It had been a long and winding road getting to India in the first place – an unimagined outcome of choices made, sometimes with a sense of purpose, at times with reason, and sometimes simply by choosing the less travelled paths. But the promise of adventure and making a real difference had always been the internal force driving me. And there is no time like the present to start living your dream.
I signed up for volunteer service with an organization called Udayani Social Action Forum, a humanitarian organization which offers free education and support of Calcutta's street and slum children and their families.
The first weeks I spent in Calcutta and then later on moved to a boarding school in Gurap, a small town nearby. Over the next few months I discovered a place full of remarkable people. This unselfish dedication to the underprivileged and the poor, the happiness, courage, compassion and faith they shared blew me away and reminded me of my own values which my parents had laid out for me. I learned that opinions might vary from culture to culture, but that values such as fairness, justice, integrity and commitment are universal and eternal. They have nothing to do with culture. These people didn’t drive fancy cars and couldn’t afford the latest boots, but they were so rich in many other aspects. Each of these individuals and so many more have given me an incredible education about the human capacity to overcome enormous obstacles. We are so alike in the most fundamental ways, and that is what is most important is our individual and shared sense of dignity. They have also shown me that success without fulfilment is meaningless. Unless you have a sense of meaning and purpose, life is empty and unhappy regardless of how much prestige, money or education you may have.
I later took the position of a photojournalist and travelled weekly between Calcutta and Gurap. I was utterly astonished at the poverty that came into focus through my camera lens. Often through tears, I documented life and a kind of human suffering I would have thought was unimaginable.
A real change within me happened after I met in the dark of the night a young girl living on the streets, reading beneath a flickering street light. After approaching her she told me that only books can give her hope and strength and her dream is to go to school one day. Upon this encounter I decided to start a fund for girls education.
I think our biggest fear is not the fear of failing, what we fear most is what we are capable of achieving. It is often a paradox, which holds us back from reaching out. When you don’t know your limitations, you go out and surprise yourself. In hindsight, you wonder if you had any limitations to begin with. The only limitations a person has are those that are self-imposed.
Perhaps we are all refugees from something, but I see now there is nothing to fear, that the world we hold onto, the lives we cherish, are a part of something greater, something more. When I look at the children I see it so clearly, that hope, that chance of life, and I know it's worth fighting for.