LHASA, Tibet — Travelers returning home from Tibet often wax poetic about its awe-inspiring landscapes, friendly red-cheeked monks bedecked in crimson robes, and the pungent smell of yak butter tea that hangs in the air. Less often, however, do they convey stories of Tibet’s impoverished children, though the images may remain clear in their unspoken memories.
The sight of children begging in the bustling streets surrounding Johkhang, the holiest temple in the Tibetan capital, is not an uncommon one. And anyone who has traveled the “Friendship Highway” between Lhasa and the Nepal border has surely seen the swarms of village children, faces and feet black with dirt, that descend upon tourists. While many of these children are not necessarily homeless or destitute, their plight and sheer numbers cause many visitors to avert their eyes.
But there is a place in Tibet where the people do not avert their eyes. The Jatson Chumig Welfare Special School in Lhasa strives to aid the growing numbers of needy and neglected Tibetan children, many of whom are blind or otherwise handicapped.
The school provides disabled and orphaned children with a basic education, vocational training and a place to call home. While they attend the school, the children learn how to make traditional Tibetan arts and crafts that are then sold to support the school. Many of the embroidered boots, painted scrolls and colorful door hangings for sale in the specialty shops of Lhasa come from the workshops of this remarkable school.
The school was founded by Jampa Tsundup, a 52-year-old craftsman with a weathered face and gentle smile. His daughter, Tenzin Choedon, who serves as the school’s liaison, administrator and fund-raiser, translated my conversation with her father. Asked why he started the school, Mr. Jampa Tsundup says his vision was to create a place where impoverished children could become self-sufficient and traditional Tibetan craftsmanship could be preserved. With few financial resources — but plenty of courage and gumption — he opened the Jatson Chumig School in 1993.
Since then the school has grown to accommodate over 70 children, ranging in age from eight to 16. After graduation, it is hoped that the children will be more self-confident and possess the skills that will enable them to make a living in the harsh Tibetan economy. There is no government support for disabled children in Tibet, so the school relies on private sponsors (mainly from Europe) and proceeds from the students’ handicrafts. Sadly, the school’s tight budget, which must maintain the school grounds and its 60-odd workers and teachers, leaves little room to increase student enrollment, despite a long waiting list
In addition to teaching traditional crafts, the school recently launched services designed especially for the education of blind children, many of whom have been abandoned and forced to beg for a living. Despite the fact that Tibet has over 140,000 disabled children (out of a population of 2.5 million), Jatson Chumig remains the only school in the country where disabled and orphaned children are taught academic and vocational skills.
Located on one of Lhasa’s many obscure back streets, the tree-lined path to the Jatson Chumig School leads through a spacious courtyard surrounded by a compound of new buildings, including offices, classrooms, workshops and dormitories. Inside the school’s various workshops, students and teachers work together to produce high-quality, authentic Tibetan crafts. In one workshop they make beautiful door hangings bearing auspicious Buddhist symbols in blue applique, while wood carvings and thankas (Tibetan scrolls) are fashioned nearby. Another workshop is filled with the smell of freshly made incense, which lies in stacks on the floor waiting to be packaged. Yet another room hums with activity as bolts of material are measured, cut and sewn to produce traditional clothing and tapestries.
The school’s colorful showroom is stocked with even more Tibetan crafts, including the traditional embroidered woolen boots worn by Tibetan women and the yellow horn-shaped headdresses worn during religious ceremonies. As visitors finger the crafts, an aged Tibetan man in traditional garb happily shouts out prices for each inquiring customer.
But the crafts and workshops are only part of the children’s education at the Jatson Chumig School. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, the children study Chinese and even a little English for at least six hours each day.
A peek into a room off the main courtyard reveals a class in session. The children are seated at their desks, which are arranged neatly in rows. Some are so young that their feet don’t quite touch the floor. A girl with braids goes to the front of the room to recite a lesson that the class repeats after her. This could be a scene from any school, except the eyes of the children are milky and opaque. A closer look reveals that they are not writing at their desks, but running their fingers over the grooved bumps of a Braille slate.
The blind students’ teacher is Subriya Tenberken. Blind herself, Ms. Tenberken came to Lhasa from Germany several years ago and soon discovered that there was no Braille-like system for her to learn the local language. To overcome this obstacle, she devised a system whereby the Tibetan script could be rendered into Braille, and is now teaching it to her students — the first blind students ever to learn to read and write Tibetan.
The Jatson Chumig School, whose name means “rainbow and spring water,” is striving to improve life in a place where reality does not always match the outside world’s romantic view of Tibet and its people. Rainbows and spring water are nowhere to be seen upon leaving the gates of this amazing school, but they do exist in the vision of its teachers and the hearts of the children whose lives they have changed.