From Nepal to Newcastle: A life-changing journey for Nepalese student
Many of the 50 or so present were unknown to each other, but they all had one thing in common – their paths had crossed that of 30-year-old Tshering Lama.
They had been invited to mark the end of Tshering’s barely-believable 10-year journey from his mountain village in Nepal to another world in Newcastle.
Retired clergyman Peter Dodd and wife Rosemary, who had befriended the young man when he arrived in the North East, had organised the gathering at their house in Benton.
It celebrated the culmination earlier in the day of Tshering’s decade in the region, when he was presented with his doctorate at Northumbria University.
Each individual at the celebration had played a part, a link in a long and complicated chain, in helping Tshering to become the first of his Nepalese ethnic group to study at a British university.
Now equipped with his PhD, Dr Lama is embarking on the latest chapter of his remarkable story by using the knowledge, confidence and vision which was hard won in the North East to help children in his native country.
It was in 2002 that Tshering, who grew up in the village of Sermathang, a five-hour bus ride from the capital Kathmandu, arrived in Newcastle.
He vividly remembers his first impressions, including coming up against the Geordie accent.
Now a master of the Tyneside turn of phrase, he will always carry a piece of the North East with him wherever he goes.
He has already distributed a smattering of Newcastle United bits and pieces in Nepal.
On a research trip back to Nepal as part of his PhD, he recalls spotting a youngster working with oxen in remote fields, wearing the black and white shirt. As a boy in his village of 80 households, Tshering had his share of such tasks.
“It was physically hard. We all helped in the fields and the kitchen garden, chopping firewood and gathering fodder for the buffaloes,” he says.
“But I was happy to be born and brought up there.”
The seeds for what would be a momentous change were planted when British students began making annual trips to the village to carry out voluntary work, teaching English and other subjects.
“I was about seven when they first came,” says Tshering.
“They gave us a wider exposure to the world. Living in an isolated village, it was a wonderful opportunity.
“There was a lot of curiosity about what it would be like to go to these places we were told about.”
The student visits ended when, during the civil unrest in Nepal, the village school was destroyed by Maoist guerillas. It remained closed until Tshering helped reopen it four years ago.
But the young Tshering had been inspired and began to look beyond the village.
With the backing of his carpenter father, he took out a loan to go to Kathmandu to study.
As a boy he had been given a book by the student volunteers called Where There Is No Doctor, which contained first aid advice.
That kindled an interest in health care, and in Kathmandu Tshering enrolled for voluntary work in the children’s hospital.
“That changed my mind forever,” he says.
“A lot of people who need medical help had to travel to Kathmandu for up to 10 days or so.
“I realised that a lot of diseases and medical problems could be prevented.”
The volunteering also helped Tshering settle in the capital.
“The biggest culture shock of my life was moving from the village to Kathmandu,” he says.
But there was much more to come.
One of the student volunteers, Helena Cullen, had suggested to Tshering that he should study in the UK. But that was a financial impossibility. So Helena and her mother Tessa rallied people in their Quaker community and raised the funds for Tshering to come to Northumbria University for a degree course in health development studies.
It wasn’t easy. “But the people of Newcastle showed me a lot of hospitality and Peter and Rosemary, friends of Tessa and Helena, gave me great support, and it helped me overcome my difficulties,” says Tshering.
His tutors at university and others helped salve his first-year homesickness by taking him on trips to the mountains of the Lake District.
“One of the things I missed was the mountains, and to get close to mountains again in the Lake District helped a lot,” says Tshering.
Once again, he threw himself into volunteering. He worked for Oxfam in the North East and joined the university’s Voluntary Action group.
He says: “Volunteering to help the community also helped me to feel a sense of belonging to the community. It helped me get out of my isolation.”
His efforts were recognised when he became regional winner of the British Council’s Shine awards for international students.
That led to him to meet then prime minister Tony Blair at a Downing Street reception.
He still retains an sense of astonishment, adding: “It was an experience, coming from the mountains of Nepal and meeting a leader known all over the world.”
When Tshering graduated in 2005, his father Chenga and mother Phurpa left Nepal for the first time to be at the ceremony.
They also saw the sea for the first time, enjoying a grandstand view from their quarters in a National Trust cottage at Souter lighthouse in South Tyneside.
Tshering was able to go on to study at Northumbria for a Masters in public health after being awarded the first Glenamara scholarship for his outstanding contribution to the community.
It was named after the then recently-retired university chancellor Lord Glenamara.
Tshering had become interested in the idea of tele-medicine as a way of improving health care in remote parts of Nepal. This links local people, who have been given basic health training, by telephone to doctors and hospitals to whom they can turn for help and advice.
His wish was to investigate its feasibility in Nepal as the focus of a PhD, but once again the stumbling block was funding Tshering’s studies.
The Journal carried an article on his hopes, and it was seen by a North East businessman who, after meeting Tshering, made a substantial contribution, with the university offering half the course costs.
“I had always wanted to use my knowledge and put something back into Nepal,” says Tshering.
“It is primarily about people rather than technology, and empowering the health workers.”
This week Tshering’s parents and two of his brothers travelled to Newcastle for his PhD ceremony.
Also there was Tshering’s Vietnamese fiancee Emily, whom he met in Newcastle and who the next day also graduated from Manchester Business School.
Tshering has taken a job as country director in Nepal for the charity Childreach International, which works with local communities in the developing world to help improve children’s access to healthcare, education, and child protection.
Tshering says: “Every child should have the chance to shine. I’m an example of a young person from a remote area who was given a wonderful chance.
“It has been some journey, and I have had love, trust and respect from people in Newcastle who have been so generous.
“The help I have had has made me who I am, and without it I could not be doing what I am doing now, with Childreach helping 125,000 children a year in Nepal.
“I have loved my 10 years in Newcastle. There is not a moment I regret.”
Tshering has set off on a UK tour to visit and thank all who have helped.
“I now want to go on and make a difference and Childreach has given me the opportunity,” he says.
“People have believed in me, and I am honoured.
“No matter what I do in my life, I will never let them down.”