On Wednesday March 27, 2013, some 15,000 middle and high school students from around the state of Washington are expected to converge upon Key Arena in Seattle to celebrate We Day. The students who are attending share one thing in common – they have committed to work on at least one globally-based service project and one project focused on a local problem.
This event is sponsored by Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, and represents the twenty-fourth gathering and the first to be held outside Canada, the home of the organization. Kielburger now thirty years old has been an activist for the causes of world peace and social justice since a young boy of twelve. His story is exceptional and a brief description of his early life follows.
Craig Kielburger was born on December 17, 1982. He gained some notoriety as an activist for the rights of children around the world. He is the founder of an organization called, Free the Children and Me to We. Kielburger comes from Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. At twelve years of age, he happened to come upon an article about the senseless murder of a young boy named Iqbal Masih. This story was to launch Kielburger on a personal quest that would irrevocably change his life.
Iqbal Masih was a freed child laborer from Pakistan. He had won the Reebok Youth in Action Award on account of his courageous decision to speak out against and in expose child labor abuses in his native country. He came to the United States to receive this honor. This child’s story is representative of the horrors so many children face in South Asia. His parents had taken out a loan amounting to 600 rupees (equivalent to 12 USD) from an unscrupulous lender - who was the owner of a carpet factory - in order to pay for the wedding of their eldest son. As repayment for this loan, Masih was forced to join other children whose job it was to squat before looms in the owner’s carpet factory tying miniscule knots in the products destined for world markets. According to the nature of the agreement made with the owner, Masih would be literally owned by the manufacturer; until, the loan was fully paid off. The boy was, in a sense, human collateral for this loan that in Western eyes would appear miniscule. The “owner” retained the right to “sell” the boy to another factory owner. As a consequence, Masih worked twelve hours a day and six days a week.
This horror does not end here. For it was within the factory owner’s right to add on to the amount of the loan should the boy make mistakes and daily charges were made for the boy’s bowl of rice. In addition, severe physical punishment was applied to these young children when mistakes were made; many of these hapless victims had scars on their hands and feet as a result of this kind of abuse. Accidents were common as well given the long hours and physical exhaustion that accompanied this kind of work.
By the time Masih was ten years old, he realized that he would never be able to pay off the debt which now amounted to 13000 rupees. With the help of a human rights organization that learned of his plight, Masih was able to escape and go on to school where he did exceedingly well. He quickly learned to read and write and became an eloquent advocate for the rights of child workers and eventually campaigned on their behalf.
Masih’s personal dream was to become a lawyer and use his profession to help free more children trapped in the same kind of bondage that severely impacted his life. All his aspirations were to end in tragedy, however, for on April 16, 1995, Masih was assassinated in Pakistan while attempting to visit his uncle on bicycle with two of his cousins; he was twelve years old at the time.
Kielburger clearly remembered reading about this tragic event on April 19, 1995; this news had a profound effect upon him. He questioned his mother about the story; her response was that he should go to the library and get more information. The library was of little help, but by the time he returned home that day he remained extremely concerned about the tragic story of that boy and the horrific injustice that it spoke of.
This harsh reality that he was suddenly exposed to through something as innocuous as a newspaper article, seemed to light a fire in his mind. As a result, he began making telephone calls to organizations dedicated to such issues. Kielburger was to discover that all the persons he talked to over this issue that impacted children were adults; he found this very disturbing. This apparent awakening in his awareness of the magnitude of this social inequity, Kielburger describes in the following way, “I’m always fascinated by coincidences, how one random event can come on the heels of another and together alter the whole direction of a person’s life.”
Eventually, Kielburger would be introduced to Alam Rahman from Bangladesh and shared his thoughts regarding child labor with him. Rahman encouraged him to pursue the issue further. In short order, Kielburger had organized students at his school and together they formed a group called, Free the Children with the goal of raising both awareness regarding this issue and funds to help combat it.
Kielburger often wondered why it was that even as a young boy he was so determined to be involved in such a large and important issue as the abuses of child labor. His Grandfather on his father’s side was a German immigrant who arrived in Canada during the Great Depression (1929-1938). His life and the life of his family were exceedingly difficult; they worked exceedingly hard. In a similar way, his mother’s parents had a tough life. Kielburger felt that he was instilled since childhood with a strong work ethic; his parents believed that anything was possible if one worked hard enough to achieve it. His parents also emphasized the importance of issues of peace and social justice. In addition, his older brother Marc had a profound impact upon him and served as a model for him to emulate, for Marc was concerned about environmental issues as a young boy and became an activist for this cause.
The Free the Children organization began to grow, not only on account of the indefatigable energy of the young Kielburger but also do the upwelling of support his organization received from many of his peers. Many were shocked to learn that there were over 250 million child workers across the globe, and that, in general, their working conditions were abominable.
At the age of 12, Kielburger was invited to address two thousand delegates who were attending the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) regarding the work of Free the Children. As a result of his presentation, the OFL agreed to pledge five thousand dollars to his organization. This initial donation, created the momentum for other groups to donate as well. Free the Children had truly taken off. It is still extant to this day – freethechildren.com.
Kielburger’s real adventure began when his good friend Rahman – mentioned above – decided to take a year off from his university studies to travel through Asia and discover his ethnic roots. He asked Kielburger to accompany him. In this way, he suggested, Kielburger could meet working children throughout the region. It took some convincing to receive the approval his reluctant parents, who were concerned about his safety. Ultimately, they relented provided that some conditions were met to ensure their son’s well-being.
After some negotiations, The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) agreed to contact their offices in South Asia to see if they could help. In addition, PLAN International – a development agency – became involved; PLAN representatives sought to find individuals in the countries on the travel itinerary who would be willing to take care of Rahman and Kielburger.
When all these many conditions were met, the ambitious trip actually materialized. The two traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, Bangkok Thailand, Calcutta, India, Kathmandu, Nepal, Varanasi, New Delhi, India, Karachi and Islamabad, Pakistan, Lahore and many other destinations. In all these various and exotic locations, Kielburger witnessed firsthand the extent of child labor and actually met with many children who described their horrific experiences to him. This remarkable and eventful journey had a definite impact on the young boy’s life. As Kielburger describes it, “Shortly after my return to Canada, a newspaper quoted me as saying, ‘I divide my life into pre-Asia and post-Asia.’ I still do. The trip had a profound effect on me, one that changed my life forever. I would spread the word about the suffering of all the children I met. I would let the world know that we, too, are part of the problem. I would not fail them.”
This remarkable journey irrevocably transformed this young boy’s life. The extreme nature of the social injustice endured by children throughout the world that Kielburger witnessed first-hand made him determined to draw the attention of people throughout the world , especially the young, to the plight of these young victims and to help make a change for the good.