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Difference Maker

Helping orphans, Tibetan and Chinese alike

Tendol Gyalzur returned from exile to provide homes for children in her native Tibet

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2009

Tendol Gyalzur (center) at the Children’s Charity Tendol Gyalzur in Shangri-La, Yunnan Province, China. It’s the second of three orphanages she has founded. Everyone in the photo, except Mrs. Gyalzur, is attending or grew up in her centers. Gyalzur was orphaned when she was 7.

Stephen Kurczy


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.

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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.