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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Bringing a new vision to the world of blindness

December 15, 2008

By Siham Al Najami, Staff Reporter
GulfNews - Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Dubai: Founders of a developmental non-governmental organisation have appealed for donations in Dubai through a touching documentary about their mountain expedition with their six visually impaired students from Tibet.
The film, Blindsight, was released in 2006 and since then has won many awards for it depiction of the lives of six exceptional students in Tibet, as they 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, breathtaking threeweek journey is beyond anything any of them could have predicted. It shows their courageous struggle to fight their way through the stigmas of society in order to become vibrant, active, and independent individuals.
"It's not a usual mountain film with a big ending," Sabriye Tenberken, founder of Braille Without Borders, told Gulf News on Friday during her visit to Dubai.
"It's an interesting film as it talks about what is success in life? Do we really need to stand on top? Is this our summit or is this the summit of the sighted? These discussions are all filmed...the doubts and scepticism, hope and team work is all shown."
Feeling different
Tenberken lost her sight at the age of 12 and growing up in Germany pushed her to pursue a challenging task to do something with her life. "I always wanted to get out of Germany. It was my biggest wish. Germany had too many limits," she said.
"I had no place to breathe, no place to create something. The problem is if you're a little bit different and crazy and you're not very conventional then there is not much space for you especially if you're blind or handicapped. Of course we have a lot of support for blind and handicapped people.
"We can study and go to university but then 70 per cent of people with university degrees in Germany are unemployed who are blind or handicapped. This is really bad because you have these really brilliant minds, you have great thinkers and they are just sitting around and just getting their blind money or whatever to keep them silent," said Tenberken.
Her endless challenges to prove her ability to offer blind Tibetan children with opportunities kept her going for 10 years of fund raising for the programs at their foundation in Tibet.
According to the founders, many Tibetans are unaware of the reasons for blindness and base their superstitions about the condition on Buddhist beliefs. A central tenet of Buddhism, the main religion in Tibet, is the law of karma, which holds that responsibility for unwelcome actions is borne by the person who commits them.
"The worst thing is they thought that blindness was a punishment for something you had done in your past life," said Tenberken.
"Some people thought that blind people were possessed by demons."
She adds that some blind children never learn to walk because their parents keep them tied to a bed, while others are locked in dark rooms for years because their parents are embarrassed by their blind offspring.
During her travels, Tenberken also met an eight-year-old blind boy who was given the important task of herding yaks and goats by his village chief. Unlike other blind children who were ostracised, this boy was integrated into village life. He inspired her to set up Braille Without Borders and is part of the Blindsight documentary.
Calling for donations
The founders completely rely on donations for their foundation in Tibet and after establishing the Braille Without Borders training centre there with its unique concepts of empowering the blind to take their own projects in their own hands, the organisation is now taking a next step: The realisation of the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs (IISE) in Kerala, India.
In a one year course the IISE will train 25 to 40 participants who have the right initiative, motivation and potential to establish and run their own social projects.
"We are calling out for donations all around the world to support these projects," said co-founder Kronenberg.
Beginning: Achieving the impossible
Braille Without Borders was founded in 1998 by Sabriye Tenberken and co-founded by her sighted Dutch partner, technician Paul Kronenberg who gave up his career for this life mission.
They both set up not only the school but also a system to teach the blind to read and write using the world's first Braille system for Tibetan script, which Tenberken developed while studying Tibetan in Germany in the 1990s.
She made her first trip to Tibet in 1994 and returned in 1997 to meet with government officials about setting up a non-governmental organisation.
Apart from learning to read Tibetan, the children also learn Chinese and English as part of a curriculum that includes aikido and home science.
The blindsight documentary will be shown on Monday at Cinestar, Mall of the Emirates at 9pm. All the proceeds will be given to Braille without Borders and local vision non-profit organisation Foresight.
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