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Dad, daughter seek to raise awareness of Tibet's plight

Jerry Klasen and Elizabeth Klasen pose for a picture prior to Elizabeth's return to Peru, where she is currently studying the public health effects of cooking on an open flame in Peruvian homes.1 / 4
Elizabeth and Jerry Klasen are pictured in the high country of Tibet during their trip last year.2 / 4
Elizabeth Klasen is pictured with with a Tibetan woman during her recent trip to that country.3 / 4
A Tibetan woman is loaded down as she walks toward the border.4 / 4

When she's out shopping, Elizabeth Klasen avoids any product with a "Made in China" label.

She doesn't mind finding a good bargain, but Klasen has an appreciation for the negative connotations of that label thanks to her recent travels.

A 2004 graduate of New Richmond High School, Klasen has a master's degree in international public health from Johns Hopkins University. She spent 10 months in Nepal in 2010-11 studying obstetric fistula, a condition that results in uncontrollable urinary incontinence after childbirth. The condition is found often in developing countries and women afflicted by the malady are often ostracized by society.

When she was finished with her research, Klasen was joined in Nepal by her father, Jerry Klasen, and an uncle. They planned a trip to Tibet.

"I have traveled internationally a lot during my 35 years in business," Jerry said. "But I'd never been to Nepal or Tibet."

After securing the necessary visa to enter Tibet, the Klasens set out for the border. They didn't realize what waited for them on the other side.

As they approached the border station, the group had to carry their own luggage and they were instructed not to take any pictures. No vehicles are allowed near the border crossing. They were also warned that if they had any pictures of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, they needed to get rid of them.

"I had checked out a book from the New Richmond Library on the history and culture of Tibet," Jerry recalled. He ripped out the book's one picture that showed the Dalai Lama and he returned the book to his luggage.

When they entered the checkpoint, Jerry said the Americans and their Tibetan guide found themselves in the clutches of Chinese soldiers who were none too thrilled that the group was entering the country.

"I've traveled to China over 10 times in my life, but I'd never experienced anything like this," he said. "The border guards just screamed at you. It was all about intimidation."

The contents of the Klasens' luggage were dumped out and a complete search was finished by the guards. When they happened upon the library book, they thumbed through it looking for objectionable pictures.

"They didn't want anything coming into the country that could potentially unify Tibetans," Elizabeth explained. "The Chinese government is really taking over the country. It's changing so rapidly from what it was before."

The guards found a small picture of the traditional Tibetan flag and the discovery set off a firestorm.

The guards forced the Klasens to stand in one spot for more than an hour and asked many questions of the guide and the Americans. They eventually confiscated the book and let the trio enter Tibet.

An hour later, while driving away from the border, the group was forced to return to the border for additional questioning. The guards made the group wait in one spot for another hour and then let them re-enter the country.

"I've never been intimidated like that," Jerry said. "Not even when I went to basic training back in 1969-70. It was a weird feeling."

As a condition of their travel visa, Jerry and Elizabeth had to follow a strict itinerary while they were in Tibet. They had to check in with Chinese officials at every destination and could not vary from their established route.

In the cities, Elizabeth said soldiers stationed at every street corner to intimidate and keep an eye on people.

"You're not even supposed to look at them and cannot take pictures of them," Jerry noted of the soldiers.

Tibetan monks and common folk are often forced to show their papers as they walk along the street. The soldiers are also seen marching in formation in many communities, as a display of power and intimidation for all to see, Jerry said.

Chinese business people control all the commerce in Tibet, Jerry charged, and Chinese officials are transforming the country into a tourism spot for foreign travelers. They have constructed new roads and a new high-speed train from Beijing to Lhasa brings even more Chinese influence to the region.

Yet the poor economy also makes life for Tibetans very difficult, and Tibetan citizens are rarely allowed to leave their country.

"They're literally imprisoned in their own country," Jerry said.

After experiencing the conditions in Tibet, Elizabeth said it's impossible for her to support anything linked to China. She was particularly upset with how favorably China is portrayed in the media, especially during the most recent Olympics in Beijing.

Elizabeth urges everyone to educate themselves about the growing oppression in Tibet and do what they can to bring pressure against the Chinese government.

"When you experience this first hand, you develop a strong passion to try and help these people," Jerry explained. "Some may say that's idealistic, but I want to do what I can to raise awareness. I want to highlight these issues so others are aware."

Because he lives in a free country, Jerry said it's painful to think how Chinese oppression is impacting millions of people and yet the international community fails to act.

"The Tibetan people are a very religious people," Jerry said. "And they're very peaceful. But these peaceful people are just totally being taken over."

Jerry suggested that people who want to learn more about what is happening in Tibet should read "Murder in the High Himalaya," a true story about the murder of teenage Buddhist nuns who were trying to escape Tibet.

After she completed her New Richmond visit last week, Elizabeth headed back to Peru for her second international public health assignment. She is working in the Peruvian Andes mountains to study the impact of open-flame cooking in rural homes. Because of poor ventilation in many homes, Elizabeth said Peruvian women and children develop lung issues due to traditional cooking methods.

Elizabeth and other are trying to determine if a shift to ventilated cook stoves could improve the health of many families in rural Peru.