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Despite losing her eyesight at 12, Sabriye Tenberken did not sink into despair. Instead, she went on to develop Braille in Tibetan - a tough first. TOI-Crestmeets the doughty Nobel-nominee who recently started an international institute in Kerala that's lighting up hundreds of dark lives.
By the river Vellayani, 26 people tell their stories. Born in Sierra Leone, Kaprie Kanu was caught by rebel warriors to join the ranks of child soldiers. Born an Albino, Judith Jandi was attacked by witchdoctors in Kenya, trying to kill her as body parts of people without skin pigmentation were considered lucky charms. Kanu, Jandi and other survivors share stories and lessons at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs (IISE) in Vellayani, a village within Thiruvanathapuram. They draw inspiration from the Institute's founder, Sabriye Tenberken, a 40-year-old German woman, spreading light despite her own world going dark years ago.
Tenberken was born to artistes in Cologne. In her 12 th year, she lost her eyesight after ocular degeneration. The experience was hard but Tenberken coped. "Life actually became more colourful because I could imagine things. It's like reading a book and seeing the film afterwards. You can be disappointed because your own imagination was more beautiful. I grew more appreciative of life. " Some suffering came from the outside world. "I lost friends. They didn't want to play with me anymore. Teachers didn't take me seriously. They thought if somebody is blind, they are also not right in the head. "
Her parents shifted her to an extraordinary school. "We were taught not just academics but sports like kayaking, skiing and riding. Our teachers would say, learn the technique and then the world is open. " Instilled with new confidence, Tenberken wanted to travel on graduating. "I had to leave Germany. People there had rigid opinions about what the blind could do, " she recounts. "To be able to get anywhere though, I needed to study languages. I looked for an adventurous place. I thought of Tibet and began studying Tibetology at Bonn University. While studying, I developed Braille for the native language. I created it for myself but a Tibetan scholar asked me to offer it to the blind in Tibet as they had no such tool. "
In 1997, Tenberken traveled to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) alone. She says, "I wanted to convince people I could do things for them. " There was much to be done. In TAR, she found a significant incidence of blindness caused by the UV content of the high altitude area and soot from burning yak dung which settled onto the cornea. There was little scientific understanding. Instead, Tenberken came across blind children hidden away in their homes, even tied to beds, as parents thought their affliction resulted from 'bad karma'.
That's when she decided to do something about it. "I wanted to start a school, teaching these children not only the skills of life but also how to accept blindness without being ashamed. They should think, I may be blind but I can do things even those who can see can't. For instance, the blind can read and write in the dark, " she points out. Traveling to Germany, she raised funds from donors. Back in Tibet, finding love in Paul Kronenberg, a Dutch backpacker, the duo established Braille Without Borders (BWD), an international organisation for TAR's people.
Kronenberg quit his engineering job to stay with Tenberken. Eventually, the couple decided to move to Kerala to set up an institution for the global community. A quaint locale on the banks of the Vellayani provided the setting and the IISE was created in 2009. Aided by donors, its programes involve 'participants' and 'catalysts'. The former have tackled challenges from physical disabilities to social discrimination. The latter instruct on varied topics and range from Patrick Headon, former director, Ebay Europe;international photographer Rick Guidotti and US author Rosemary Mahoney. The duo's efforts are widely recognised. In 2003, the couple was knighted by the Dutch queen. In 2005, Tenberken was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, Tenberken finds not many IISE participants hail from its host country, India. "We want 50 per cent seats for locals but very few come forth, " says Janice Oommen, Institute coordinator. Mohammed Wasim of Bangalore, one of the few blind participants from India, attributes this to low motivation and the difficulty of handling communication in English. Tenberken is unbeaten though. The IISE is increasing local involvement through environmental and educational projects. It offers English classes and a library for local children. A Universal Mobile School and a Hybrid Power Project will be launched. "The stress is also on street kids and labourers' children, " Oommen explains.
Award-winning writer Chandramati, who lives near IISE, says, "The Institute is attempting good things for the community. " Alongside, Tenberken is delighted that IISE's participants are making their dreams positive realities. Pynhoi from Meghalaya, for instance, is creating an intervention centre for children and the aged with disabilities. Jane from Kenya runs a project against Albino killings. Sahr from Sierra Leone has started a social venture already re-uniting 20 ex-combatants with their families. These people were forced to join rebel ranks as child soldiers. Their families had lost hope of ever getting them back.
Many would call Tenberken 'visually impaired'. She responds gently but firmly, "I'm blind. Not visually impaired. Initially, even I didn't like to call myself 'blind'. But later, I realised this was like a magic word. It explains things easily. Nothing else is wrong with me, just that I don't see. "But she has the power to show others the light within them, even inspiring them to spread it.
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