August 14, 2005.
Lhasa, Tibet - For 13 years, Yudon lived a life in complete darkness, without hope.
It was only when the teenage girl came to the Training Centre for the Blind in Lhasa that she realised things could be different.
"Before I came to the school, I didn't think about my future," said Ms Yudon, who is now 18 and speaks fluent English. "But slowly, slowly I started having plans for the future."
Ms Yudon is one of 76 students at the school, a unique experiment started and run by 34-year-old German Sabriye Tenberken, who herself has been blind since the age of 12. The school teaches English and Chinese and a range of vocational skills, from computing to massage.
Even during the summer vacation the corridors resound with the children's laughter and cheers, in sharp contrast to what their lives would have been outside the school walls.
Blind people are discriminated against all over the world, but in Tibet the problem is compounded by religion, which often hurls blind children into an inescapable vicious cycle, Ms Tenberken said.
"People are embarrassed to have blind children in their family, they are really ashamed," she said, sitting in her light office at her school in the center of the Tibetan capital.
"They think blindness is something very terrible, and they think if you are blind you are punished for something you did in your past life."
She recalled playing the John Lennon song Imagine for her students, and then suddenly noticing the children listening very intently to one particular line evoking a world with no religion.
"Imagine no religion. Some of the children started, 'Wouldn't that be nice.' And there you see what pressure they have in society," said Ms Tenberken.
Ms Tenberken has become a minor celebrity in Tibet, gradually defusing some of the mistrust and suspicion that she encountered initially.
"People come to see the project. They peek through the door and they see the children running around being happy and jumping and speaking three languages fluently, and typing with their typewriter very, very fast,"she said.
"And then they stand there, and then they say: 'If these children are so happy, it cannot be a punishment'."
Apart from teaching marketable skills, the school wants to give the children the self-assurance society has so far made it almost impossible for them to develop.
The aim is to pull the children out of the role as victims and make them confront their disability head-on and in an unsentimental manner, but with humour, according to Paul Kronenberg, Ms Tenberken's partner in life and work.
"We want to give the children enough confidence that they go into society and say, "Hey, I'm blind, so what'," said Mr Kronenberg, a 37-year-old Dutch engineer.
"They go and integrate themselves into society. They show the world that living as a blind person can be as good as a sighted person."
Many people have asked why a blind German woman ended up running a school in Tibet, but for Ms Tenberken it is a fairly logical transition from her previous life. She studied Tibetology at the University of Bonn, where she developed a special type of Braille writing for the blind for the Tibetan language.
Immediately upon graduation she left Germany for Tibet in hopes of finding a use for her invention. She went on horseback across the Tibetan countryside, and was shocked by the conditions young blind people had to live under.
"There were children that were four or five years old, and they couldn't walk, they couldn't talk," she said.
"People didn't trust them to do anything. They were just tying them to the bed, and they really didn't challenge those kids. I also met children who were hidden in a dark room."
Compared to the prejudice confronting blind people throughout Tibetan society, bureaucratic red tape has been only a minor obstacle, although initially the local government in Tibet did not entirely understand or believe her motives.
"They thought, Maybe she comes for political reasons, or maybe she comes for special religious reasons'," Ms Tenberken said. "I'm not religiously oriented. I'm not into Tibetan politics. Finally, maybe after three years, they understood, and they accepted the project."
The German-Dutch couple get by mainly with the help of funding from their two home countries.
With 35,000 blind people in Tibet, there would seem to be more than enough work left for them to do here.
Even so, they have plans to set up training facilities in India, another country with a huge number of blind people.
The key mission everywhere is getting children to love life despite their disabilities, they say. Ms Tenberken gave an example of how one of her students, a girl named Kila, started making money after graduating. The people in her home village, who had before shown little regard for her, now wanted her to make offerings to the monastery. "She asked why, and they said, 'You can become sighted in your next life'. And Kila just laughed and said I really enjoy my life being blind, so 'I better stop giving'."
End of article.
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