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Father's tears help student understand poverty

  • Story Highlights
  • Father tells student his son died at age five from an unknown illness
  • Tears show the harsh realities of living without medical attention, student says
  • Student realizes the differences between her life and that father's life
  • I will walk away never having to experience much of what he does, student says
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By Kimberly Lewkowitz
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: CNNU is following two student teams from the University of Southern California as they work to improve the quality of life in India. One team, Water Treatment, is working to improve the local water quality. Kimberly Lewkowitz is part of that team. The following is a column she wrote for CNNU about her experience. Read about the teams on the CNNU homepage. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN or its affiliates.

Many children in India lack access to medical attention if they become ill.

(CNN) -- While survey questions can become monotonous, each interviewee has a different story to tell. And we learn new lessons with each story.

The translator and I were asked to sit in chairs while the head of the household sat on the tiled floor.

He was a strong, nice looking man who has four children and rents his home for 300 rupees/month ($7/month).

He was a hard-working man, a lacage worker. As evidenced by the mud under his nails and dirt on his face, he is someone who collects piles of plastic bags for 1 rupee a sack. His wife works in the recycled paper industry, as there were two heaps of shredded papers in the corner of the small room.

Their eldest son is 22 years old and is mentally disabled; the other children are 20, 18, and 13 years old.

During the interview, we ask one question always I dread:

Translator: "I am sorry to ask this question, we are just trying to learn about health problems in Hubli. Please forgive me, but has this family lost any children due to illness?"

I looked down at the sheet; the pen in my hand ready to slid over to check the "no" box. But I didn't hear anyone speaking Kannada. I looked up to meet the eyes of the strong, large man; the base of them had filled up with water.

He glanced down, fumbled with the wood chip in his fingers and drew it in a pattern on the floor ... he then mumbled the answer.

Interviewee (translated): "Yes, he was 5 years old. Very ill, long time. I don't know what it was."

Under his breath the translator quickly directed me to move on, as he did not believe the interviewee would not be able to continue with the question.

I tried to keep myself together as I held my breath in the silent moment. The toddler who had been periodically coughing onto my forearm as she curiously played with my elbow had rested her fingers on my arm, she had seemingly understood that there was a change in the atmosphere.

In the seconds of that small moment, I grew up.

As a 22-year-old, and being far from motherhood, I was nonetheless hit with the reality of raising children in inescapable poverty with little access to health care.

I looked across the room at his mentally challenged son, then to his beautiful teenage daughter. I couldn't settle my feelings of injustice for this family, for their lack of access adequate medical attention.

I swallowed my emotion and proceeded with the interview, but my thoughts held onto the questions in my own mind of the undeserving pain this man and his family have gone through. He continued to answer the survey questions, through the fog in his mind, now filled with the memories of his son.

For the rest of the survey the translator did his best to bring the interviewee back into the present moment. I continued transcriptions but was caught in understanding the complex realities of poverty brought forth from seeing the water swell in the stranger's eyes.

In my mind I could not find the answer for why I have been so blessed in life and others have not. This man's daily stresses in life are nothing compared to those of us who live inside a bubble of wealth, good health, and fortune.

While no human can possible plan out how to spend his last day spent on earth, I must argue that for the thousands of people living in the underdeveloped world, their chances of spending one more day on earth are much less than those of us living in the Western hemisphere.

It is heart-wrenching to find that many of these parents cannot even afford to take the steps necessary to improve their child's chances of survival. I became uncomfortable sitting in his home, knowing that I will walk away never having to experience much of what he experiences on a daily basis.

While he is tied down by the bindings of poverty, I have access to great health care, bountiful food, and incredible opportunities to further myself to make a substantial living. This man must take what he is given, continue to pick up plastic bags, and go home each day to find joy through the smiles of his relationships.

After I left his home, I laced up my Nike's and walked away from a world from which I am far removed, yet living within.

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