(Vatican Radio) Imagine a world where rainbows abound and reds, blues and yellows are vivid splashes of color brightening up the canvas of your life. That’s the dream world – the very real one – in which Sabriye Tenberken has found herself since she went blind at age 12.
Born in Germany, Sabriye is luckier than most; she went to a school where her teachers believed she and her blind classmates “could do anything.” Besides reading and writing, she learned how to play ball, ride a horse and even to go white water rafting – guiding her craft alone down the rapids. She went on to earn a degree in Tibetology and Central Asian Studies from Bonn University.
Sabriye is one of more than a dozen women speaking at the International Women’s Day event 8 March in the Vatican, “Voices of Faith.” Watch the event here. The third annual story-telling event celebrating women from around the globe and their often unsung achievements is sponsored by the Catholic philanthropic Fidel Goetz Foundation and hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in the heart of the Vatican.
In 1997, Sabriye’s sense of adventure led her to Tibet where she discovered that the blind were often ostracized “like sinners” because popular belief held that in a past life, they had committed some horrible crime. “Some people believe that blind people must have been murderers in their past life.”
No stranger to isolation and exclusion as a child growing up herself, Sabriye remembers the heartache of humiliation for an adversity over which she had no control.
Changing the mindset became her goal. She coded the Tibetan alphabet in Braille and with government support and together with her friend, Netherlands-born Paul Kroneburg , she opened Tibet’s very first school for the blind. The two friends founded Braille without Borders and have seen some 300 students pass through their doors.
Listen to Tracey McClure's interview with Sabriye and Paul:
Braille without Borders: A springboard into new worlds
We are sitting in a cramped, drab Vatican Radio studio but Sabriye’s earnest green eyes are pools of light, open wide as if they are taking in a world far wider and immensely fuller than the one we mortals are in.
“I wanted to create a springboard to empower the children to understand that they can do a lot despite the fact that everybody believes that blindness is the end of the world. That they can understand that they don't have to be ashamed to be blind, that they can shamelessly jump back into society and say, ‘ hey, I’m blind – so what ? I can do so many things!’”
Sabriye is surprisingly grateful for her own blindness, calling it “a precious gift.” Though “it was years of sorrow… and I was terrified of living in the dark,” she says when she decided to embrace it, “you learn how to imagine things that are not obvious.”
“Darkness never came. And because of my imagination… the world surrounding us become much more colorful and much more beautiful because we paint our own pictures.”
United in adversity to fight against discrimination
A successful engineer, Paul dropped his job in 1998 to follow Sabriye and her dream to Tibet. He too had a past littered with challenges.
The wrong medication had left Paul terribly scarred at age eleven. “The problem was gone but my skin was gone as well. I had no skin on my back for about six years and that led to exclusion... and kids can be very mean. To Sabriye they would say ‘you can walk straight’ and she’d fall down the stairs and they’d have fun. And to me, they’d come and smack me on the back and they would have fun.”
A taxi driver in a dream factory where nothing is impossible
Paul and Sabriye call their school the “dream factory.” “The most beautiful thing about dreaming is that there are no limits,” Paul says, “anything is possible.”
He tells the story of one of their blind students, an eight year old boy, who dreamt of being a taxi driver. Rather than quash the child’s dream, they encouraged him in his studies. After all, Sabriye quips, “all taxi drivers are blind!”
Two years later, Paul asked the boy about his dream job. The child admitted that perhaps being a taxi driver wasn’t the wisest choice for a blind person – but, he said, “I can set up a taxi company to run the business!”
Empowerment: the trust to explore your own talents, overcome limits
“And that’s what empowerment is about: to give people the trust to explore their own talents and their own limits and hopefully even overcome those,” Paul affirms.
Empowered by their dreams and armed with education, the first four of the school’s blind students took their university entrance exams together with sighted kids three years ago.
Many of the kids who have gone through the program have started their own businesses or their own social entrepreneurships. One, Paul explains, is running her own kindergarten for blind and sighted kids and another is now running the Braille without Borders school.
“These kids had nothing to lose but their own dignity. They had only to win – no one was expecting anything from them,” Sabriye explains. “So whatever they did was a plus already – they were so free and so full of dreams – because we taught them to dream.”
Since the school opened its doors back in 1998, the communities where the kids have come from have seen big changes, Paul observes. Before, he says, “everyone believed that blind people cannot do anything.”
I’m the only one in my village to read and write, surf the internet – all because I’m blind!
Paul recounts how one day he asked a 9 year old boy why he was looking so pleased with himself. The boy responded that he is the only one in his village who can read and write, and is the only one for miles around who knows English, Tibetan and Chinese. “And I’m the only one in an area the size of Holland who knows that the world is round and who surfs on the internet and sends emails – and all this because I am blind!” the boy laughed.
Perceptions towards the boy changed dramatically as people in his village realized he knew a lot more than they did. It is “a great mindset shift that has happened in many villages.”