Sabriye Tenberken – Germany

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Sabriye Tenberken (born 1970) is a German socialworker and co-founder of the organisation Braille Without Borders. Biography: Sabriye was born near Bonn, Germany, and she became gradually visually impaired and completely blind by the age of thirteen due to retinal disease. She studied Central Asian Studies at Bonn University. In addition to Mongolian and modern Chinese, she studied modern and classical Tibetan in combination with Sociology and Philosophy … (full text).

Sabriye Tenberken, a German who became blind at the age of 12, established the first school for blind Tibetan children in Lhasa in 1998. She had to overcome numerous obstacles, including official indifference, active hostility, and irregular financial assistance, but today her Rehabilitation and Training Center for the Blind is transforming the lives of a growing number of blind Tibetan youngsters. The achievements of its students are beginning to change traditional Tibetan beliefs that blindness is a punishment for their sins in previous lives.Sabriye Tenberken, a slender, brown-haired woman who does not wear dark glasses to hide her blind eyes, radiates energy and warmth. Totally informal and insatiably curious, she is the kind of person who, after patiently answering all a journalist’s questions, starts asking him about his personal life! She moves about with such confidence that it is hard to believe that she cannot see. And it is this confidence and love for life, along with practical skills, that she wants to infuse in her students … She says: “Blindness is not the end of the world. You can have a wonderful life as a blind person”.  (1000peacewomen).

… Tenberken is a different sort of role model, more accustomed to moving mountains than climbing them. She is close in age to Weihenmayer, and became blind near the same time as he did due to a similar degenerative disease … (full text).


Sabriye Tenberken – Germany

She works for Braille Without Borders BWB, and for the Tibet Disabled Persons’ Federation.

There were three turning points in the early life of Sabriye Tenberken, a native of Cologne in Germany, who lost her sight when she was just 12 owing to a congenital retinal degenerative disease. The first was when she found out about author Jacques Lusseyran who, despite being visually challenged, worked in the Resistance during the Third Reich. She realised that, whether you are sightless or not, “it is very important to put all your energy in doing something for the underprivileged”. Then, a totally new world opened for her when she learnt Braille: “I suddenly experienced the joy of reading.” And when she learnt to walk with the help of a white cane, Tenberken found that this little tool had opened her world still further and made her independent … (full text).

… In 2004, Paul and Sabriye and a team of their blind students from Lhasa embarked upon the Climbing Blind expedition in Tibet under the leadership of blind Everest mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer. The prize-winning documentary Blindsight about this expedition was released worldwide to cinemas in 2006 … (full text).

… At 26 years old, she decided to travel through remote areas of the Tibetan countryside, where she visited rural villages, spreading the word about her Braille system and helping the blind children there to be able to receive an education. When she decided that the best way to do her mission was on horseback, there were protests from everywhere. But still, she continued her journey with three companions, two of whom were Tibetan, riding from village to village … (full text).

… In addition to teaching blind children how to read with Braille, Tenberken also teaches them how to climb in the Himalayas, and overcome the stigma of their disabilities. In 2006, the award winning film, Blindsight, documented Sabriye and Paul’s expedition with a group of their students to climb Mt. Everest. She and 6 of her blind students joined world class blind mountain climber, Erik Weihenmayer, in an attempt to summit Lhakpa Ri, the 23,000 foot peak which rises spectacularly beside Mount Everest. The resulting 3-week journey is beyond anything any of them could have predicted … (full text).

Find her and her publications on IMDb; on amazon; on Google Video-search; on Google Book-search; on Google Scholar-search; on Google Group-search; on Google Blog-search.

You can’t tell that Sabriye Tenberken is blind. She rides horses to crisscross Tibet’s forbidding passes and plateaus. When talking, she looks you straight in the eye and describes things by their colors: the yellow mushrooms or the azure lake. And to greet a visitor, she bounds down a flight of steps in her boarding school for visually impaired children in Tibet’s capital Lhasa. In the playground Tenberken points to 15-year-old Ngudup, who is playing a song for her on his guitar. “For 11 years,” she says, “he was locked up in a dark room” … // … Tenberken’s latest project is a farm some 300 kilometers from Lhasa, where blind adults are taught to raise animals and plant vegetables, and she’s also establishing a center in Kerala, India, where trainees from developing countries can learn to set up similar schools. “There should be no limits for the blind,” says Tenberken—clear proof that you don’t need sight to have vision. (full text).

(On 1000peacewomen): Sabriye was born in Germany in 1970. At the age of two, she started losing her sight. By 12, she could not see anything, and was sent to a special school for the blind in Marburg. “It was the beginning of a new, wonderful life for me,” she says. Not only did she learn Braille and how to move about using a white cane, she learned to ski, ride horses and row in a kayak. “That school,” she says, “infused in me all the confidence I could possibly have.”

While in eighth grade at the Marburg school, Sabriye and her classmates were taken to an exhibition on Tibet, where they were allowed to touch artifacts such as weapons, prayer beads, and wooden sculptures. They also learned a lot about Tibetan history, customs, and religion. Sabriye was captivated by Tibet that day.

After school, she started learning Tibetan at the University of Bonn, the first blind person ever to do so. There was no Braille script for Tibetan, so Sabriye painstakingly developed one. Impressed, one of her professors offered to take it to Tibet and show it to the authorities there. That might get Sabriye an invitation to visit Tibet to present the script herself. Alas, the professor came back with the news that while the authorities were interested in what Sabriye had devised, they did not think that a blind student could successfully demonstrate it!

But by now, Sabriye was determined to go to Tibet and help its blind children, though exactly how she was not too sure. So in May 1997, aged 26, she flew by herself to Beijing. Everybody thought she was crazy – not only was she blind, she had no teaching experience, she did not know anyone in China, let alone Tibet, and she could barely speak Chinese or Tibetan.

Sabriye’s first encounters with Chinese officialdom were disastrous. The China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF) in Beijing told Sabriye that the Federation did not consider Tibet very important and that it did not plan to do anything for that region’s blind for another ten years! And when she requested permission from the authorities to visit a region near eastern Tibet in order to find out how widespread blindness was there, an ophthalmologist assured her that there was not a single blind person in that area! Frustrated at being given the run around, Sabriye flew to Lhasa to think things over.

Within a week of arriving in the Tibetan capital, Sabriye met a young Tibetan woman paramedic named Dolma whose job it was to travel to remote areas of Tibet teaching farmers and nomads the basics of hygiene and preventive medicine. Dolma confirmed that there was a high rate of blindness in Tibet. The main reasons were a deficiency of vitamin A in the diet and exposure to strong ultraviolet rays because of the region’s high altitude. According to an estimate by the American charity, the Seva Foundation, of the 2.5 million people in Tibet around 30,000 were blind.

Anxious to find out things for herself, Sabriye decided to tour a district about a hundred miles from Lhasa. She could have traveled comfortably in an all-terrain jeep, but she decided to go on horseback since jeeps could not reach very remote villages. Accompanied by Dolma and another woman friend, Sabriye visited village after village, braving storms, wading through waist-deep water and spending nights in smelly huts filled with rats and other vermin. Often, she was horrified by the plight of the blind children she met – in one village, a skin-and-bones four-year-old did not know how to walk because whenever her family went out of the house, they tied her to the bed. However, not all blind children had been reduced to such misery. Sabriye also met several who were in good health and were even enthusiastic at the idea of going to a school.

Soon after Sabriye returned to Lhasa, the head of an orphanage in the capital offered her space in his institution to run a school for the blind. Sabriye was scarcely able to believe her luck. Now she could go back to Germany and raise the money. Within six months Sabriye had the funds. And when she flew back to Lhasa, she was accompanied by Paul Kronenberg, a young Dutchman whom she had got to know in Tibet and who wanted to work with her. Paul, a tall, blond engineer and computer whiz, had worked with handicapped people in Tibet.

The Center opened in mid-1998 with six children. Today, it hosts 30 children between four and 21. A whole range of skills are taught, from moving around with a cane, cooking, and hygiene to Chinese, Tibetan and English Braille. The Center also offers older children professional training in Chinese medical massage therapy and music. Recently Sabriye and Paul started a vocational training farm for blind people in Shigatse, a small city about 270 kilometers west of Lhasa. The farm will train nomads and farmers who became blind at a later age as well as young adults in agriculture, animal husbandry or cheese production. Adventurous excursions are also a staple. A year ago, six of the Center’s older students went on a trek at 7000 meters in the snowbound Himalayas!

As they gain confidence in the warm, supportive atmosphere of the Center, the children start to blossom. “Most kids do not like to go home the first year,” Sabriye says. Indeed, after a few months at the center, one child said, “I do not know why my parents called me a witch. But I know that they had no right to.”

However, the last seven years have not been easy. Within a few months of starting, they were evicted from the orphanage after Paul discovered that its director was stealing the Center’s funds. Luckily, they found new premises immediately. That winter, Paul contracted such severe pneumonia that he nearly died. Money became so short that Sabriye had to put her entire personal savings of 40,000 marks into the project. And to cut costs, for three and a half years, Sabriye and Paul lived in a tiny room in a Tibetan inn, with the toilet nearly 60 meters away. At times, they felt like giving up. “It was quite a struggle,” Sabriye says. “I would not want to do it again.”

Although the Center now has the support of the Chinese and Tibetan authorities and has been featured in newspapers and television programs around the world, financing continues to be a worry. Every year, Paul and Sabriye spend three months in Europe raising money for Blind Without Borders (BWB), as their organization is now called. They do not need much: their budget last year was only $26,000. Says Mark Giffard-Lindsay, an Englishman who runs an anti-poverty program in Tibet. “Sabriye and Paul have a fraction of the budgets of other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here, and ten times the commitment.”

Sabriye, who is now 35, received the Norgall Prize of the International Women’s Club in 2000. She was named by the World Economic Forum as one of the “Leaders of Tomorrow” and as one of its 2004 Heroes, by Time Magazine.
The next big project of BWB is to start an institute in Kerala, South India, at which gifted blind people from all over the developing world can learn management skills that will help them start projects for the blind in their own countries. It will not be easy setting up this ambitious venture, but Sabriye is not dismayed. After all, who would have thought she would be successful in establishing the Training Center in Lhasa?

Although Sabriye’s work does not contribute directly to peace, it certainly does so indirectly, in the tradition of Unicef, which has won the Nobel Peace Prize. By offering hope and fulfillment to a neglected minority, Sabriye has contributed to making Tibet a more just society and furthered the cause of peace. And in the years to come, she will do this in much of the Third World.

Does Sabriye ever regret having left comfortable Germany for the hardships of Tibet? She shakes her head. “What I have always wanted to do,” she says, “is to make a positive difference in the lives of people. That I have been able to do. Even if I died now, I would think that I made the best out of my life. This makes me content, deeply” … (1000peacewomen).


Braille Without Borders BWB, the right to be blind without being disabled (Homepages in german and in netherlands …  (the  Homepages in english, francais and espanol are under construction), and on wikipedia;

International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs IISE;

Blindsight – The Film;

Do we control our brains or do our brains control us? Oliver Sacks, the author and neurologist, describes how the experiences of blind people provide a fascinating insight into the nature of consciousness;

Categories on wikipedia: International nongovernmental organizations NGOs; Braille; Blindness organizations; Schools for the blind; Without Borders organisations.

Comments are closed.