In this guest post, Emily Berg talks about her service trip to Dharamsala, India on a trip organized by the Hillel of Greater Toronto to help the Tibetan refugees who live there in exile.
I have been back in Canada for almost three months and the magic of India has still not worn off. Daily, I think about the friends I made, the food I ate, the work I did, the lessons I learned, the markets, the monkeys, the cows, the mountains, the spices, the heat, the colors, the rain. The experience has stuck with me in so many ways and continues to affect my actions and decisions as I return to “normal” life.
When we first stepped off the plane in Delhi into the monsoon rainfall, I was completely overwhelmed. It was so hot and busy and loud. But we were very lucky to have two amazing Tibetan women — cousins who call themselves sisters — guide us through the chaos. We spent those first days touring the city and getting to know one another. I felt an instant connection with the other members of the group, writing in my diary, “We are like a family already. So much laughing and kindness with the group. Such consideration and warmth from everyone.”
After those four hot days in Delhi, the 6 Israelis, 6 Canadians and 2 Tibetans piled into 3 taxis and drove 13 hours north to Dharamsala. As we headed away from the heat and toward the mountains, we were excited to see the place we would be living in for the next month. We had heard that it was beautiful, but I quickly realized that this was a tremendous understatement. It was more than beautiful. It was spectacular. Green and fresh and misty with white, red, yellow blue and green Tibetan prayer flags everywhere.
After the long journey, we arrived at our new home: the “Peace House” in the Tibetan Children’s Village — an educational and residential community established to ensure that Tibetan children receive a proper education and a firm cultural identity. Immediately, we began to understand the tremendous strength and determination of this refugee population. We noticed many similarities between the Tibetan and Jewish communities: namely, both have been faced with the challenge of preserving their unity and cultural identity while living outside their national homeland.
Over the next few weeks, we participated in various community development initiatives, volunteering with different organizations that focused on advocacy, education, literacy and more. Some of us taught English while others worked with addicts or helped establish a community library. I know that most of us found tremendous meaning in the work that we did. However, I think it’s safe to say that India changed us far more than we changed India. We were exposed to a world full of new ideas and different perspectives. We learned about the political situation in Tibet, took cooking classes, did yoga, learned about Buddhist philosophies, hiked, ate and bonded with one another. But most importantly, we formed cross-cultural friendships, realizing that we are all connected to each other as human beings on this planet, and understanding that we have a duty and an obligation to “repair the world.”