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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Pema Chagzoetsang stands in the Tibetan Community Center that is under construction in South Salt Lake Friday, July 10, 2015. The Dalai Lama will visit Utah in October, and proceeds from his appearance at the University of Utah will benefit construction of the center.

SOUTH SALT LAKE — It started as a humble warehouse in an industrial neighborhood.

Slowly, the structure is being transformed into a community center and place of prayer and contemplation for Utah's Tibetan community, which numbers about 250 people

This fall, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is scheduled to visit Utah to deliver the keynote address at the Parliament of the World's Religions on Oct. 17 and for an appearance at the University of Utah on Oct. 18.

Tickets for his appearance at the U. go on sale Monday at global.utah.edu/dalailama or the Huntsman Center ticket office, 801-581-8849. Tickets for the Dalai Lama's appearance at the university in 2001 sold out in one day.

The Dalai Lama is also scheduled to dedicate the Tibetan Community Center at 135 W. 2950 South. This will be a private event.

Renovation of the 10,000-square-foot building is underway, funded by financial and in-kind contributions from private donors, businesses, foundations, trade unions and union members as well as members of the Tibetan community.

The warehouse has been gutted to its bones and it has been rewired, replumbed and reroofed. The floor plan, which includes a prayer room, classroom space, a kitchen, auditorium and office and meeting space, remain a work in progress.

It has taken the community to bring the project this far and more help will be needed to complete it in time for its scheduled dedication on Oct. 19, said Pema Chagzoetsang, former president of the Utah Tibetan Association, who is leading the project.

"We are short a little but we will come through," she said. "At the end of the day, this will happen. It will be ready in time for His Holiness."

Chagzoetsang along with her husband, T.J. Chagzoetsang, were the first Tibetans to resettle in Utah. "We are the true Tibetan pioneers of Utah," she says. That was some 30 years ago.

They were followed by 50 Tibetan families resettled in Utah between 1990 and 1991, after they were force out of their homeland by Chinese Communists. The United States offered immigration status to 1,000 Tibetans at the time.

They sought refuge in other countries such as India or Nepal, and were not granted refugee status when they came to the United States so they received no government help. Chagzoetsang and others helped the families find jobs, housing, learn English and negotiate other aspects of life in Utah.

The Episcopal Diocese of Utah provided space to the Tibetan community for classes and community gatherings for about 10 years. The association also has rented space at the Indian Walk In Center for other functions.

Due to a lack of its own community center, religious observances and community gatherings are often conducted in community members' homes, back yards and even garages, including funeral observances, which involve joining in weekly prayers over 49 days.

Steve Price, a real estate developer who has closely followed the experience of Tibetans since their resettlement in Utah, is assisting Chagzoetsang with the project. Among other help, he is contributing a large Buddha sculpture for altar in the center's prayer room.

"I'm just a friend and a community member. I think it's an amazing story when you watch someone come to this country and come to Utah and be so quiet and so gracious and so hard-working and become a part of the community and not even to be known. And then not to have a gathering place to collect in worship and continue your traditions for the next generation. It needs to happen," Price said.

Dale Cox, president of Utah AFL-CIO, said a wide array of trade union members have raised money and donated labor to the project.

"It’s an underserved community and they came to us and asked if we would help. I thought it would be a great project for the unions to get in to. This will be something we can go by 20 years from now and say ‘We did that. We helped them achieve what they wanted to achieve.' It’s not just another office building, or hotel or road or something," he said.

“It’s really come together and I’m really proud of my men and women."

Chagzoetsang said it is moving that so many community members identify with her community's needs and their difficult journeys.

While some members of the Tibetan community are college educated, others work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Yet, every member the Tibetan community over age 18 has agreed to contribute $30 a month until the mortgage is retired, she said. They also contribute their labor to the center.

Price said this is a unique opportunity to bring the larger community's gifts and help to a community that has been largely self-sufficient since coming to Utah.

"Isn't that just so touching they think this needs to happen?" Chagzoetsang said.

"Just their belief alone gives me that security that I feel like it can happen. Even when I am short of money, I think, it will come through."

Local proceeds from the Dalai Lama's appearance at the University of Utah on Oct. 18 will help fund the community center after its completion.

Tickets are $35 each for community members, with a limit of six tickets per purchase, and at reduced prices for U. students, faculty and staff.

Following the presentation, question-and-answer session will be conducted. Guests are invited to submit their questions prior to the event.

The event also includes a cultural program by the Utah Tibetan Association and the Drepung Loseling Monastery Tibetan Monks to celebrate the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday prior to his address. Doors to the Huntsman Center will open at 11 a.m.

The Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet in 1959 during the uprising of Tibetans against the Chinese army. He escaped to India and established the Central Tibetan Administration to assist refugees and seek to maintain their culture. He has since traveled the globe promoting peace and compassion and in 1989 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle to free Tibet.

The 14th Dalai Lama's life is committed to promotion of basic human values in the interest of human happiness; fostering of inter-religious harmony; and the preservation of Tibet’s Buddhist culture of peace and nonviolence.

In accordance with federal security guidelines, no guns or other weapons will be permitted at the venue for the Dalai Lama’s visit to the University of Utah campus. Visitors will be required to pass through a metal detector and have their bags checked before entering the seating area. Guests are arrive early and leave personal belongings at home to streamline the process.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com