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Tibetan Monks Join Drive for New Virginia License Plate


WASHINGTON, June 10 -- In a sign that even in this global age, all campaigns are still local, Tibetan monks from the other side of the world watched as their fellow countrymen took to the streets of Virginia on Wednesday, handing out flyers for a new Virginia license plate honoring the Tibetan people and their culture.

Contrary to some accounts, the Dalai Lama himself didn’t stop at Don Beyer Volvo in Falls Church, but a group of 10 traveling monks did happen to be on hand as local residents were out looking for a few new “Friends of Tibet.”

On their way through Virginia to meet some of the area’s local Tibetan refugee families, the visiting monks were swept up in a statewide campaign promoting Virginia’s new “Friends of Tibet” license plate. Falls Church is home to many of Virginia’s hard- working Tibetan immigrants, as well as the birthplace of the Commonwealth’s latest special license plate.

Driving down busy Broad Street, the visiting monks’ local host stopped to drop off flyers for the new license plate at a local car dealership -- whereupon the group of red-robed monks took the opportunity to stretch their legs, and have their pictures taken with a sample of the new license plate.

While the monks don’t drive -- much less own cars -- and don’t need any license plates of their own, all but one of the group are refugees from Tibet themselves, having escaped to freedom over the Himalayan mountains in winter, and so were impressed to learn of Virginia’s historic show of support for their fellow exiles and the efforts they have made to preserve their ancient culture.

Fairly soon, however, the monks themselves became the focus of attention.

One customer stopped to ask if the Dalai Lama -- the Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner -- was in the group. Trying not to cause a commotion, the monks politely declined manager Mike Green’s offer of bottled water, and climbed back into their van to continue their journey through Virginia.

Once protected from outside contact by the world’s tallest mountains, Tibet has become famous as the home to one of the world’s most celebrated -- and endangered -- cultures. News of any effort to preserve Tibet’s vanishing civilization often brings encouragement to the millions who first learned of the plight of the Tibetans through Hollywood hits such as “Seven Years in Tibet” with Brad Pitt, or Martin Scorcese’s “Kundun.”

But Tibetan monks are still a fairly rare sight at suburban car dealerships. And while it’s not unusual these days to see signs in several languages on the storefronts of Falls Church -- or to hear two or three different languages being spoken -- the Tibetan exile community has nonetheless managed to keep a relatively low profile since their arrival a decade ago.

In fact, Falls Church businessman Don Beyer had no idea his Volvo dealership was practically surrounded by a hardy group of Himalayans far from their native land on the roof of the world, until one walked into his dealership not too long ago.

“People come from all over to Don Beyer Volvo,” said Beyer, “But I was really amazed to have a customer come in all the way from Tibet.”

Soon after meeting his first Tibetan, Beyer suddenly began to notice just how many of his customers had “Save Tibet” bumper stickers on their Volvos. Today, Beyer applauds the bipartisan effort led by State Sen. Patsy Ticer and Del. Brian Moran to pass the historic legislation which created the “Friends of Tibet” plate.

“A license plate may seem like a small way to help these new Virginians,” said Beyer, “but it’s a big thing for them. They’re a small community that really appreciates any help we Americans can show them.”

After pointing out that extra revenues from these special plates -- the first in the world to honor the Tibetan people -- will go to help local refugees preserve their threatened heritage, the former Lt. Governor concluded, “This is something we Virginians can really be proud of.”

On hand to escort the visiting monks on their visit to northern Virginia was Karma Zurkhang, a Falls Church resident who helped launch the historic plate last March.

Zurkhang, who is president of the Capital Area Tibetan Association, the group spearheading the license plate campaign, said, “This is a wonderful country which has given us so much. We have found many friends here. We want everyone who sees it -- and everyone in the world -- to know how grateful we are to America for the opportunity to live and work and even worship here in freedom.”

“We hope this license plate will be a way to remind everyone that friendship -- and freedom -- are precious gifts.”

This message of Tibetan-American friendship took on added poignancy in April when Tenzin Choeku Dengkhim, a 19-year-old Marine from Virginia, became the first Tibetan-American to die in combat while fighting for his adopted country in Iraq.

Dengkhim, a former Falls Church resident, was honored at a ceremony attended by hundreds of local Tibetans and their friends, as well as long-time Tibet supporter and Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf, and Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, before his internment with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on April 11.

Moved by this young Tibetan-American’s service to his adopted country -- and now even more determined to show the world how they feel -- Zurkhang and his fellow Tibetans have high hopes for their license plate.

But the campaign to get the plate issued is not yet over, and the fate of the plate still hangs in the balance.

350 applications for the new “Friends of Tibet” plate are required by the end of June before the DMV will issue them -- and even with every Tibetan family in the area signing up, they haven’t quite reached their goal.

“We’re hoping a few good friends of Tibet will take this opportunity to show their support, and sign up for the plate before the June deadline,” said Anne Marie Shuyler of the Conservancy for Tibetan Art & Culture, a Virginia non-profit foundation that aids local Tibetan refugees and helped to sponsor the license plate legislation. “We don’t have much time left, so every application counts.”

With word spreading about the license plate over the internet recently, the Conservancy has received messages of interest and support from people all over the world. “Tibetans and Tibet supporters all around the country are counting on Virginians to lead the way and be the first in the world to do this,” said the Alexandria activist.

She’s hoping that come July 4th, a new group of Americans will be celebrating their freedom in a brand new way -- with a little help from a few of Virginia’s “Friends of Tibet.”

Virginians can obtain an application online for the new license plate at the Conservancy for Tibetan Art & Culture’s website.


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