Phuni Meston is the owner of Handwork, formerly Karma, in Winchester Center. She graciously shared her remarkable, difficult, and inspiring personal and family history, as well as her reflections on her values, the challenges immigrants face and suggestions for immigrants and others on enhancing life in our community.

Phuni’s family of origin story: Fleeing from Tibet to India

Phuni’s parents were Tibetan nomads. After the Chinese invasion and then the 1959 unsuccessful Tibetan uprising, His Holiness the Dali Lama fled Tibet for India. Phuni’s parents were among the approximately 80,000 Tibetans who followed. She describes a treacherous escape, first by her father who then came back to guide her mother, two of her older siblings, and her mother’s sister. They were walking in the dark, across the Himalayas, having taken very little with them. They first settled in Ladakh, a region in India very close to the border.

Phuni shared several family narratives she has learned over time that have had an impact on her and the way she lives her life. She learned how difficult the time in Ladakh was for the family. They had left their home country, and a nomadic way of life, that was characterized by a peaceful co-existence with nature. Her father was faced with the daunting challenge of adapting to their dramatically changed circumstances, and trying to find work to support his family. Her mother spoke often about how she needed to support and encourage her father, telling him “if you sit there, you will die there.” Her father took action, finding work cleaning pots at an Indian military installation near the border. He was “hired” (quietly, since hiring refugees was not permitted) and paid in scraps of food and leftovers that successfully fed the family. Anything he brought back to them that was not eaten that day was buried, to be preserved for the future. She also learned about her mother’s burden of guilt, being in exile, having left her own mother behind, as they believed that if the entire family escaped together, the Chinese people controlling the area would have noticed and come after them. A third family narrative describes the family’s trip to southern India, when they decided to relocate to a refugee settlement there because the area they were in was becoming overpopulated with all of the Tibetans continuing to flee from the Chinese. Phuni was about four years old at this time. The family survived the bus ride, because their mother changed buses, probably because the first one was too crowded; that original bus crashed, leaving no survivors.

Inspiration and meaning from family narratives

Phuni finds much meaning and inspiration from her parents and these stories. She says it is amazing to her, that despite what they have experienced, her parents live with humility, kindness, and an acceptance of people. They are committed to living life, without resentment, in coexistence with nature, to benefit the whole being, not just the human being. At times it is hard for her to understand how her parents live their best possible life despite what they have endured. She knows their spirituality is central for them – not necessarily prescribing to something that is institutionalized or dogmatic, but to the rhythm of their life, and loving connections with others. She feels they hold a life philosophy similar to that of Native Americans, the way they understand food, community, and their connection to the earth and the universe. She feels that so much of her today, the person she wants to be and ground herself in, is a reflection of her parents. She believes that loving connection and empathy need to be central to our lives. She reflects on how much we all have in common, that so many of our sufferings are very similar, and that what we want for ourselves and our children is also often the same.

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Phuni’s story: Trafficked from India to Massachusetts

When Phuni was 15, a Unitarian Universalist minister convinced her parents that he could bring her to the US and she would get a high quality education. She went, not by choice but because her parents wanted her to get that education. This Minister housed her and sexually abused her for almost six years. During that time his second wife left and divorced him, but never reached out to Phuni to help her.

The minister had threatened that she would go to jail if she told anyone. She was not able to leave his home without the support of the man who would become her husband, who she met at a Buddhist bookstore in Boston. She did not tell her husband about her abuse until she was approached by concerned members of this minister’s congregation, and she learned he was also hurting two of her cousins who he had brought into the country. Although her cousins were so afraid of this man that they left the state rather than press charges, Phuni did press charges and testify at his trial. While the man was found guilty, Phuni believes his standing in the community and his having a top-rated attorney resulted in a much lighter sentence than the prosecutor was recommending, though she was relieved that his passport was taken for a substantial period of time.

Creating a life and family in Massachusetts

Phuni’s husband, Daja Wangchuk Meston, was raised as a monk in Nepal. His parents were Jewish Americans who travelled to Nepal, and then settled there, placing Wangchuk in the monastery. Like Phuni, her husband came to the east coast of the US for an education. He was an “incredible human being,” who passed away when their daughter was six months old. Phuni has deep appreciation for Judy Manzo, of Book Ends, who has been very welcoming and supportive, and arranged for her to do a reading of her husband’s memoir: Comes the Peace: My Journey to Forgiveness. In addition to nine year old Jazzy, Phuni has a second daughter, Mia, who is seven and a half. She glows as she describes her daughters as loving, empathetic, compassionate, brilliant, and strong. She sees in them the resilience she sees in her parents.

Thoughts about the challenges immigrants face

While acknowledging the trauma she endured as a new immigrant, Phuni also noted the challenges she faced that are similar to those of many new immigrants; in particular, the difficulty of adjusting to a new culture and country, often not speaking the language and without education or degrees that would lead to employment. She also spoke of the challenges she faced, having arrived in Massachusetts not knowing anyone, and having never left the refugee camp while in Southern India. She said her world was so little, that she would approach people she saw who looked like her, in the supermarket, for example, and start speaking to them in Tibetan. She learned pretty quickly that there were many people who looked like her who were not from Tibet.

How we can help new immigrants

Phuni believes that immigrants who don’t speak English have the most significant challenges in adjusting to a new country and culture. A personal action she takes is that every time she gets her nails done by a person who does not speak a lot of English, she engages with them and teaches them five new words. She also tries to impart information to them that they might need. She suggests that people could try to carve out one hour a week, and offer that time to the woman doing their nails to see if they would want to meet on their day off – in the library or a local coffee shop. These get togethers could focus on learning more of the language, or on helping them navigate processes like getting a learner’s permit, driver’s license, or car and/or health insurance.

Karma in Winchester

Karma opened in Newton in 2006 and continues to be a successful and vibrant part of the community. Phuni did not develop a strategic plan and decide to open that store, or a second store in Winchester. Close friends convinced her to open in Newton, as a means of supporting craftspeople in her community of origin, and connecting people here to a world they may not be aware of. She decided to open in Winchester after seeing the Center and being struck by its beauty, and the wonderful New England feel. On that occasion, she was a passenger in a friend’s car and noticed the “for rent” sign. She felt a positive energy and was moved to take action after seeing the sign. The landlord was very impressed with the space she created but there have been challenges in growing and sustaining the business. Phuni was excited to bring some “spice” to Winchester Center. She was hoping that people would appreciate and honor the work of skilled craftspeople, using natural dyes, fine materials, and ancient stitching and weaving techniques. Creating social capital through collaborations with Tibetan artists has always been her primary goal with Karma. And, all of her profits go to supporting people from the region. As one example, her family is engaged in the long-term commitment of supporting the education of five Tibetan refugee children in India. She noted “I do this selfishly, as it makes me feel really good that I am contributing.”

Successes and meeting challenges through Handwork

When asked about “successes,” Phuni noted “we are still here. We are making a difference.” She decided to change the look and focus of her Winchester store, and it is now Handwork. She is featuring crafts, jewelry and art created by women, and predominantly those from the US. She feels Handwork will have a broader appeal. She also feels very good about connections she and her brother, Karma Wangtop, have made in the Winchester community. She is happy to be in Winchester, in a beautiful space, and wants to contribute to the vitality of the downtown area. This summer they will try to hold events; she would love to bring music, or a poetry reading to Handwork, and to promote the space as a place for people to gather, share, and build community together. She is in Winchester a couple of times a week, or by appointment.

Women who inspired you

All of our honorees were asked to identify one woman who inspired them. Phuni found it too hard to select one woman, and named several. Certainly her mother was on her list. She feels that Oprah Winfrey is an amazing human being, believing she could make a huge difference because she is a survivor of sexual abuse, and she is so candid and so strong. Phuni also mentioned Maya Angelou. “There are so many incredible women out there in the world, and when you think about the women who are in the rice field in Vietnam, they are unbelievable women who are doing incredible daily work to care for their children and their family.” There were also two women she identified as role models, sisters Losang and Tashi Rabgey, who founded Machik, a nonprofit whose mission is to develop new opportunities for education, capacity building and innovation in Tibet.

Advice to share with young women who immigrated to Winchester

Phuni believes it is important to learn to have hope, to be resourceful and reach out to people. “There are so many good people who are out there who want to help.” She also would encourage young women to reduce their fear of the unknown, and take a risk. Most importantly, to be yourself, believe in yourself, and connect with others.

An inspirational woman: The Bejing Women’s Conference

Phuni was one of nine Tibetan women living in exile who managed to get into China to bring their voices to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, in Bejing. Post-interview research discovered her on the list of names in a 2015 post by the Tibetan Feminist Collective: Remembering the Nine: Revisiting the 1995 Bejing Women’s Conference. “The fearlessness of these women and their relentless drive to speak the truth about Tibet was unprecedented at the time. The example that these nine brave women and their supporters set for social justice movements across the globe thus inspired similar acts of courage that drew the world’s attention to the Tibetan freedom struggle.”

Phuni’s story is inspiring, as she finds joy and lives her life as best she can, promoting deep empathy for others and positive connections. She marvels at her parents’ ability to do this, in spite of all their challenges, even as she does the same.