02/09/2011 09:11 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Witnessing Desperation: Four Who Dealt With It

As the uprising in Egypt continues, it's hard for most of us to comprehend the desperation of being denied even basic rights. In dozens of countries where abject poverty remains the norm, I've learned firsthand about the strength of the human spirit in the face of obstacles.

Here are four people I've met in my travels whom I have especially admired. All of them were locked into centuries-old unfair systems. All worked hard. All had little hope for advancement or comfort for themselves:

  1. While executive producer of a video shoot in the Philippines for the Defense Department I spent many weeks with my driver in Manila, and by the end of the shoot, he became a cherished assistant and an intuitive friend. I visited his extended family for a delicious dinner in a house with two rooms, and an outhouse.

    Even with his limited education and tiny income, he was so smart that I really think if you put him in a suit and gave him a briefcase, after a few hours he could have brainstormed at a think tank with the best of them. Yet he could not find work that paid enough to support a family. We both shed tears when I left -- mine were for his wasted potential.

  2. In India, my driver talked about marriage and love, and he was funny and charming. We laughed together for two weeks at his sly jokes and I learned a great deal from his openhearted take on life. We would sing Beatles songs and share bits of wisdom.

    He brought me to his one-room lodging in Delhi to meet his wife and son. He was a fine, hard-working man, yet he had to sleep in the car because he wasn't even allowed in the hotel where I lodged.

  3. In Jakarta Indonesia, as a young porter explained my guestroom thermostat, he spied the book I was reading. We talked about his love of fiction and his wish to be a teacher. But he supported an extended family including his parents and grandparents. He taught himself English by reading the paperbacks that guests left behind. I gave him my chick lit paperbacks, a guidebook and a bunch of New Yorkers. And he smiled, but I'm not sure what he must have felt as he saw me go along my way.
  4. Especially close to my heart was the Spanish tutor I met at a language school in Antigua Guatemala. The tutor was paid meager wages and not even allowed to drink coffee with her students (until I protested to the school's director). She traveled by foot and bus for three hours each way to work. Electricity was on for only a few hours a day in her village, and she had no indoor plumbing. Her husband was an illegal migrant worker in Texas and she cared for her small daughter alone, with help from her mother.

    The tutor and I joked and talked for a week, and I took her for a daily lunch at a Chinese restaurant on the plaza: two giggling women sharing lemon chicken. At the end of our time together she showed me hundreds of love poems that she had written, and I was so happy for her.

But she told me they were only a dream.

Seeing systems throughout the world that thwart potential and erase hope, I've learned that people may be impoverished, challenged daily to provide and survive, and staring at a bleak future; but they are often remain intellectually curious, ironic, funny, ambitious, loyal, diligent, patient, even poetic, despite their difficult conditions. They deserve better, and they often fight to achieve better for themselves and their children.

I hope that as Americans we challenge our negative presumptions about much of the world by reaching out to those we don't usually notice. Not just in great cities, but in areas where tourists are few. Not just whizzing past villages in a tour bus, but by interacting with the people in those villages.

Despite external differences, deep down we are all the same: We all crave respect and opportunity for ourselves and our families.

With interaction comes better understanding of uprisings that come with such force, whether at the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square or central Cairo.