It was a suggestion in 2007 by the Dalai Lama to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that led 27-year-old Gyaltsen Yontan to a sleepy subdivision in Port Coquitlam.
Soft-spoken and shy, Mr. Yontan is a grocer’s son born in exile in Arunachal Pradesh, a rugged strip of land at the northeastern edge of India. Claimed by China, thousands of Tibetans have lived in exile along the contested border since 1959. Four years ago, Mr. Harper allowed 1,000 Tibetan refugees from one of India’s most remote areas to come to Canada.
“People are very friendly in Canada. We are from the hilly side, it snows and it is cold, so they sent us here,” said Mr. Yontan, explaining why he’s in British Columbia’s mountainous Lower Mainland.
Mr. Yontan arrived in Canada on Dec. 14, 2013, and was one of the first of the 1,000 being given an opportunity for life in Canada under the four-year-old program. After medical tests and interviews, as well as job action by immigration officials that held back arrivals for months, 55 have arrived.
The head of Tibet’s government-in-exile arrived in Vancouver this week to visit the first of the refugees. Lobsang Sangay was elected in 2011 as the Sikyong, a position equivalent to prime minister.
Mr. Sangay said the refugees in Canada are living with “the Tibetan sense of impermanence,” a result of being barred from their country for decades.
Born in Darjeeling, India, in 1968, Mr. Sangay is the first of a new generation of Tibetan leaders born in exile. The Fulbright Scholar became Tibet’s leader just as the Dalai Lama devolved all of his political power to the PM’s office. Mr. Sangay came prepared with advice from his own bumpy integration into North America.
“I’ve told them that Canadians are very generous and kind,” he told The Globe and Mail.
“One thing remains vexing, and that’s the word privacy. When you are living with a Canadian family, you never know where to draw the line. You need to be careful. The motivation is always very nice, but if you walk into someone’s bedroom uninvited to have a nice chat, you may be crossing a line.”
After living in the United States for 16 years, Mr. Sangay said he never truly found that balance.
The refugees have also been billeted in Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto. By the time the full program arrives in 2016, 200 refugees are expected to take up residence in B.C.
One-in-six Tibetans from the contested area will be moved. To ensure fairness, the names of those selected were pulled by lottery in public squares.
Mr. Yontan is studying English in North Burnaby. He takes the bus daily, navigating from the home where he’s staying. A friend from his village, Lobsang Dawa, is in the same English class. The two keep in contact by cellphone, speaking nearly daily with the 15 other refugees settled in the Lower Mainland.
Under the agreement struck with the Canadian government, the Tibetans won’t be eligible for any social assistance. The refugees are being provided for by volunteers and funds from supporters around the world.
“At the end of two to three months, we expect them to be partially responsible for their affairs,” said Nima Dorgee, the head of the Project Tibet Society, the organization responsible for helping settle the refugees.
Mr. Yontan has entered his father’s name and that of his four sisters on his immigration papers. He would one day like to help move them to Canada and become permanent residents. Until then, he’s looking for work so that he can begin sending funds home.
The learning curve has been steep. Less than two months after his arrival, Mr. Yontan has already secured a card to shop at Costco, attended a hockey game and developed a dislike for Canadian coffee – it’s too sweet. In late February, he’ll be going to his first job interview.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t call me back, but I’ve got an interview tomorrow,” he said.
Mr. Yontan is staying with Mary and Karl Winter, one of the founders of North-West Rescue – a search-and-rescue team that plucks lost hikers and skiers out of the B.C. wilderness. Mr. Yontan and Mr. Winter bonded over mountains.
“I’m a mountaineer and I have been one my entire life,” said Mr. Winter. Now a retiree, he says he was “hooked” on Tibet as a child when he read Seven Years in Tibet, the autobiography of an Austrian mountaineer who spent much of the 1940s in the area.
After beating cancer in 2009, Mr. Winter decided to fulfill a dream and travelled to Lhasa. He jumped at the opportunity to host a refugee. While he and his wife have invited Mr. Yontan to stay for a year, the young man is looking to share a room with a friend who was also resettled in Vancouver.