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Tibet’s ‘Orphan Super-Mother’ Lost to COVID-19

Tendol Gyalzur cared for 300 children over a period of 25 years.

By Morris Tennyson for
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Tibet’s ‘Orphan Super-Mother’ Lost to COVID-19
Credit: Children’s Charity/ Tendol Gyalzur

A Tibetan orphan and child refugee who fled her homeland only to later return to establish orphanages across Tibet has died from COVID-19 in Switzerland.

Tendol Gyalzur established Tibet’s first private orphanage outside Lhasa in 1993, later setting up another home for abandoned children in Yunnan’s Shangri-La, and a facility caring for nomadic herder children in western Sichuan. Overall, she is credited with caring for 300 children over a period of 25 years.

Gyalzur decided to provide a safe place for homeless children after seeing bedraggled children rummaging through trash for food scraps in the shadows of Lhasa’s Potala Palace during her first visit in 1990. Using her own savings, donations from friends in Germany and Switzerland, and support from the Tibet Development Foundation, the surgical nurse started the first orphanage with just six children, later expanding to accommodate over 50 young residents.

A few years later she founded a second orphanage in Shangri-La, the hometown of her husband Losang, also a fellow Tibetan exile who was had been sent to Europe in the hope of later being able to return to Tibet. Reflecting the diversity of the eastern Himalayas, the Shangri-La facility provided a new home for seven different ethnic groups, including Tibetan and Han Chinese. “We don’t discriminate on the ethnic origin, the color of skin, or religion, instead we accept those who are most in need of our help and protection,” Gyalzur once said in an interview, explaining how the nondenominational orphanage didn’t impose any belief system but encouraged cultural identity among the children, who referred to each other as brothers and sisters. “My religion is wiping children’s noses,” she added.

Unlike larger institutions, which schooled the children in-house and often put residents up for adoption, Gyalzur offered her children greater security and allowed them to integrate into the local community, sending them to the nearby primary and secondary schools. Her homes featured flower gardens, pet animals, horses, and local house-parents.

Initial funding for the Children’s Charity came from Europe and North America, and later the local government provided more resources and support. The orphanages were listed in some travel guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, recommended as an organization fostering awareness of Tibet and aiding the Tibetan people. The orphanages provided a model for more human-centric social services, thus encouraging other NGOs negotiating the local bureaucracy and xenophobia. “Her work inspired me to start Global Roots, which supports charities across the world,” says Seattle-based Rick Montgomery. “She was one of the most amazing, selfless women I have ever met.”

While still a young girl, Gyalzur lost her parents and brother while fleeing Tibet following the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, trekking across Himalayan mountain passes to Bhutan and onto northern India. From a refugee camp she was selected to go to Europe, with the 14th Dalai Lama telling her group he hoped later they could return to assist their fellow Tibetans, as “seeds of flowers that would one day bloom in Tibet.”

Adopted by a doctor couple, she grew up with other Tibetan orphans in a children’s village near Konstanz in southern Germany, bordering Switzerland. After marrying and moving to Switzerland, which has the third-largest population of Tibetans abroad, she raised a family, with one of her sons becoming a professional ice hockey player, and later established one of the world’s highest altitude craft breweries in Shangri-La. Around 80 percent of the staff at Shangri-La Highland Craft Brewery, China’s first fully licensed craft brewing company, are from the orphanage, with two cafes involved in training schemes to provide useful skills for the tourism-dependent economy of northwest Yunnan. The city switched its economic lifeline from forestry to tourism in the late 1990s, and changed its name to Shangri-La in 2002 to attract more tourists in search of the fictional paradise.

With nationwide changes to the administration of orphanages, and the better government provision of social services, the Gyalzurs (who had both passed the 65 year retirement age) closed the Lhasa and Shangri-La orphanages in 2017 and 2018, with the remaining children now cared for by the official orphanages.

Last year, the story of her efforts was told by Tanja Polli in “A Life for the Children of Tibet – The incredible story of Tendol Gyalzur,” published in Switzerland.

As the news of Gyalzur succumbing to COVID-19 spread around the world, there have been many tributes paid to her in several languages, with the local media in Shangri-La praising her selfless dedication to welfare, and saying she was a great inspiration to others. “Love is boundless,” said the tribute, “and able to turn dry lands into a lush green pasture.”

Morris Tennyson is an Australian medical journalist currently completing a Ph.D. on healing mushrooms of the Himalayas.