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." •