By Kenzom Lama
One early morning last July, close to a 100 elderly émigrés from the Himalayas gathered at the Sherpa Monastery in Elmhurst, Queens. They came to celebrate the 83rd birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the most beloved and respected spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.
These immigrants are part of the Himalayan Elders Project, a non-profit that serves Himalayan seniors who are culturally Tibetan; most emigrated to New York City from Tibet, Nepal and India.
The celebration began with the scarf ceremony. The elders stood in line to offer a ceremonial scarf and money to an image of the Dalai Lama. The scarf symbolizes respect and faith, and the ceremony is a way of collecting donations. Next, a Buddhist spiritual teacher with a deep voice led the Long Life Prayer for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with the elders following his lead. Volunteers served buttery salt tea, bread and dresil, a sweet rice dish served on special occasions. The program in the main prayer hall lasted almost three hours.
After the ceremony, lunch was served in the basement, which doubles as a community center. After lunch, a young artist, dressed in a brown Tibetan wrap dress with a bright orange and green blouse, performed a Tibetan dance and song. The artist was followed by an elderly man who did a standup comedy routine, making everyone in the room laugh and giggle.
Most of the elders in the room were women. Once the formal program ended, they came together on the dance floor to start gorshey, a Tibetan circle dance. Meanwhile, a few men gathered on stage to play sho, a Tibetan board game.
The Himalayan Elders Project was started seven years ago by Manhattan hotel worker Thupten Sherab, 47, and his friend Tupten Chakrishar. Every day, when Sherab went to work, he would see his mom, Choe Dolma, 83, looking out at him from the window; she would be at the same spot when he came home at night.
Another elder, Tsering Dolma (no relation to Choe), 77, feared going out alone. This fear was shared by many of the older Himalayan immigrants who never learned to speak English. Occasionally, Dolma would venture as far as the Jackson Heights train station in the hope of meeting fellow Tibetans.
Sherab and Chakrishar decided to do alleviate how isolated the elders in their community felt. In 2012, they gathered a few elderly Himalayans in a small Buddhist center.
“We used to meet once a week then,” recalls Tsering Dolma, speaking Tibetan. “We would drink tea, share personal stories and cry together.”
They talked about their exodus from Chinese occupied Tibet and the struggle to make a life in India or the U.S. after fleeing.
Eventually, the group rented a much larger space from the Sherpa monastery. Today, there are about 90 senior members who meet there three times a week.
These days Tsering Dolma walks from her home to Sherpa monastery and spends time with other elderly Himalayans on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Himalayan Elders Project provides breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea on those days. The project organizes activities such as mantra recitations, breathing meditation, yoga and Zumba. Volunteers teach English language instruction and Tibetan reading classes.
The project puts together an annual four-day trip to Palyul Retreat Center in upstate New York.
If volunteers get free tickets, they take elders on local outings, such as Tibetan concerts.
Yangchen Lhamo, 38, began volunteering after accompanying her mom to the project’s gatherings. For one of the outings, Lhamo took the elders to a local Starbucks so they could learn to order the sweet milky tea they enjoy drinking. The elders lined up by the register and practiced ordering tea as they had learned in their English-conversation class.
“I don’t have a favorite activity, I am simply happy to be here,” said Dolma. “I feel blessed to have companionship, good food to eat and the opportunity to attend dharma teachings of respected spiritual teachers.”
“I remember when we just started, some elders would sit around the corner, quiet and aloof, and these days I see them talking and laughing with others and this makes me very happy,” Sherab adds.
The project is mostly run by donations from the Himalayan community. Some make in-kind donations of cookies and fruit, while others sponsor breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea—often when there is a birthday or death in the family. There are 15 active volunteers. A $20 monthly membership fee covers the rental cost of the Sherpa monastery, which offers the space for $1,200 per month, a discounted price, as a way of helping its senior citizens.
“Right now we are barely making through with all the kind donations,” said Sherab. “It would be nice to have more funds, so that elders can have more days together and more activities in a week.”