Sabriye Tenberken is a blind teacher who has spent 13 years in Tibet teaching blind children how to work and live. [Provided to China Daily]
Blind German teacher makes a difference for the visually challenged in Tibet
Learning to live with a disability is not easy, especially if you are blind. Sabriye Tenberken from Germany, however, feels that physical blindness should not come in the way of being successful in life as well as being an inspiration to others.
For the last few years, Tenberken has easily been one of the most recognizable faces in China who has inspired countless blind children in the Tibet autonomous region.
Blind since the age of 12 after a degenerative retinal disease, Tenberken has in the last 13 years taught blind children in Tibet how to take care of themselves and to inspire each other through her project Braille Without Borders (BWB).
The project centers on successfully integrating over 100 students at the boarding preparatory school in Tibet into mainstream society.
That task is by no means easy as Tibet is one of the most remote places in the world where rural areas are often huge swaths of wildernesses.
When Tenberken first came to Tibet in 1997, she found that there were hardly any facilities for blind children.
"Most of the blind children were from the rural areas in Tibet and many of them were often confined to their homes by parents as blindness was considered a curse due to bad karma," she says.
The neglect moved her into action.
"I was shocked when I saw the conditions. These children were in no way different from the others. From my own experience I knew that blind people can overcome any kind of challenges with systematic training," she says.
Born in Cologne in 1970, Tenberken's parents knew their daughter would be blind when she was just two years old. Undaunted they traveled extensively with her so that she could soak up all the colors before her sight faded.
At the same time, her parents also encouraged her to discover her own boundaries. Later, they enrolled her in a German high school for the blind where she learned horse riding, downhill and cross-country skiing, white-water rafting, braille, and, above all, self-reliance.
"It was a whole experience for me and I never felt that I was visually challenged at any point of time," she says.
Tenberken's interest in Tibet started at the University of Bonn when she joined a program on Central Asian sciences, which included a course on Tibetan language. Since she was the first blind student for the project, she had to literally create braille for Tibetan.
Tenberken's first visit to Tibet in 1994 was a disaster because she had to end the trip due to altitude sickness. Undaunted, she returned in 1997 and finally discovered the real plight of blind people there.
"My trip to Tibet was not just for understanding the conditions of blind children but also to see if I could find a use for the Tibetan braille that I had developed."
During the second trip Tenberken also met her future life partner Dutch engineer Paul Kronenberg. In the same year Kronenberg quit his well-paid job and teamed up with Tenberken to run the school program in what is also called "the roof of the world".
"There was no school for the blind when we arrived. We decided to start a preparatory school in Lhasa in 1998," she says.
Much of what Tenberken teaches at her Tibet school comes from the experiences she gained during her own schooling.
Apart from education, children at the school are also taught how to communicate and share their experiences with each other.
Over a period of two years, the students get oriented in mobility and daily living skills, followed by classes in Tibetan, Mandarin, English and the mathematical braille script.
"The BWB program also includes a braille printing press, a self-integration program where students are integrated into regular schools or jobs in the society and a vocational training farm in Pelshong, Shigatse, where students can learn skills like medical massage, animal husbandry, gardening, compost production, cheese and dairy production, baking, knitting, carpet weaving and kitchen management.
"Currently there are around 50 students being trained in different vocations and skills. We are also working hard to market the products made by our students to generate income and cover part of the running costs," she says.
But for both Tenberken and Kronenberg, the real joy is when their students graduate with the ability to support themselves.
"We started with young students 12 years ago and many of them have now reached the high school age. At present four students are enrolled in two high schools. Nearly 60 percent of the graduates from the vocational training program are supporting themselves. Most of the others have returned home to work and support their families," Kronenberg says.
There are some who have performed exceptionally, such as 23-year old Kyila who went to the United Kingdom for a one-year English course after studying at the BWB school. Kyila underwent further studies at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, another project being run by Tenberken and Kronenberg.
Kyila now runs a kindergarten next to the BWB vocational training farm in Pelshong, Shigatse, where blind and sighted children play and learn together.
"It was always my ambition to run such a project. Sabriye really gave me the confidence to move forward. Though she is blind herself, she has taught us how to live with courage and dignity.
"Before coming to the school, I lived in my own world since no child wanted to play with me because of my disability. But my experience in the school has helped me make more friends and be treated equally. Now I can tell others: 'I am blind. So what?'" says Kyila in fluent English.
Her classmate in the UK was 23-year old Nyima Wangdu, who is now the administrator of the BWB preparatory school in Lhasa.
"We appreciate what Sabriye and Paul did for the blind in Tibet. I attended the school in 2000 and learned to be confident and independent. Her project has raised awareness of society and people are now starting to treat us equally. It has made us believe that we are not living in a separate world but the same world as others," Wangdu says.
Tenberken says over 42 blind students have entered regular elementary, secondary and high schools. "Our counterpart, the Tibet Disabled Persons Federation has also been of great support," she says. "Our next challenge is to help these children enter universities."
Currently BWB has six full-time teachers, including three blind teachers at the preparatory school in Lhasa. On the farm there are around 19 full-time trainers and teachers, with six of them blind or partially sighted.
Running two projects in two different countries does call for some effort, Tenberken says.
But the real problem is to find adequate financing for the projects. The monthly expenditure for the Lhasa preparatory school is about 35,000 yuan (4,014 euros) while the vocational training farm in Shigatse has monthly expenses of around 70,000 yuan.
Most of the financing for the BWB projects comes from the sales and royalty proceeds of the three books published by Tenberken and from donations.
Despite the hurdles Tenberken says she persisted with the project because she believed "it was possible".