponsor the discussion.
Masami Suga, a coordinator of the event and program associate for the Institute of International Studies and Programs, said the two groups are often under-represented in discussions on refugees.
“These are smaller communities compared to Hmong and Somalians,” she said. “Nevertheless, they are coming to Minnesota, and they have their share of complex history and culture.”
Leaders from both refugee communities will speak at the roundtable.
Ann Ayrault, the director of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, will detail the unusual circumstances by which Tibetan refugees are selected for immigration to the United States.
After decades of fighting, the Tibetan government began relocating refugees to Switzerland in 1960 and to Canada a decade later. The United States passed a bill in 1990 allowing 1,000 Tibetan immigrants to enter the country.
In the following years, Aryault said, 600 to 700 Tibetan refugees moved to the Twin Cities area, resulting in the largest concentration of the ethnic group in the world other than Tibet and New York. The community maintains a strong connection to Tibetan heritage and aspires to bring the Dalai Lama to the Twin Cities someday, she said.
The monthly roundtable discussions are intended to link University expertise and refugee community issues, Suga said. “Coming from a business family, I wanted to make it more user-friendly, bring the University out into the community, and invite the community to meet us halfway.”
College students who are refugees often are the first in their families to attend college and generally do not have parents or siblings who attended college, Suga said.
“Tibetan refugees are very few and most of them are uneducated,” Yangzom said. “I always wanted to go to college and study further, something my parents could not do.”