By her privileged address off Vancouver's leafy south Granville Street, you might guess that Samira Thomas, 14, spends her holidays at camp -- someplace pricey and safe. In fact, the Grade 9 student has passed most summers since she was four in the world's most deprived -- and least safe -- places. With her Ismaili Muslim parents, Samira has "vacationed" in Tanzania and Pakistan, helping people see life more clearly -- literally. The trips are a project of her ophthalmologist dad and optometrist mom, who work with local agencies to give free eye clinics. Samira contributes by holding eye charts, taking histories or reassuring the fearful. "You're expected to help others," she says of her faith.
Doing so has opened her own eyes, never more powerfully than last summer. The family's clinics in northern Pakistan attracted hundreds of Afghan refugees. "Before I had this experience," Samira says, "if they said 200,000 children are going to die this year from famine, I'd feel bad, but it was always a number. Now, having seen other children who are dying because they don't have enough to eat -- you can actually see the skin hanging off of their bones -- it's personalized things for me."
Making faith personal is a Thomas family value. Samira's father -- who converted to Islam as a medical student in London -- has volunteered in Third World clinics since 1979. An older brother and sister preceded her in their parents' temporary clinics. The trips are organized in part through the international Aga Khan Foundation but benefit people of every faith. Many bear physical and emotional scars of war. Samira remembers an Afghan boy, Nasirudin, whose family had lost 28 members, including his father, making Nasirudin the oldest male. Two sisters have deformities; his mother is gravely ill. "He's the only person who can bring in income, and he's 11 years old."
Such stories have deepened Samira's appreciation for her native land. In Vancouver, she donates time to food drives and April's Cancer Society canvas. At University Hill Secondary, her favourite subjects are English and humanities. Her free time is filled with instant-messaging friends, surfing the Internet and watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? But Samira also keeps a journal, where Nasirudin's story is recorded. Earlier this year, a local newspaper ran a letter she wrote drawing attention to the Muslim festival of Id al-Adha, which encourages the faithful to ask: "Where do I fit in with the human family, and how can I make the lives of others better?" Samira wants to become a foreign correspondent, bringing stories like Nasirudin's back from afflicted places. "Intellectual search is another aspect of my faith -- you're expected to apply your intelligence and knowledge to help others." She's made a good start already.