Prom and the Dalai Lama

Quick: Which school has more Tibetan students than any other in the nation?

If you're looking for the Tibetans, stop at Southwest High School any time around lunch. Walk into the cafeteria, with the pizza line on your left. Keep going until you reach the last row of booths, where groups of dark-haired boys crane their necks toward tables of girls who giggle and roll their eyes. Then try this: In a voice just loud enough to rise above the din, say, "Hey, Tenzin." Watch 50 or 60 heads turn.

One of those heads belongs to Tenzin Tsomo, a 16-year-old junior clad in the athletic look--red track pants, blue sweater with a white stripe down the sleeves--that is the rage among her peers. In her two years at Southwest, Tsomo has had plenty of practice answering the obvious questions: "Everyone asks us: 'Have you seen Seven Years in Tibet?' and 'Why are you all Tenzins?'" The answer to the first question is simple--a "yeah," a shrug. The second calls for some lengthy explaining of a culture thousands of miles and thousands of years removed from this Minneapolis lunchroom.

Which is where Wangyal T. Ritzekura comes in. A few months ago, the round-faced 45-year-old became the Minneapolis school district's first Tibetan community liaison; it's his job to bridge the gulf between the schools and one of the city's newest and fastest-growing immigrant communities. According to district officials, some 180 Tibetan students attend Minneapolis schools, with more than one-third at Southwest. No other school in the U.S. has more Tibetans, according to Dr. Bobbi Nassar, a social-work professor at New York's Yeshiva University who has studied Tibetan resettlement.

Wangyal T. Ritzekura is the Minneapolis schools' first Tibetan staffer
Kristine Heykants
Wangyal T. Ritzekura is the Minneapolis schools' first Tibetan staffer

Wangyal, as everyone calls him, discovered the confusion Tibetan names can cause two years ago, when he registered his four boys in the Minneapolis schools. Seeing that three of the kids--Tenzin Jigme, Tenzin Jambec, Jampa Tashi, and Tenzin Khedu--had the same first name, and none had Wangyal's "last name," the staffer handling the registration demanded proof that Wangyal was indeed the father. Wangyal says he hopes to prevent future misunderstandings by giving his children the name Ritzekura, which he took when he became a U.S. citizen last year--and by educating district staffers about his country's native customs.

Hiring Wangyal is an "experiment" for the schools, says Karen Webster, director of the district's Services for English Language Learners. Webster's department was formed in response to the influx of Vietnamese, Hmong, and Laotian refugees following the Vietnam War. Ever since then it has struggled to keep up with the civil wars, economic upheavals, and U.S. immigration law changes that bring an ever-shifting stream of newcomers to the Minneapolis schools. Currently, Webster says, the department serves some 8,000 students, or nearly 20 percent of the total student body.

For large immigrant populations, such as the 2,000 Somali students who have arrived in the past five years, the district has designated "language center" schools; Roosevelt High and Sullivan Middle School, for example, have Somali translators and teachers. But for smaller groups, Webster says, the schools currently offer few resources. "If we have the budget, we're also looking at liaisons for Bosnian, and Amharic and Oromifa [languages spoken by Ethiopians]," she explains. "We've decided that when a group reaches about 200, we should start doing something for the families."


Wangyal was among the first immigrants to arrive in the Twin Cities following the U.S. Congress's decision in 1990 to grant 1,000 "special visas" to Tibetan refugees. Tens of thousands of Tibetans fled their country in 1959 after a failed uprising against occupying Chinese troops. Many sought shelter near the small town of Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama was setting up a government in exile.

As they began arriving in 1992, most of "the original 1,000," as those with the special visas are sometimes called, were funneled into "cluster sites," chosen by the Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project, an independent coalition of exiles and their American supporters. Because the Twin Cities metropolitan area had lots of enthusiastic volunteers--led by Thupten Dadak, a Tibetan who moved here in 1985 and founded the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota--it was designated as one of 22 such sites in the nation.

Ultimately, says Wangyal, more refugees settled here than in any other cluster site: "Minnesota had 160 immigrants enter between 1992 and 1993, and the next site down didn't even have 100." Minnesota's Tibetan community became so large and cohesive, Wangyal says, that refugees from other cluster cities such as St. Louis, Los Angeles, and New York City started moving here. Today, according to the Tibetan American Foundation, there are 700 Tibetans in Minnesota. Yeshiva University's Nassar says the Twin Cities have now outpaced even New York City in the number of Tibetans who have arrived as refugees.

It took a few years for the original immigrants to finance their families' journeys to the United States. Wangyal, a teacher by training, worked in a variety of manufacturing, food-industry, and custodial jobs before sending for his wife and sons in 1996. They now live in a little rambler near Lake Nokomis, with a white prayer flag out in front. Eight other Tibetan families live close by.

Because Tibetans have tended to settle near each other, most of their children are concentrated at a handful of schools, says Wangyal. He typically spends at least one day a week at Southwest and splits his remaining time between other schools and late-night phone calls from his home: "Many Tibetans work housekeeping or nursing-assistant jobs where they don't always have a phone readily available," he explains. "So night is the only time to reach them."

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