April 3, 2017
In my book, No Barriers, I share my experience leading a group of blind Tibetan teens up a peak called Lhakpa Ri. The climb itself was a profound experience for me, but even more so, was learning about these student's lives. Shortly after returning from Mt. Everest, I received a letter from Sabriye Tenberken, teacher and founder of a school for the blind in Tibet. Sabriye went blind at age 12, and having experienced her own sense of alienation and loneliness, she made it her life’s mission to combat people’s assumptions of blindness.
"Later, I sat in the center’s small office, drinking a cup of milk tea with Kyila and Sabriye. Kyila told me her name in Tibetan meant “Happy.” It seemed to fit her; her voice was light and expressive, like a smile was dancing through her words. She came from a small village ten hours by bus from Lhasa, and she had twin brothers, also both blind, who entered the school with her at the same time. Her father had lost his sight as well.
“It was very hard at home,” she said. “I sat around doing nothing. I couldn’t dress myself; I couldn’t eat by myself. My mother took care of all of us, but she went to hospital. She had a heart problem. She worried too much about my brothers and me. After one month in hospital, she wanted to tell me something, but she couldn’t speak anymore. I wanted to know what she was trying to say, and I wished, maybe for just five minutes if I could become sighted, I could see her face, and what it looked like just once. Then she died.”
Sabriye and I sat silently. There was nothing to say, and I thought about her name, Happy, contrasted with her stark early life. “Then at twelve,” Kyila finally continued, “I learn about Miss Sabriye’s school, and my life change. I am here three years now.”
Sabriye & Kyila
Then Sabriye stood up from her desk chair, and said, “I’d like to show you something,” and then led me down the hallway and across the courtyard. We stopped at the doorway of a quiet room, and Sabriye continued, “It was at the school for the blind that one of my teachers asked us what we wanted to do with our lives. What dreams did we have? The teacher encouraged us to think about it for a long time. I was sixteen, and nearing the end of high school. I thought about my life, about people’s expectations of me. In Germany, people have very clear perceptions about what blind people can or cannot do. People kept telling me to go into psychology, or become a lawyer, to do something that had been done before by other blind people, but, to me, it felt suffocating. I wanted to really live, to take risks and push toward unknown territory.” Then she took my hand and pointed my finger into the room. “We do something similar here. We call this the ‘Dream Factory.” We walked inside.
Sabriye, Kyila and I sat down and leaned back against a soft Tibetan carpet, laid over a thick mattress of straw. My arms rested on ornately stitched pillows. “We did Dream Factory,” Kyila said, “and Sabriye asked us what was our dream. It was such a strange question to me, because I didn’t know what was a dream. Sabriye made me think about it and answer, and I said I wanted to start a kindergarten, because I think every child should have a special childhood memory where you can make friends, be naughty, and play with other children. And not be home all alone, with no one.”