Interview Of The Week: Trivandrum's Phenomenal Female
Sabin Iqbal finds out that blindness has only made Sabriye Tenberken more resilient, and her amazing world more colourful.
On Jun 27, 2010


Sitting across her in the balcony overlooking the taut, beautiful Vellayani lake, sipping cold coffee and discussing about chasing one’s dreams and visions, I cannot but be amazed by this phenomenal German woman who makes her home in Trivandrum.

She takes occasional swigs from her cold coffee and talks passionately about her journey — from Bonn to Tibet to Trivandrum.

The journey has been fascinating and exciting: it has seen Sabriye founding a school for the blind, with her partner Paul Kronenberg, in Tibet and a unique leadership school for social entrepreneurs on the bucolic outskirts of Trivandrum.

Sabriye Tenberken is nothing but phenomenal.

Little Sabriye’s world changed when her parents told her when she was nine that she was gradually becoming blind. Her parents — a musician and a theatre director — took Sabriye to museums and landscapes across Europe — showing her as much light and colours as possible before she would turn blind. Sabriye observed everything, knowing that it was perhaps the last time she would be seeing them. She prepared herself to live the life of a blind by switching the lights off in her room and training herself to live in darkness.

“I waited for darkness, but darkness never came,” she says. She became blind when she was 12, but, for Sabriye, blindness is not darkness. “When I became blind my world became more colourful.”

She began to imagine. She added colours to her imagination. The world looked much better and more colourful. But the reaction of people around her made her angry. “It made me frustrated, lonely and angry,” she says. People’s soft approach to her made her feel small. “What’s wrong? Am I wrong, or they?” little Sabriye asked herself. She didn’t want others to dictate terms to her. “I didn’t want others to take decisions for me and tell me what to do,” she says.

Interview Of The Week: Trivandrum's Phenomenal Female
Participants from different countries at IISE

She says it is the ‘constructive anger’ that takes away self pity. “I am blind, so what?” she asks. “The blind live in a world made for sighted people,” says Sabriye (pronounced Sah-bree-yah). She needed to equip herself to live in the world made for the sighted. She went to a school for the blind near Frankfurt. “It was the best thing in my life.”

The boarding school taught its students outdoor activities like horse riding, swimming, white-water rafting along with Braille. “Above all, they taught us self-reliance,” says Sabriye, enjoying a waft of cool breeze from the lake across the Laurie Baker-designed green campus of the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs (IISE). It is a holiday for the campus after a week-long exhibitions and activities. The campus has 29 participants from 20 countries, equipping themselves to run their dream social entrepreneurship projects.

“I was happy at the school. I had friends. I was equal and happy,” she says about the Frankfurt school.

It made her come to terms with her condition with boldness and confidence. “I may be blind, so what? I can do things, perhaps what others cannot.” Sabriye grew in confidence about her talents and skills. “I am blind but I am not stupid,” she says.

Path-breaking Effort

Sabriye majored in central Asian studies at the University of Bonn — the only blind student out of 30,000. When she decided to study Tibetan language many, including professors, discouraged her as there was no Tibetan Braille script.

But Sabriye wouldn’t take no for an answer. In her dictionary there is no word called ‘impossible’. “If you can do it, I too can.”

Sabriye created the Tibetan Braille script using her own method. She compiled a Tibetan-German/German-Tibetan dictionary and was instrumental in developing a software to transpose Tibetan texts into printed Braille - a unique feat.

Interview Of The Week: Trivandrum's Phenomenal Female
A typical day at IISE
Interview Of The Week: Trivandrum's Phenomenal Female
Sabriye and Paul - Partners for life, partners for a cause

Sabriye wanted to take her system to Tibet so that the blind people (over 35,000 people in a population of over 2.5 million) there could benefit. But Sabriye was rejected by several development organizations which thought she would be a liability to them. “I decided to start my own organisation,” she says about the genesis of Braille Without Borders, which she and Paul founded in 1998, at the age of 26.

She went to China alone, did an intense course in Chinese and travelled to Tibet, to the surprise of her distracters.

Sabriye decided to travel across Tibet, spreading awareness about her Braille system, and Sabriye being Sabriye, wanted to do it in her own inimitable way: with three companions, she rode on horseback from village to village through flooded rivers and mountain passes.

What she saw in the Tibetan villages shocked her: blind were isolated and disrespected; children were abandoned, out in the streets begging; they were illiterate and even tied to bedposts while parents were working. “When they first saw me riding a horse, they refused to believe that I was blind,” Sabriye says, taking another swig from the cold coffee, and greeting one of the participants, who stepped on to the balcony hearing her voice.

Sabriye doesn’t believe in ‘helping’ the blind to live an isolated life. She wants them to integrate into the society and do what normal people do. “I've never liked the word "help" in the sense of the Samaritan. I never wanted just to go there as a Western person and help the blind by telling them what to do. I am one of them, and it's their project as much as it is mine.”

She founded 'Braille Without Borders' in Lhasa with Paul, whom she met as a backpacker in Tibet. “When I shared my vision with him, he just quit his job and joined me, running with me.” They have also become partners in life.

'Braille Without Borders' is the region’s first rehabilitation and training centre for the blind, bringing literacy to thousands of blind people in Tibet. Sabriye, who was featured in Oprah Winfrey Show as one of the Phenomenal Females, believes that the change in the community’s perception of the blind should begin from the blind people themselves.

It was their search for a place to set up the IISE in South India that brought Sabriye and Paul to Kerala. They spoke about their vision of the IISE in a New York Times article about them. Navin Ramachandran, a consultant in the US, happened to read it and brought the couple to his native city of Trivandrum.

The IISE is training its second batch of ‘participants’ on an 11-month full scholarship programme on social projects. Sabriye, who has won the highest German order and was TIME’s 2004 European and Asian Hero, has been knighted along with Paul by the Dutch queen. Author of three books, Sabriye was chosen as Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in 2005. In 2009, the Chinese government recognised her as one of the 15 most influential foreign experts in the last 30 years.

Sabriye believes blindness has helped her become a better leader as she is not prejudiced by seeing. “It (blindness) has helped me concentrate better, and I am open to new people.”

She feels being blind makes her proactive and communicate better.

“You cannot insult me by calling me blind because I’m proud to be blind,” she says as we both drink the cold coffee to the dregs.

As I drive along the Vellayani lake there is no doubt in me that the 39-year-old is truly a phenomenal female. And her parents were prophetic when they named her Sabriye, which in Arabic means ‘resilient’.

Who says what’s in a name?

Sabin Iqbal

If anyone wants to be a volunteer with BWB or donate to the cause, please contact: [email protected]

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What a character!!
[email protected], on Jun 27, 2010 10:35:57 PM
Anyone who feels that he/she's being meted out with the worst things in life must take a look at people like Sabriye before they complain!
Ekanthapadhikan, on Jun 27, 2010 10:56:18 PM
Inspiring story. Hope you come across many more sabriye's soon :-)
Beethoven, on Jun 27, 2010 11:18:02 PM
Nice article !
Shivaji Ghosh, on Jun 27, 2010 11:35:47 PM
Brilliantly amazing...
Anil, on Jun 28, 2010 06:15:42 AM
Sabin - That's an awesome article...and to who ever is reading..it's all true. I have the honor of working with this phenomenal woman! Lucky me!
Noora, on Jun 28, 2010 02:18:53 PM
Truly inspiring. A must-read article.
Nivetha , on Jun 28, 2010 09:49:17 PM
Outstanding interview- keep up the good work!
Sarat, on Jun 29, 2010 06:33:20 AM
i luvd her spirit..!!very few people cn subdue deir weakness n b challenging..!!
Jessita, on Jun 29, 2010 06:57:36 PM
Thanks for all the comments. Try and visit the campus at Vellayani. You will surely be amazed.
Sabin, on Jul 02, 2010 11:30:45 AM
Lovely stories - grabbing intro, scene well set, lovely pictures painted mingled with appropriate facts, a good choice of quotes with an inspirational story done in a journey type style
Paul Chandy (Kayalackakom), on Aug 18, 2010 04:26:15 PM
great initiative team kanthari.All the best wishes..
JISHNU.K, on May 29, 2014 08:45:12 AM
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