A home at last: Greater Philadelphia’s small Tibetan community will soon have a cultural center of their own

Besides serving as a place to gather and celebrate festivals and community events, the center will also be home to the Tibetan Sunday school.

A former church is visible between rowhomes

A former church is being renovated into a Tibetan Community Center in Norristown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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After years of fundraising, the Philadelphia region’s small Tibetan community will finally have their very own center where they can gather to preserve and celebrate their language and culture.

Tsering Norbu, 52, owns a construction company and is a member of the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia. He is the driving force behind the effort to raise close to half-a-million dollars. The group bought a former church building in Norristown, Montgomery County. Community members are now renovating the space and plans are to usher in the new year in the building.

Besides serving as a place to gather and celebrate festivals and community events, the center will also be home to the Tibetan Sunday school. Norbu said there are only about 200 first- and second-generation Tibetans in the Greater Philadelphia area. Most of them are political refugees.

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The inside of a former Methodist church undergoing renovations
Renovations are underway to turn a Methodist church into a Tibetan community center in Norristown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Since China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950, the Chinese government has been accused of trying to erase Tibetan language and identity. There are an estimated 145,000 Tibetans living in the diaspora throughout the world today, according to the Central Tibetan Administration.

Sonam Dorji, 46, of Malvern, is one of the Sunday school teachers. He said Tibetans in the diaspora are trying their best to preserve their language and identity, and a community center will support those efforts. For years now, Dorji has been teaching his Tibetan classes in warehouses, churches, and offices.

“Tibet is under Chinese occupation, in Tibet the Chinese government is trying to completely abolish Tibetan language, culture,” he said.“They’re doing forced schooling [for Tibetan children] in China, even the little ones. To keep this Tibetan identity, Tibetan culture, this is the one hope that we can do the community center.”

Norbu said there are usually about 30 children in the Sunday school class learning to read and write Tibetan, which is key to practicing Tibetan Buddhism.

“Once you learn to read and write Tibetan, you understand Buddhism better,” he said.

Tsering Parshingtsang gestures as he speaks
Tsering Parshingtsang describes the nearly 4’ tall, bronze, Buddha statue that will be part of the altar at the Tibetan community center in Norristown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Dorji said the local Tibetan community is not wealthy, but everyone pitched in toward the center. The community has also received support from area philanthropists.

Jeff Granett, 81, a retired cardiologist, said he’s been “involved in the Tibetan issue” for decades and gave $100,000 toward the center.

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“I’ve always thought that Tibetan people represent an example for the rest of the world,” he said. “The Dalai Lama speaks only of kindness and compassion, as do all these people as well. I think it’s a culture that the world needs to survive, as an example, in many respects.”

He said the community center will be a blessing, especially for Tibetan elders, because they usually have very little contact with other people and many of them do not speak English.

“They need a place where they can gather together and speak with old friends,” he said.

Tsering Parshingtsang smiles, posing for a photo
Tsering Parshingtsang on Green Street where a former church is being converted to a Tibetan community center in Norristown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Norbu said he hopes that the center will become a meeting place and offer classes not just for the Tibetan community but anyone interested in Tibet.

“Everybody can go there to learn about Tibetan culture,” he said.

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