Braille Without Borders Gives New Hope to Blind Children in Tibet

Eight years ago, Sabriye Tenberken, a German woman rode horseback across Tibetan countryside to find blind children to attend her new school. Braving the altitude and the harsh environment, Ms. Tenberken, who is sightless herself, was pursuing her dream of helping others who cannot see - despite discouragement she faced in Tibet.

In a busy classroom filled with nearly 20 children, Sabriye Tenberken lectures her pupils to always help others who need it. The children nod, leave their chairs and rush into the kitchen, ready for supper.

The school, founded by Ms. Tenberken and her Dutch partner, Paul Kronenborg, is tucked away in a small alley, not far from a busy street in Lhasa. They founded Braille Without Borders, hoping that one day their work would not only help Tibetans, but also visually impaired people from other developing countries.

Ms. Tenberken, a 34-year-old German woman who has been blind since the age of 12, pursued a master's degree in Tibetan studies in her hometown, Bonn.

When she realized that the Braille writing system for the blind did not exist in Tibetan, she developed one - in just two weeks. Braille uses raised dots on a page to create words - users feel the dots to read the page.

Ms. Tenberken then went to Tibet to introduce this new system, knowing that there were no schools to help sightless people in the Himalayan region, which is under Chinese control.

Accompanied by three Tibetans, Ms. Tenberken rode a horse to rural villages. Although the journey was physically tough, she says the hardest part was seeing how blind children were treated. In Tibet, sightless children are often kept isolated and they rarely are educated - some are so ignored that by age four or five they still cannot walk.

"It is because people are embarrassed to have blind people in their family," she says. "They are really ashamed, they think if you are blind you are punished for something you have done in your past life."

The incidence of blindness in Tibet is double the global average. High altitude, heavy sun exposure, and inadequate medical care in remote areas cause a large numbers of vision problems in this mountainous region.

According to official figures, there are 35,000 blind people in Tibet - out of a population of 2.6 million.

The Red Cross and several private organizations have set up camps in Tibet to perform eye surgeries and train local doctors to protect vision.

Ms. Tenberken and Mr. Kronenborg's school, however, aims to change life for sightless Tibetans by teaching them skills for living and giving them hope for a better life.

"After they [the children] came here, they learned that there are other blind people who could do things that their parents never trusted them to do, they started to gain confidence, and they started to realize that it doesn't matter if you're blind or sighted … it just a matter of using the abilities you have, and not only concentrating on your disability," she says.

Seventeen-year-old Yudon never stepped into a school before she came to the center seven years ago. And now she is a graduate and goes to a regular school in Lhasa. She wants to follow Ms. Tenberken's footsteps one day and teach.

"I will learn more English and Chinese, and when I graduate I will try to help handicapped and blind people," she says.

At the center, children are taught English, Chinese and Tibetan, and they can learn to work on computers, do massages, or handle farm work.

Eleven-year-old Gurme loves to sing. He shows off his talent to a visitor and sings a Tibetan song about a boy who hates school and loves to spend money.

Gurme says one day he also wants to be a teacher, just like Sabriye Tenberken.

But opening her school was not easy and she faced doubters. Ms. Tenberken remembers the skepticism she faced when she first met with officials in Tibet - who were concerned not only about her physical ability to do the job, but also her motivations.

"In the beginning they were a little bit suspicious…. They thought maybe she comes for political reason or maybe she comes for special religious reason," she says. "Finally, after one, two, maybe three years, they understood, they accepted the outcome of the project."

Ms. Tenberken says that Braille Without Borders gets most of its limited funds from donors in Germany and the Netherlands - none comes from the either the local Tibetan government or the central Chinese government.

With 76 students and 40 graduates, the center is slowly gaining trust in Tibet, and its reputation is growing.

But because of limited space it cannot accept everyone - 50 children are on a waiting list to enroll.

The Braille Without Borders founders hope to open a second center in southern India. There, they want to train many more people to start schools for the blind in other countries, and carry Ms. Tenberken's vision farther out into the world.