Walk around Columbia Heights and Northeast some sun-drenched afternoon and it’s hard not to notice the many colorful garland squares displayed in front yards or skirting the eaves of family homes. These vibrant flags, inscribed with prayers and well-wishes, are a popular adornment of Tibetan homes and community centers. Each of the flag’s five colors—blue, white, red, green and yellow—represent an elemental message of goodwill, health and harmony. And now, almost 30 years after the first group of Tibetan immigrants arrived in Minneapolis’ Northeast area, the flags fly everywhere.
In the 1950s, political upheaval in Tibet forced many to flee abroad in search of safer haven. In 1989, Congress passed a bill granting 1,000 immigrant visas to Tibetan refugees living in Tibet’s neighboring countries of Nepal and India. Four years later, in 1992, 162 of those 1,000 resettled in the Twin Cities—primarily in Northeast and Columbia Heights.
Since the arrival of these first Tibetan immigrants, the Tibetan population in the Northeast area has boomed. Attempts to track residents statewide have not kept up with the community’s swift increase. Tibetans from around the world relocate to Minnesota, drawn by a stable economy and job opportunities, as well as a welcoming community of fellow Tibetans. Minnesota now has the second largest concentration of Tibetans in the United States, surpassed only by New York.
“It’s a stable place,” says Ngawang Dolker, a Tibetan immigration lawyer who came to Minnesota in 1997 to reunite with her mother, one of the 162 Tibetans who had arrived five years earlier. “It’s a good place to raise a family. Job opportunities are good, schools are good … Even [Tibetans] from other states, they relocate here.”
Donna Schmitt, the mayor of Columbia Heights, estimates that in her city alone there are nearly 4,000 Tibetans—a staggering 20 percent of the entire city population—but says that an accurate count is difficult.
“Ten years ago, our comprehensive plan said we have a couple thousand people from Southeast Asia area, mainly Hmong,” says Schmitt. “I read that, and I’m going, ‘that doesn’t seem right,’ even ten years ago … I don’t think those numbers were accurate.” Schmitt believes non-Tibetan residents of Columbia Heights do not have a real grasp on the sheer number of their Tibetan neighbors.
Regardless of the community’s true size, local Tibetans are making their presence felt. Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery, located on the corner of 26th and Taylor Street in Minneapolis, is the first Tibetan Gyuto Monastery in the United States. Jalue Dorje, an 11-year-old Columbia Heights resident, has been identified as the eighth incarnation of the Taksham Lama, making him the first reincarnated Lama to be born in Minnesota. And beyond establishing ways to maintain cultural relevance in a strange new country, Tibetans are contributing to the local scene and sharing their heritage with others.
Sonam Nyorie, a resident of Columbia Heights, opened Momo Sushi in December 2018. Located on Central Avenue between 18-1/2 and 19th Avenues, Momo is the first Tibetan-owned restaurant in Northeast. While the only menu items that originate from Tibet are momo dumplings, Nyorie supplements his offerings with sushi and hibachi he learned to make during his many years in various Japanese restaurants. The interior of the restaurant is filled with commemorations of his homeland. A large painting of the grand Potala Palace, the former residence of the now-exiled Dalai Lama, covers the far back wall.
Tibetan prayer flags float prominently above tables in the dining area. A bookshelf separating the bar from the main room is adorned with small Tibetan statues. And Nyorie himself, who serves as both owner and head chef, can be seen six days a week plating plump Tibetan momo to a growing number of Northeast enthusiasts.
Nyorie originally landed in New York when he finally escaped Tibet. After a few years working in restaurants there, Nyorie decided to move to Minnesota, where his brother lived. Upon arriving, he saw a city ripe with economic and cultural opportunity.
“I really fell in love,” said Nyorie, sitting in his restaurant drinking the complimentary green tea he offers to all customers. “Northeast is a really beautiful community, and Tibetans are big contributors here. Once we opened this restaurant, we realized there are such nice people who appreciate [Tibetans].”
In addition to following his own American Dream, Nyorie hopes to share his culture with others. He makes a point of telling customers the history of Tibet, and eagerly responds to questions from locals who want to know more about his country.
“As a Tibetan, I really want to not just have a restaurant, but to also show something from my side,” he says. “That’s why I did this.” Nyorie speaks excitedly of the closeness of the Tibetan residents, and notes that every time he goes out in Northeast, he sees two or three Tibetans out as well. “The community is growing,” he says, looking out the window.
Nyorie also speaks about the value of having a Tibetan community center so close to the Northeast area. The Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota (TAFM), located just across city lines in St. Paul, provides language classes to children from kindergarten through eighth grade to preserve Tibet’s cultural and linguistic heritage. It is also a cultural center, bringing Tibetan performers to the Twin Cities, and serving as an unofficial consulate for the Tibetan government-in-exile. The center helps coordinate the Tibetan census in Minnesota every decade and oversees the payment of Chatrel, a voluntary annual payment to the exiled government.
Dolker, who serves as vice president of the center, devotes much of her time to getting an accurate account of area Tibetans. She has been helping Mayor Schmitt with census efforts in Columbia Heights, one of the main epicenters of the Tibetan population. Columbia Heights is currently seen as an at-risk city, meaning accurate population counts are crucial to receiving adequate citywide funding. Dolker translates census materials into Tibetan, hoping to secure both an accurate count and additional funding for the city.
In addition to cultural preservation, Dolker says the Tibetan American Foundation is looking to the future, focusing on outreach and community engagement. The organization will participate in World Refugee Day on June 20, the Columbia Heights Jamboree the final week of June, and Welcoming Week in September.
“We want people [to be] aware of us,” she says, sitting in the cramped main offices of the foundation. TAFM is looking for a larger building that can accommodate their growing membership. “And even if they don’t know the whole history, [we want them to know] what Tibet is, who Tibetans are, and that we have a population here.”
Below: Sonam Nyorie owns Momo Sushi on Central Avenue. (Photo by Nora Gregor) Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery, on the corner of 26th and Taylor. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden) Tibetan flags at Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, Momo dumplings. (Photos by Nora Gregor)