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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Helping orphans, Tibetan and Chinese alike

October 21, 2009

Tendol Gyalzur returned from exile to provide
homes for children in her native Tibet
By Stephen Kurczy
The Christian Science Monitor
October 19, 2009

ShangriLa and Lhasa, China -- Fifty years ago,
the parents of Tendol Gyalzur were two of about
85,000 Tibetans killed during the suppression of
the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet that
pushed the Dalai Lama into exile.

Only 7 years old at the time, Mrs. Gyalzur grew
up feeling hatred toward the occupiers who'd
orphaned her. Yet today, she works closely with
the Chinese government as the founder and
director of Tibet's first private orphanage.

"When I was young, I thought the Chinese were
without heart, without love," says Gyalzur during
an interview at her second orphanage, in
Shangri-La (also known as Zhongdiàn), a town in
China's southwestern Yunnan Province. "Now, after
starting this orphanage, I think that there are
many Chinese who love. The government cooperates
with our project and this, I think, is a kind of love."

Gyalzur says she has learned acceptance and how
to forgive from the children at her orphanages.
They call one another brother and sister, yet
they come from seven ethnic groups, including
Tibetan and China's majority ethnicity, Han,
groups who fought in 1959 and continue to harbor animosity to this day.

"Many people -- the Chinese, the Tibetans -- can
learn from our children how to live in peace," Gyalzur says.

Following the 1959 uprising, Gyalzur and
thousands of other Tibetans, including the Dalai
Lama, fled to India. There, she lived in a
refugee camp until she was transferred to an
orphanage in Germany, where she met her future
husband, a fellow Tibetan refugee. In the 1970s,
the two moved near Zurich, Switzerland, and started a family.

In 1990, Gyalzur returned to Tibet for the first
time. She met two children rummaging through the
trash in Lhasa, Tibet's capital. She brought them
to a restaurant for a meal, but the manager
refused to seat them. Gyalzur insisted and he
relented. "It was the first time in my life that
I realized that the only thing I wanted to do was
to fight for the rights of these abandoned children," she says.

She returned home to her husband and two sons in
Switzerland. But, as an orphan herself, the
memories of the orphan children in Tibet haunted her.

She vowed to return.

With help from the Tibet Development Fund, along
with about $28,000 from her savings, her
husband's pension, and donations and loans from
family and friends, she opened Tibet's first
private orphanage in 1993 in Lhasa.

The orphanage began with six children. Sixteen
years later, 57 children live there and 27 have
left to begin careers and families of their own.
In 1997, she opened a second orphanage in her
husband's hometown of Shangri-La, where 54 children now live.

Another 63 children of nomadic herders live in a
third center in western Sichuan Province, which
Gyalzur started in 2002. The three centers
operate on $280,000 annually from private donors
in the United States and Europe.

Entering the orphanage in Shangri-La on a
weekend, one finds children playing basketball in
the front courtyard, while teenagers cook in the
kitchen or wash clothes. They welcome visitors
with group songs and dances in a new performing arts space.

On a weekday at the orphanage in Lhasa, children
under 6 are studying English and Chinese. Older children are at school.

Foreign universities send students to volunteer
at Gyalzur's orphanage in Shangri-La. The Lonely
Planet guidebook recommends it as one of 10
organizations fostering awareness of Tibet and
aiding the Tibetan people. "I have been helping
Tendol since 2001, and she is one of the most
amazing, selfless women I have ever met," says
Rick Montgomery, executive director of Seattle-based Global Roots.

He first met Gyalzur while traveling in China.
Her work inspired him to start Global Roots,
which supports charities across the world. Since
2001, Global Roots has provided food, blankets,
kitchen supplies, and bicycles to Gyalzur's
charity. In 2008, Mr. Montgomery visited the
center in Shangri-La and delivered winter clothes
to each of Gyalzur's children, including new shoes and winter parkas.

Though inspiring, Gyalzur's work also strained
her family life. Her elder son, now an adult,
says he resented his mother when she disappeared for months to work in China.

"We were quite angry with her," says Songtsen
Gyalzur. While his mother was away, he helped his
father cook and sell shabales – Tibetan beef
patties –­ outside a mall in Zurich to raise money for the orphanage.

"All my friends went skiing or ice-skating on
weekends, and I was making shabales for the orphans," he now chuckles.

Mrs. Gyalzur's family eventually came around. Her
husband quit his factory job in Switzerland and
moved to China. Last year, her son sold his Swiss
real estate company to assist as well. Songtsen
started a car repair shop in Shangri-La and has
invested about $50,000 in two restaurants that
provide jobs for eight adult orphans from his mother's centers.

"They look at my parents like they're their
parents, so in a way they're like my brothers and
sisters," Songtsen says during an interview at So
Ya La, one of his Tibetan cafes.

Most children at Gyalzur's centers arrived via
government agencies who contact her when a
parentless child is reported to authorities.

Yishi Dolma was 10 when she was found 17 years
ago living alone in the street about 50 miles
outside Lhasa. Moving into the orphanage "was
like having a family and a home," says Ms. Yishi
Dolma, who is the full-time "house parent" at the
Shangri-La orphanage. The Lhasa orphanage also
has two house parents who live on-site.

"Don't feel sad that we don't have parents,
because we don't think of it like that," says
Duoma Lamu, a 16-year-old at Gyalzur's center in
Shangri-La who hopes to attend university in a
few years. "Tendol is our mother." •
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