Kids Can Free the Children

Kids Can Free the Children

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Kids Can Free the Children

The Inuit have fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.

Margaret Atwood

It began on an ordinary day in April 1995. Like most mornings in my Thornhill, Ontario, home, I planned to read the comics while eating breakfast before leaving for school, but a newspaper headline grabbed my attention. “Battled Child Labour, Boy, Twelve, Murdered.” The story told how, at the age of four, Iqbal Masih’s parents had sold him to a carpet maker in Islamabad, Pakistan, for $16 to pay off a family debt. When he was twelve, he managed to escape and began a crusade to help other enslaved children. For his efforts, he’d been killed by a carpet maker’s assassin.

I was stunned and sickened. Twelve, the same age as me! My eyes fixed on the picture of a boy in a bright red vest and a broad smile.

I couldn’t get Iqbal’s story out of my mind. That night I was consumed with thoughts of children forced to make carpets for endless hours in dimly lit rooms and subjected to horrible cruelty. I knew I had to do something. But Pakistan was so far away. I had to find out more.

The next day, my grade seven teacher allowed me to speak to the class. I passed out copies of the article and told Iqbal’s story.

“So here’s my idea,” I said. “Maybe some of us could start a group and learn more about it together.” Eighteen hands shot up, and through that simple action, it began.

During the first meeting at my house that night, we determined our first objective should be to inform people of the plight of child labourers around the world. We read a report about a demonstration in Delhi, India, where 250 children had marched through the streets chanting. “We want freedom! Free the children!”

“That’s it,” someone shouted. “Free the children!”

And so, Free the Children was born.

Our first action was to participate in a youth fair in Toronto where we proudly set up a makeshift information board we’d put together at my home. The other organizations all had impressive professional displays. We noticed a few high-school students taking part, but mostly it was adults doing things “for” children. We were the only group where children spoke for themselves.

People flocked to our table to hear our message. Twelve-year-old children speaking for themselves on human rights? We were an oddity. That day our second goal emerged—putting more power in the hands of children. Children needed to have a voice and participate in issues that affect them.

I was soon speaking to groups everywhere, and that fall was invited to address two thousand delegates at the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) convention in Toronto.

Backstage, I was nervous. When asked how long I planned to speak I said, “Ten or fifteen minutes.”

“You’re booked for three minutes.” I was told. “You’d better cut it down.”

I started, as usual, with Iqbal’s story. Soon, I was interrupted by loud applause, giving me new confidence. As my voice grew stronger, I pushed aside my notes. I could feel the energy of the audience beyond the bright lights.

Often, I was interrupted by applause. When I finished, the audience was on its feet, and fifteen minutes had gone by! Someone took hold of my hand and held it in the air. Then he announced that the OFL was pledging five thousand dollars to our cause!

It started a chain reaction. One union after another matched what the OFL had given and challenged others to do the same.

After an hour and forty-five minutes, I left the stage. Unbelievably, a hundred and fifty thousand dollars had been pledged to help exploited working children in the developing world. Never in our wildest dreams had we expected it. Free the Children had truly taken flight.

I was constantly being asked, “Have you ever met any of these children? How do you really know this is true?”

Soon, I knew I simply had to go to South Asia to see for myself. But my parents wouldn’t even consider it. “It’s another world. It’s too dangerous. You’re only twelve!”

I had discussed the idea with Alam Rahman, a friend I met at the youth fair. At twenty-four, Alam was serious and committed, and my family had grown to admire and trust him. One day Alam said, “Craig, I’m going to visit my family in Bangladesh and then travel around South Asia. Do you want to come?”

“Convince me you’d be safe,” insisted my mom.

When UNICEF agreed to help contact people willing to take care of us, everything came together. Alam went ahead of me to Bangladesh to spend time with his relatives. When I arrived in Dhaka twenty-eight hours after leaving Toronto, Alam met me, and we were off.

Before leaving Canada, I had assumed that child labour was something hidden in dark alleyways. But to my shock, within an hour I came upon three instances, all in full view of the world. During my travels, I spoke with eleven-year old prostitutes in Bangkok and children in India who knew no other life than making bricks out of mud. In a remote recycling factory, I met an eight-year-old with no shoes or gloves who sat on the ground separating used syringes and needles for their plastics. She had never heard of AIDS. When I asked these children about their dreams for the future, they looked at me through eyes without expression.

We made plans to meet with a leading human rights activist in Delhi. We wanted to participate in a surprise raid on a carpet factory to release children held in bondage. In our futile attempts to get to Delhi in time, we ended up in Varanasi, about 250 miles away. Disappointed, we resigned ourselves to missing the raid.

The next morning we learned the surprise raid would be right there in Varanasi! But the organizers felt it was so dangerous I had to stay behind and wait for several anxious hours. When they finally returned, Alam’s first words were, “Mission accomplished.”

I was overjoyed!

Twenty-two children between eight and twelve were rescued from horrible conditions; some with festering sores, all sleep-deprived and malnourished. After the children gave their statements to the police, they were free! I would get to join them on the ride back to their parents. This was the reason for my trip, and my dream came true.

Early the next morning, we piled into two Jeeps for the eleven-hour drive to their village. Soon one of the boys began to sing in Hindi. “Free! We are free!” The others joined in, their voices soaring, their joy erupting to the open skies. When we reached the village, it was two in the morning. “This way, this way,” the kids called out. None of us had slept, but we were wide-awake and wildly excited. When the headlights fell on a mud hut, one boy said, “This is where I live.” The remote village had no electricity, and the dwellings stood in an unearthly pitch-black silence.

The boy went to his home, knocked and called, “I am freed from the carpet factory. I am back!” The door flew open and a woman stood there, absolutely still. Trembling, she reached for her son. “Is it possible?” she cried, over-come with joy. “Thank you, thank you,” she repeated to us. The boy smiled hugely as he waved good-bye and stepped through the door, still hugging his mother.

The same scene was repeated over and over, with parents throwing open the door to the night and the sight of their lost son.

When the last child went to his door, his whole family quickly emerged. “Munnilal, is it really you?” cried out his tearful mother. She pulled him tightly to her, and they stood there motionless, as if the world had stopped.

Putting my arm around his shoulder, I said, “Good-bye.”

Alvita,” he said in Hindi. “Good-bye.”

“I wish you lots of happiness,” I said.

This was the reason I had come to South Asia: To know that change was possible and a smile could return to the face of a child. It was all the inspiration I needed to keep going. I hoped he would remember me, the boy from Canada.

From the moment I returned, our house in Thornhill turned chaotic. Students of all ages from all across Canada wanted to get involved. Speaking requests poured in from everywhere!

Over the past seven years, I’ve traveled to more than forty countries, visiting street and working children and speaking out for children’s rights. During my travels, I’ve had the great honour of meeting with many world and spiritual leaders, but it is the children who have most inspired me with their courage, resilience and hope for a better life.

Every summer we bring new groups of young people from across Canada to the developing world, including Kenya, Nicaragua, Thailand and India, where they volunteer, help build schools in rural areas and learn from the local people.

In my travels back to India, I’ve met many of the children who were freed during the raid on the carpet factory, including Munillal. To my great joy, he now attends school and dreams of becoming a lawyer to help other children enslaved in child labour.

Free the Children is now an international organization of children helping children. Hundreds of thousands of youth in thirty-five countries are now involved in our activities. Through lobbying and meetings we’ve helped persuade governments around the world to tighten laws against those who use child prostitutes and child labour.

We’ve raised money to build over 300 schools in the developing world, providing education to fifteen thousand children. Our youth have collected over one hundred thousand school and health kits to help children go to school. We’ve established partnerships with communities in twenty-one countries to provide them with clean water, health care and alternative sources of income to free children from poverty and exploitation. We’ve done this not with a large bureaucracy but through a revolutionary approach—tapping the heart and spirit of young people who believe they can make the world a better place for other children using speeches, bake sales, car washes, donated birthday money and a lot of positive spirit. An adult board of directors handles legal and financial matters, but youth remain the heart and soul of Free the Children.

To clarify our uniqueness, we recently changed our name to Kids Can Free the Children. New projects include a Youth Ambassadors for Peace training program in 150 schools across North America and the publication of a leadership manual called Take Action that tells children how to get involved in social issues in their communities and in the world. We believe the sky’s the limit with respect to what young people can accomplish.

Just before Christmas 2001 we sent nine thousand school and health kits to the children of Afghanistan, along with dolls and blankets. Each kit was personalized from a North American child with drawings and letters saying things like, “We love you” and “We want world peace too!”

We’ve learned you don’t have to be a president or CEO, rich or powerful to change the world. Our actions are simple: Anyone can get involved. All you need is the heart of a child. Who knows? Maybe some day we’ll have a United Nations of Children!

Craig Kielburger
Thornhill, Ontario

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