01/18/2016 11:49 EST | Updated 01/18/2017 05:12 EST

Teaching Civic Duty At A Young Age Can Make A Real Difference

From a very young age, my parents taught my siblings and I, through instruction and example, that doing even a little can lead to a lot. But what initially felt like a pointless, mind-numbing activity became a valuable exercise in developing understanding and empathy.

She stood there, both hands clasping her face, weeping profusely. The tears were tinged with more than sadness: they flowed as a sign of overwhelmed relief and even disbelief. Minutes before, young Anila was telling me about her challenges as a poor orphan living in a slum, how her elder brothers worked menial jobs so the three could survive and she could go to school, but could not afford it any longer.

Evidently a bright girl, her lofty aim was to eventually complete her doctoral studies and make a difference, yet at the moment she was unable to pay for college entrance exams, let alone her tuition fees. Touched by the young girl's ability to dream despite the apparent impossibility, I expressed my resolve to support her education, which drew heartfelt sobs as a response.

It wasn't the first time I had encountered this type of reaction, and it likely won't be the last. And often it is impossible not to reciprocate their tears out of empathy.

Image credit: Shujaat Wasty/RSF

I recall meeting another orphan, Suhana, who cared for her two young brothers by herself at a displaced population camp. She earned paltry sums working as a housemaid in deplorable conditions.

Initially reserved, as if gauging whether I could earn her trust, she finally opened up and tearfully recounted some of her daily struggles, how her makeshift shelter was damaged and caused her to fall twice into open sewage.

I made my way to her shelter and found it to be worse than what I had imagined. The single-room hut was hot, decrepit and cramped, and at the moment had a gaping hole as part of the wall had caved in. Even worse, it was located in the outskirts of the camp, leaving Suhana and her brothers completely vulnerable to any intruder. Sure enough, she mentioned that some miscreants had tried to harass her the night before.

Amid these already concerning circumstances, I glanced over at the meal she had prepared for herself and her brothers: a small bowl of plain boiled rice with a slice of tomato and some withered strands of onion. That's it. I would have found it difficult to eat ,much less have my fill, and yet it was their only meal of the day.

As I made arrangements to improve their situation, I was nagged by a weighty thought: that which we privileged beings take for granted is an inconceivable luxury elsewhere. It is an oft-repeated mantra, fleetingly shared on social media networks through powerful photos or provocative memes, but seeing is truly believing.

And for an outsider looking into the sobering world of the millions of Anilas and Suhanas around the world, it can be a struggle to put things in perspective, especially after returning to the relatively comfortable confines of our own realities.

Image credit: Shujaat Wasty/RSF

From a very young age, my parents taught my siblings and I, through instruction and example, that doing even a little can lead to a lot. It was difficult at times to wholly understand why we were to keep aside a portion of our weekly allowance to give to charity (perhaps they could have withheld it at the source and introduced us to income taxation instead). And having my mother effectively force me to spend countless hours volunteering in a local food bank and with elderly patients at a nearby hospital was a damper during summer vacations.

But what initially felt like a pointless, mind-numbing activity became a valuable exercise in developing understanding and empathy. Packing food and handing over boxes exposed me to shocking poverty subtly hidden in a generally well-to-do Canadian suburb. Yet the experience wasn't as painful as building a rapport with elderly patients at a local hospital, for whom our time together was a refuge from their otherwise loneliness, only to return days later and be informed that they were no more.

At those moments of vulnerability, having caring parents to turn to was an invaluable gift. They provided emotional strength and drove my motivation to continue engaging in such causes.

Now, having volunteered for close to a decade in different humanitarian contexts, my interactions with the poorest of the poor -- orphans, widows, displaced persons, victims of violence -- have allowed me to appreciate the stories reported in the news, and more so those that fail to make the headlines.

The daunting numbers of those in need globally are more than just statistics -- each is a person, an individual with likes and dislikes, with hopes and aspirations for love, happiness and a better life for themselves and their family. It is a matter of human dignity and respect.

If we can gain this appreciation sooner as a society and each do our part as individuals to help make a fellow human's life better, we can actively contribute more positivity to our world. Promoting activities that address this early on can be a catalyst to produce engaged, conscientious human beings. At some point, it has to be an integral part of our civic duty and our parental responsibilities.

If we can breed the sense of regularly taking a step away from our occupations to make life better for another, it would be a significant collective step forward. Neil Armstrong's famous words after landing on the moon, "One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind," hold true for each of us right here on our beautiful planet.

Small steps that we incorporate in our lives will inevitably yield giant leaps for all of humanity. It's just a matter of seizing the opportunity to do so.

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