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THE NEW YORKER
The Mind's Eys: what the blind see
A vision of hope
German "Helen Keller" helps Tibetan blind children out of darkness
NEW YORK TIMES (Sept 2003)
Saturday Profile: A German Voyager's Bold Vision for Tibet's Blind
By Jim Yardley
LHASA, Tibet -- Upon arriving in Tibet, Sabriye
to tour the countryside, not from the comfort of a car, but atop
hard saddle of a horse. It was a chancy decision, not only because the
Tibetan landscape can be unforgiving and treacherous, but also because
Tenberken is blind. She thought the horse was perfect. She knew that
a terrible stigma in many parts of Tibet, and she had
been told that many blind children were living in isolated, rural
She had started riding as a child in her native Germany,
one of many lessons in self-reliance, and she wanted to instill a
similar sense of independence in Tibetan blind children. So she saddled
a horse, and with three other people, began riding.
She was less prepared for what she and her traveling
companions discovered. "It was quite depressing," she recalled. "We met
children who were 4 or 5 years old and looked like
infants. They hadn't learned to walk because their parents hadn't
The memories are still fresh six years later, though now
Ms. Tenberken is seated in a bright second-floor sitting room above the
school she has founded for blind Tibetan children in the land she has
Her partner, both personally and professionally, Paul
Kronenberg, is working on a computer in the next room, as voices of
children drift through an open window from a courtyard below. The
children are practicing a play written by one of them.
In a Himalayan region known as "the roof of the world,"
where high-altitude sun exposure contributes to unusually high rates of
eye disease, Ms. Tenberken and Mr. Kronenberg, who is sighted, now run
Braille Without Borders, a program for blind children in Tibet.
She created the first Tibetan Braille system, which she
is now teaching to her students, and her memoir about Tibet, now
available in the United States, was popular in Germany.
Nor is Ms. Tenberken, 33, finished. In coming months,
Mr. Kronenberg plan to open a second Braille Without Borders program in
India, a first step in their goal of expanding their work to other
countries. Mr. Kronenberg, an engineer by training, is also trying to
a lighter, less expensive Braille machine.
Tall, with straight, sandy brown hair, Ms. Tenberken
still remembers the skepticism she faced when she presented her plans
to local officials in Tibet. She had first tried to get a job with
different international aid groups, but she says she was told that
blind people were prohibited from doing "field work." So she decided to
start her own organization. Everyone, she remembered, thought she was
crazy. "They couldn't imagine I could come to Tibet," she recalled.
"They said, `It's not possible. She's blind, who can take care of her,
who can take her around?' "
The chaotic streets of the old Tibetan quarter near the
Jokhang Monastery present a disconcerting mess for sighted people, yet
Ms. Tenberken navigates them herself and expects her students tolearn
to do the same. Her own childhood was filled with such challenges.
Ms. Tenberken was raised in Bonn. Her father was a
pianist and her mother directed children's theater. Her brother is now
an artist, prompting her to observe lightly that she came from an
"artistic family." "I'm the only one who is a little bit practical,"
she said. She learned about independence from her mother, who as a
student in Turkey during the 1960's dressed as a man on research trips
because women were forbidden to travel. In Turkey, her mother also
chose the name Sabriye, which means patience and small hedgehog.
When Ms. Tenberken was only 2, her parents learned that
she would gradually lose her sight. They did not tell her about her
condition, and by age 13, she was blind. Her parents, though, had spent
the intervening years filling her life with images. They took her to
museums, traveledextensively and filled her eyes with colors. "I have
all my visual images in my head," she said.
She says she agrees with her parents' decision to keep
secret her impending blindness, because knowing might have terrified
her. But not knowing did make her condition baffling. She kept banging
into things, without knowing why. She finally put a name to her problem
when she met another
young girl who was blind. "It was a relief because suddenly I had a
something that wasn't functioning as well as others were
functioning," she said. Her parents encouraged her to discover her own
boundaries as a blind person, a philosophyreinforced when she attended
a leading German high school for the blind. She learned to ride horses,
ski downhill and cross-country and kayak in white water. "They showed
us the teaching and methods and
said, `Okay, you have to do something,' " she recalled. "The whole
was open to us if we knew the techniques and methods."
She has adopted a similar philosophy for teaching her 29
Tibetan students, ages 4 to 21. In August, the group went white-water
rafting, and they plan to climb a nearby Himalayan peak next year. The
program emphasizes living skills like cooking, hygiene, self-reliance,
yet also teaches workplace
skills like computer use and Tibetan, Chinese and
English. Training is also offered in careers like massage therapy and
Ms. Tenberken's interest in Tibet took hold at Bonn
University, where she decided to major in Tibetology. She was the only
blind student in the program, and Tibetan had not been translated into
Braille. So she did it herself. Her first trip to Tibet, in 1994, ended
quickly. She came down with altitude sickness and had to fly home.
Undeterred, she returned for good in 1998, starting her school with one
teacher and six students. They
were quickly evicted from their first building for lack of money.
Financing remains a juggling act. The monthly budget for
the entire program is $1,900. Proceeds from her memoir, "My Path Leads
to Tibet," helped buy the current building, while donations have come
from people in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She has set up
a Web site called braillewithoutborders.org.
Finishing her cup of coffee, Ms. Tenberken offers a tour
of the school while the students practice their play. The playwright,
Kyila, 17, who once lived in a small village in northern Tibet, could
not read or write when she came to the school a few years ago. Now, she
is making plans to become a massage therapist, while her twin brothers,
both blind, want to open a teahouse.
Soon, four other students will leave the program to
regular Tibetan school, the first to make that transition. "The kids
every day, `When do we go?' " she said.
Her own future will remain busy, with planning for more
programs in more countries. She and Mr. Kronenberg hope one day to open
a training center, possibly in southern India, where they could train
others in starting up their own programs for the blind. The main goal
remains instilling self-confidence and self-esteem so that blind
children will "not be embarrassed anymore."
A blind child, she notes, will never be able to drive a
truck. "But they can read and write in the dark," she said. "And who
can do that?"