Hoping to See a Fair Shake and Her Family Someday

Times Staff Writer

Even without blindness, Vera Saliba's life would be complicated enough.

Her mother and father, two sisters and two brothers live in East Beirut, Lebanon, where, as Christians, they are trapped by bombing, shelling and the terror of war with Syria.

Saliba would like to visit her family but can't. As much as they would like to flee Beirut, they cannot even get to Cyprus, where they might have a chance of obtaining a visa and escaping to the United States.

She Never Returned

So Saliba, 22, spends her days and nights thinking about her family and wondering if they will ever cross paths again. She hasn't seen them, as she puts it, since 1983, when she left Beirut for a two-week stay with a brother in Rhode Island. The fighting intensified while she was away. The airport closed. She never returned.

"My main fear is that I may not see them again," said Saliba, whose vision began to erode at age 4. "It's not an easy feeling to be talking to them on the telephone and hear the bombs dropping in the background. The last time I talked to them, there were so many tears, I had to hang up. I couldn't take it. I worry about them constantly."

Saliba is a senior at UC San Diego, one of the top "computer jockeys" on campus. She wants to be a professional programmer after she graduates in December. Her dream is to work for IBM and to live out the rest of her days in the United States.

She spends most of her time in a bright, airy apartment on campus. Her companion is a Labrador retriever named Amaris, a Seeing-Eye dog who seems to enjoy the sound track from "Les Miserables" and Beethoven's 9th Symphony as much as her master does.

Saliba types away on a Braille computer, reads the printouts in Braille, even labels her cassettes in Braille. No matter what she does or where she goes, Amaris stays with her.

Much of the time she deals with the sadness of knowing that her homeland will never be the same, that at any moment a family member might be gunned down or disappear, never to be heard from again.

The rest of the time, she deals with being blind.

Faint Traces of Light

By 7, Saliba could see distant objects but couldn't read. By 13, she could see only light and shadow; now she sees only faint traces of light. Doctors found that the nerve between the optic nerve and the brain had been irreparably severed. No one knows how it happened, she said, "it just did."

"I'm not angry that I'm blind. I'm used to it. In fact, I'm even proud of it. I'm angry that a lot of corporations will not give the blind a chance. If they say of me, 'You can't do the work,' then they just don't know me. They really don't know anything."

Connie Burton, director of disabled-student services at UCSD, said she has no doubt that Saliba can master any job she chooses.

"She's driven, she's motivated, she wants to succeed," Burton said. "If somebody can see past her disability and see her ability and strength, there's no question that she can be an invaluable employee. She's very intelligent."

Burton said Saliba's intelligence has allowed her to overcome many of the natural obstacles of being blind. When Saliba first enrolled in the fall of 1985, professors were skeptical about whether a blind student could handle the rigors of a major in computer science.

But Burton said Saliba has opened the door for other blind students.

'Been a Real Leader'

"She's been a real leader in changing attitudes. Before Vera, there hadn't been many blind students at UCSD and very few in computer courses."

Saliba is an honors student with a 3.7 grade point average who "gets by" monetarily as the winner of several lucrative scholarships. She's also the winner of a national competition: the 1989 Scholastic Achievement Award, sponsored by Recording for the Blind, which makes recordings of printed matter in textbooks. She will receive the $2,000 cash award from former Treasury Secretary William Simon in Princeton, N. J., on May 23.

Saliba is angry at personnel managers at several local computer companies, whom she said were eager to hire her until they discovered her inability to see (which she leaves off her resumes because she doesn't consider it a factor). Saliba not only wants to be hired, she said, she needs to be. If she isn't employed within six months of graduation, she loses her visa. Then she would have to return to Beirut, where opportunities in computer science are rather limited.

At one local firm, she said, the employer came to the waiting room to greet her. The conversation went as follows:

"You're blind," he said.

"Are you surprised?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"Does it make a difference?" she said. "I can do the work."

"Yes, it does. Frankly, we have a lot of other students who are equally qualified who aren't blind. We'll hire them. We can't hire you."

Grief Won't Go Away

She knows that eventually she will be hired. And that she will do well. She may even make a difference in improving computer programs for the blind, in increasing the number of programs in Braille.

What may never change, however, is the grim reality of life in Lebanon. That's a grief "that just won't go away," Saliba said.

"The war started in 1975, when I was 8," she said. "I remember snipers shooting at me on my way to school. I remember the times when we tried to get home but couldn't. The chaos was incredible. Sometimes it would take hours. We would drive right through the shelling. I remember once having to pay a taxi driver $100, even though my house was 15 minutes away.

"The worst is never knowing what's going on, never knowing when you're going to die--whether it will be tomorrow or the next minute. Death is always a moment away in Lebanon, and that's an awful feeling to live with. It's somehow worse knowing that it affects your loved ones but not you.

"I had a cousin die fighting with the militia," Saliba said. "He was killed by the Syrians. A Palestinian killed one of my best friends.

"I have no prejudice against the Syrians or the Palestinians, just against their leaders, their governments. I see them as villains, of taking away the peace of my family. I hope it will change, but, somehow, I have to think it won't."

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