What the Heart Sees

With Tzu Chi’s help, Sofyan Sukmana traveled from Indonesia to Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan five times over 11 years to have a tumor treated. The visits began when he was 15. He is now a 34-year-old married man running a computer learning center for the visually impaired. Help from Tzu Chi turned his life around, so he is now paying it forward, using his computer skills to light the paths of others.

Sofyan prepares to upload a new video to his YouTube channel. He started it in January 2021 and now has more than 2,000 subscribers.

This is a screen reading program for the visually impaired. If you want to learn how to install the 2021 portable version, please stay tuned at the end of this video,” said Sofyan Sukmana in a cheerful voice. He was working on a video to upload to his online channel.

Sofyan is almost completely blind himself. It’s hard to imagine how he could create all of his videos on his own. He chooses the topics, records the videos, adds subtitles, and uploads the videos all by himself. He launched his channel, Dunia Netra, in January 2021. It now boasts nearly 2,300 subscribers.

Teaching the blind computer skills

Sofyan was diagnosed with a facial tumor when he was a child. His condition was later determined to be fibrous dysplasia, a benign bone condition in which abnormal fibrous tissue develops in lieu of normal bone. Even two surgeries failed to arrest the growth of the tumor. Eventually, it reached 15 centimeters, drastically deforming and distorting the right side of the boy’s face and eye. The vision in both of his eyes was also marred by the enormous growth. When he was 15, Tzu Chi volunteers in Indonesia saw him for the first time in a free clinic event. They decided to arrange for him to receive treatment at Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan. Sofyan made his first trip there in 2005, followed by four more visits over the next ten years.

Sofyan lost the sight in his right eye due to the tumor, but that in his left eye was saved when the tumor was removed in 2005. Unfortunately, the tumor grew back a couple of years later. Though it was successfully removed again, the vision remaining in his left eye was seriously impacted. He is now almost completely blind.

His blindness notwithstanding, Sofyan is known for his studiousness and drive. He never ceased to explore his potential, and he worked hard to learn marketable skills, hoping one day to become economically independent. His hard work paid off. He is 34 and has worked in a bank and at a marine transportation company, and he ran a small business.

To learn computer skills, he attended computer courses offered by Mitra Netra, a non-profit foundation for the visually impaired. He was still living in North Jakarta at the time, and he’d have to take several buses to South Jakarta for classes. He reflected on his computer training: “Knowing how to use a computer improves the chances of success in your education or career. What I learned at Mitra Netra is important for the unsighted. It’s what inspired me to offer similar classes for the visually impaired.”

Sofyan graduated from Indraprasta PGRI University in 2018 with a degree in psychology and counseling. Afterwards, he opened a computer learning center in a housing village built by Tzu Chi in Cengkareng, West Jakarta, teaching the blind how to use word-processing and other software. His wife, Februari Anawati, taught in the classes too. He named his center “Light of Hope.”

Many visually impaired people need training to use computers, and he had students as young as kindergarteners. Those students who had the means to pay were charged only 30,000 rupiah (US$2.1) for two hours of courses, but students from destitute families could attend the classes free of charge. Sofyan said that this way he could help visually impaired people and support his family at the same time.

When the coronavirus epidemic broke out in 2020, Sofyan saw the number of his students plummet from 50 to five. “My enrollment took a nosedive,” Sofyan said with a smile. “I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands, so I began thinking about what I could do with my extra time.”

He decided to try teaching via the Internet. Through an assistance program organized by Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, Sofyan was able to connect digitally with and teach visually impaired students in eastern Indonesia, Sumatra, and Bali. Later, he learned that his students already knew of him, because they had all subscribed to his YouTube channel. Ten people now regularly attend his online classes. Faizin, one of the students, lives in Pekalongan, Central Java. He is learning how to create electronic charts and tables. “Teacher Sofyan explains things in a way that’s easy to understand,” he said. “His classes are laid-back and fun. Sometimes we even chat and joke around a little.”

Sofyan runs a computer learning center for the visually impaired. His wife teaches in the center too.

A stepping stone, not a stumbling block

Sofyan has experienced a lot of hardship in his life because of his illness, yet he has turned out to be such a fine, positive person that his story inspires courage in people struggling with similar challenges in their lives. When Sofyan was a child, his parents spent almost all their money on his medical bills so that his condition could be treated, but to no avail. Even though his treatment in Taiwan was much more successful, he eventually lost nearly all his eyesight. Every time his tumor grew back, he had to go under the knife again. It was a long, excruciating journey, but Sofyan refused to be knocked down. He said that even though he couldn’t see, his heart could feel the love from people around him. Sustained by such care and kindness, he never gave up pursuing his dream—that one day he could use his expertise to help others.

“I have a motto: don’t look upon your disability as a stumbling block, but as a stepping stone to a better future,” he says. He hopes that his motto can inspire other disabled people to lift themselves up and live happier lives. He believes that it’s of the utmost importance to accept yourself as you are. Only with a healthy mindset can you find the peace to live well.

Tzu Chi volunteer Leo Kusno (梁國瑞) often visits Sofyan to check on his well-being. He admires Sofyan for his ability to think positively and for continuing his learning. “Sofyan is really something,” said Kusno. “If more young people in Indonesia were as determined as he is in improving themselves, Indonesia would no doubt become a more prosperous and advanced country.”

Sofyan said that he would never forget how kindly Tzu Chi volunteers and Dharma Master Cheng Yen have treated him and his family. Beginning at age 15, he traveled five times in 11 years to Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan to undergo his surgeries. Volunteers were with him every step of the way and treated him like family—and they are still there for him today. He said, “My dad told me before he passed away that I must have faith in myself because I have many people’s support. He encouraged me to prove with my own actions that I have the ability to stand on my own.” He didn’t disappoint his father.

Sofyan recalled what Master Cheng Yen said to him when he met her in Taiwan in 2008. “The Master said to me at the time, ‘Though the world you see is dark, be sure to keep your heart full of light.’ I’ll always bear those words in mind.”

January 2022