In April 1995, 12 year old Craig Kielburger was sitting at the breakfast table before school one day. Craig was searching for Calvin and Hobbes comics while eating his Cheerios. He saw a headline in the Toronto Star newspaper that read “Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered.” Upon reviewing the ...
Upon reviewing the article, Craig immediately knew that he had to do something and wanted to make a difference in the world. The newspaper photo would change his life forever.
The accompanying story was about a young 4 year old Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih who was forced into bonded labor. He was chained to a carpet weaving loom, working long hours knotting carpets in a factory.
At age four, Iqbal was sold into bondage by his family for a small amount of money, used as collateral on a loan his parents had taken out to pay for their eldest son's wedding.
Iqbal's family borrowed 600 rupees, the equivalent of less than $6.00, from a local employer who owned a carpet weaving business. In return, Iqbal was required to work as a carpet weaver, tying small, tiny knots that make up the beautiful, expensive Pakistani carpets, until the debt was paid off.
For 6 years Iqbal would rise before dawn and make his way along dark country roads to the factory, where he and most of the other children were tightly bound with chains to prevent them from escaping.
Iqbal was forced to work until he could pay off “his” debt. His pay was reduced for any mistakes he made. The factory owner added fines to his parents’ loan when he made mistakes, making it virtually impossible for the loan to ever be repaid. Iqbal quickly realized that he would never have true freedom and had absolutely no hope of ever escaping his dark, miserable life.
For 6 years he would work 12 hours a day, six days a week, with only a 30-minute break. He was given a bowl of rice each day and earned only one measly rupee, the equivalent of about 3 cents a day. But no matter what Iqbal did the loan just got bigger and bigger.
Furthermore, Iqbal who stood less than 4 feet tall and weighed only 45 lbs, lived under constant fear at work of being beaten with sticks and metal tools by the factory supervisors.
At the age of 10, Iqbal escaped his slavery, after learning that bonded labor was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. By now he owed his owner an insurmountable amount of 13,000 rupees, the equivalent of roughly $420.
Iqbal was caught by police but managed to escape. He attended the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) School for former child slaves and quickly completed a four-year education in only two years.
He traveled throughout Pakistan with BLLF and helped over 3,000 Pakistani children that were also in bonded labor to escape to freedom. He later gave speeches about child labor throughout the world. Iqbal was a passionate, articulate and effective speaker. He expressed a desire to become a lawyer to better equip himself to free other bonded child laborers.
Iqbal began to visit other countries including Sweden and the United States to share his story. He spoke about child labor issues and brought the world's attention to the terrible conditions endured by children forcibly working in the Pakistani carpet-making industry.
Iqbal encouraged others to join the fight to eradicate child slavery. In 1994 he received the Reebok Human Rights Award in Boston and in his acceptance speech he said:
"I am one of those millions of children who are suffering in Pakistan through bonded labor and child labor but I am lucky that due to the efforts of Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), I go out in freedom I am standing in front of you here today.”
“After my freedom, I join BLLF School and I am studying in that school now. For us slave children Ehsan Ullah Khan and BLLF have done the same work that Abraham Lincoln did for the slaves of America. Today, you are free and I am free too."
Tragically, Iqbal paid a fatal price for speaking out and for his growing fame and notoriety. As he increasingly became a well-known international activist fighting against child labor, he also began to receive death threats many said came from the powerful Pakistani carpet “mafia”, controlling the industry.
On one visit home to Pakistan on April 16, 1995, shortly after returning from a trip to the US, Iqbal went bike riding with his two cousins when he was brutally murdered in cold blood. His funeral was attended by approximately 800 mourners.
The Toronto Star newspaper reported that Iqbal was 12 years old when he was murdered, the same age as Craig Kielburger.
Craig saw him as a hero for speaking out about child labor. He was also deeply disturbed and moved by Iqbal’s story. Craig did more library research about child labor and contacted several human rights organizations. He was really surprised as to how little information was readily available on the issue.
About a week later, Craig called a number from an article in the local newspaper encouraging youth organizations to participate in Youth Week. He spoke to Alam Rahman for over an hour about the issue of child labor. Alam supported and encouraged Craig to pursue his idea of starting a children’s group to fight child labor.
Craig asked his seventh-grade teacher if he could speak to his classmates on the topic. He photocopied the article on Iqbal and gathered some statistics on child labor at the local library. Craig was nervous when he decided to speak to his classmates to see if they would be interested in helping and getting involved.
Craig writes in his book, Free The Children, “I always found speaking in front of my peers a tough thing to do and I still had no idea how they would react.” Craig didn't need to worry. Several classmates offered to help by contributing in their own way.
It started off small. The group consisted of twelve, 12 year old idealists, including Craig. They passed around a couple of petitions to political leaders and heads of corporations. Others in the group gave speeches in schools and for religious and community groups.
At first, they raised money from big community garage sales and then donations gradually began to flow in as well. After a while it just snowballed and took off from there. They decided to name their organization "Kids Can Free Children", later known as Free The Children.
One of the group’s first actions was to collect 3,000 signatures on a petition. They wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of India which was put with the petition in a shoe box wrapped in plain old brown paper and sent to India.
Kids Can Free Children was calling for the release of imprisoned child labour activist Kailash Satyarthi ... who was eventually released.
On a later visit to Canada, Satyarthi recalled the shoe box that had been sent to India on his behalf and stated, "It was one of the most powerful actions taken on my behalf and, for me, definitely the most memorable." Kailash Satyarthi later won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
Shortly thereafter, Craig spoke at the convention of the Ontario Federation of Labour. Union representatives pledged $150,000 for a children’s rehabilitation centre in India. The Bal Ashram centre was built by Satyarthi.
Less than a year after Craig started Free The Children, in December 1995, he travelled to South East Asia with 25-year-old, Alam Rahman. Alam, a Bangladeshi, who by now was a close family friend, travelled with Craig for him to see the conditions first hand, for himself.
Craig used money that he had saved up from his allowance and that he had earned doing odd jobs around the neighborhood to buy his plane ticket.
Craig had learned as much as he could about child labor in Canada but now took the opportunity to see the problem for himself. Given he was only 12 years old, it took some convincing of his parents to allow him to make the trip.
On December 9, 1995, Craig boarded a KLM flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over seven weeks, he traveled through 5 countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Thailand. He talked with young children on the streets, in slums and in back alleys and also met with human rights groups. The children he met were working as child laborers in factories and labor camps at boring, mundane, tedious and dangerous jobs.
One of the children that Craig came across was a young girl in Madras, Muniannal, who was about 8 years old. Muniannal worked in the back alley of a local facility sorting through used syringes to separate the needles from the plastic. By asking her through an interpreter, Craig discovered that they obtained these syringes from hospitals and off the streets.
Craig further inquired if the facility was concerned about Muniannal accidentally pricking herself and contracting diseases like HIV and AIDS. Her soft answer through the interpreter was that she would just have to wash it off without getting any medical attention for it.
Some of the other children that Craig met include children who grew up on a brick kiln in West Bengal, India. There were also the Varanasi, Pakistan sweat shop children who had slowly acquired lung disease from breathing in the dust from the carpet factories they worked in, over the years. And there were still other unfortunate, exploited children who were pimped by adults and forced to work as child prostitutes in the Philippines.
These children were not forgotten by Craig. Despite their unfair, unjust, miserable and almost hopeless lives, they carried on.
This gave Craig the inspiration to do something meaningful. He told their stories to the world. He organized and took action on their behalf and of others, to end child labor and help improve their lives.
Craig states that, "Meeting these children is like a gift. When I was in Thailand, I saw a street girl with an orange. She automatically took it and split it with her friend - no question about the matter.”
“And in India, another group of street children were carrying this child with no legs from place to place because they didn’t want to leave him behind. They don’t want to be seen as little creatures who need help," he said. "The only gift you can give them in return for the time they spend with you is to carry their stories home with you."
When Craig visited Iqbal Masih’s hometown of Muridke, Pakistan, he slowly came to realize that Iqbal’s reported story was changed due to self-interest and misinformation disseminated by the government, feuding human rights organizations and the powerful carpet industry.
It was extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction about the widely reported story of Iqbal’s life and death. Craig found out that Iqbal was probably much closer to 15 - 16 years old when he was murdered, not 12 years old as reported by the media.
Additionally, the details of his death were disputed by many. In fact, Iqbal’s very own cousins who were with him when he was killed, changed their story about his murder on several occasions.
Craig, obviously confused and disillusioned took the high road and in his book, Free The Children wrote, “All that mattered was that [Iqbal's] work was still not over and that we were challenged to continue it. In his life and in his death he moved the hearts of those who heard his story. That will never be in doubt."
He goes on to say, "The trip had a profound effect on me, one that changed me forever. I would spread the word about the suffering of all the children I had met. I would let the world know that we, too, are part of the problem. I would not fail them."
While Craig had been travelling there for a little under two months, he learnt that then-Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien was also travelling to India with a Team Canada trade delegation.
"Frankly," says Craig, "human rights wasn’t on his agenda. Just a couple of months earlier, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs had announced that Canada - wouldn’t be the boy scout of the world. This was the attitude we were dealing with and we were frustrated."
Craig requested the Prime Minister to meet with him and some child laborers but was rebuffed. By chance, Craig happened to re-schedule a press conference they had been organizing for the local media to an earlier date. They invited the press corps that were covering Chrétien and his trade delegation.
Craig and the 10 year old daughter of Kailash Satyarthi (the man on whose behalf Kids Can Free The Children had sent the shoe box), Asmita Satyarthi worked throughout the night organizing and getting ready for the conference. They would be accompanied by two former child laborers.
The entire Canadian press corps following Chrétien, consisting of 24 journalists from all of the major Canadian newspaper, TV and magazine outlets rearranged their schedules to cover the conference.
At the conference, Craig was asked by a reporter if he was meeting with the Prime Minister. He truthfully responded that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had said he was just too busy to meet with him, Asmita and most importantly, the two former, exploited child laborers.
Craig added, "Forget being the Prime Minister. It’s his moral responsibility to do this."
Craig discovered the next day, in a phone conversation with his parents back home, that he had made the front page headlines of all the major Canadian newspapers. It was about how he had upstaged Chrétien and how the Prime Minister had brazenly rebuffed him.
After initially being denied a meeting, about five days later, Prime Minister’s Chrétien’s office called Craig to arrange a meeting. Craig met with Chrétien for 15 minutes with the intent of putting the issue of child labor on the Prime Minister’s agenda. This once again made headlines all across Canada and internationally.
The national media loved his story. Craig had been rewarded with free, major publicity for his cause and an amazing media victory for all of his hard work, preparation, persistence and tenacity.
What was even more astounding to Craig was that before he had even returned to Canada from his trip to South East Asia, he carried Kids Can Free Children’s message to more people than he’d ever thought and dreamed possible.
Upon his return, Craig discovered that Kids Can Free Children had been catapulted to an organization of national and even international prominence.
He gave lots of interviews and received tremendous exposure, appearing on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, CNN News and The Oprah Winfrey Show among other well known television programs.
Interviewers and reporters were literally amazed that a young child of 13 years (He had celebrated his 13th birthday away from his family on his trip) could carry himself so well and speak so passionately, intelligently and eloquently.
Furthermore, they found it difficult to believe that he was able to get an enormous amount of free international media attention to publicize his cause, which most people and the general public preferred not to talk about.
Craig states, "Young people have to work twice as hard as adults to gain credibility. The night before I came home from Southeast Asia, a radio talk-show host in Toronto announced that at my age, I should be interested in girls, sex, and video games—certainly not child labor. It’s astounding how so many people share that definition of a ‘normal’ child. They limit the spirit and enthusiasm of children.”
He went on to say, "In fact, I met with drug dealers who have greater faith in children to run drugs than I see people in the US and Canada put in their own kids."
As Free The Children continued to grow and make progress, Free the Children members overcame many challenges, consistently defied expectations and surprised many.
Craig states, “During Free the Children's infant years, we had the daunting task of breaking down the barrier of belief that children were incapable of being key agents of positive social change.”
“As young people with such a powerful message, we were often seen as idealistic in nature; dreamers who could not translate words into action. We often felt discouraged and helpless and asked ourselves, "Could young people really change the world?"
“However, as we continued our research we realized that we held more cards than anticipated. Who could better understand children than children themselves? This realization allowed us to press forward and we felt unstoppable!”
In an interview with My Hero, Craig recounts the conversation he had with another well-known person who devoted her life to the less fortunate, "Of all the well-known people I've met, the person who inspired me the most would be Mother Teresa."
Despite Mother Theresa being small in stature, "she had this incredible power about her... because she had such a big heart. I asked her how she kept her hope in the face of so much poverty and she said 'we must always realize that we can do no great things, only small things with great love.'
we must always realize that we can do no great things, only small things with great love ~ Mother Teresa
In an interview with Seeds and Fruits, Craig continues on these same words by Mother Theresa, “I think these are words to live by. Sure, the world’s problems can seem daunting. But through your daily choices, we can make a difference in someone’s life.”
... But through your daily choices, we can make a difference in someone’s life.
“By simply drinking fair trade coffee or wearing an organic, sweatshop-free t-shirt, our actions have an impact on someone, somewhere. As long as you are committed, you are making a difference.”
Craig ends off with, “If we all do these small things with great love, we are sure to do great things together.”
If we all do these small things with great love, we are sure to do great things together.
On empowering youth, he says, "If you expose young people to the issues of poverty, war, violence and child labor, it's not as if you're taking away their childhood. Young people see it in the world," says Craig.
"We know there are social injustices. Free The Children is trying to help young people not just close their eyes and feel [powerless], but to realize that they do have a positive role to play through very simple, very concrete, actions.”
“Maybe it's a petition, or a letter-writing campaign, or a small fundraiser like a bake sale or a car wash. But it empowers them to realize they can make a difference on some level.”
“And it teaches them that even small actions can help change the world. It creates a sense of civic responsibility, a duty, a sense of global citizenship. It's planting that seed."
Craig says he found true heroes among the street children and child workers he met in poor countries. "They impress me the most because they never give up hope. They have this amazing spirit about them and this amazing sense of friendship where they take care of each other. They've taught me more than any meeting with a celebrity or world leader ever could."
In a 2015 Ottawa Citizen article, Nellie Furtado called Craig the rare individual who has the courage and conviction to act on youthful idealism. “The beauty about Craig is that he followed that song in his heart from the time he was 12 years old,” she says. “He’s different. He’s blessed with a sense of greater purpose.”
Craig contributes a regular column about social activism around the world called "Global Voices" for the Vancouver Sun, Halifax Chronicle Herald, Edmonton Journal, Victoria Times Colonist, Waterloo Region Record, Winnipeg Free Press, Huffington Post and Huffington Post Canada online.
Along with his brother Marc Kielburger, he also writes a column in the Globe and Mail called "Ask the Kielburgers", which offers tips on giving back and socially conscious living.
In June 2010, Craig joined CP24, a Toronto-based news television station. As "Special Correspondent" he interviewed a variety of Toronto citizens and visitors regarding their thoughts about the 2010 G-20 Toronto Summit being held in the city in the weeks following.
He reported locally on eyewitness accounts of the 2010 Central Canada earthquake and at regular intervals during the violent and nonviolent protests in Downtown Toronto on the weekend of June 26 and 27.
Craig also hosts a segment entitled "Living Me to We", interviewing local experts on topics related to socially conscious living.
In 2000, Craig was awarded $319,000 in damages as settlement for a libel suit launched against the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine. The settlement covered Craig's legal costs and the remainder was used to set up a trust fund for Free the Children.
He participated in the 2015 edition of Canada Reads, advocating for Thomas King's book The Inconvenient Indian.
Craig's South East Asian trip was documented in his book "Free The Children" and the Judy Jackson documentary "It Takes a Child". During his seven-week trip to South Asia to visit child laborers, Judy Jackson filmed the experience and turned it into a documentary that would later be known as "It Takes a Child".
This documentary shows first-hand what Craig saw during his journey. It showcases the issue of child labor and looks at "Free The Children". The documentary was first released on November 7th, 1998.
Furthermore, it was featured in multiple film festivals including International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam as well as being featured on 60 Minutes.
In July 2016, Free The Children rebranded as WE Charity. WE Charity, formerly known as Free The Children, is a worldwide development charity and youth empowerment movement founded in 1995 by human rights advocates Craig and his older brother Marc Kielburger.
The organization focuses on young people, with programs in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. for service learning and active citizenship and international development projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America focused on children and education.
The non-profit runs programs in approximately 10,000 schools in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. for service learning and active citizenship, with the aim of empowering youth to become socially engaged.
The domestic youth empowerment work is funded by corporate sponsors and profits from the social enterprise, ME to WE.
In 2013, Charity Intelligence Canada awarded Free The Children its highest four-star rating, along with an A for the organization's reporting of its "social results". In July 2016, Free The Children re-branded as WE Charity, part of WE.
Craig also co-founded Me to We, a social enterprise that donates half its annual profits to Free the Children by selling socially conscious products and services.
The social enterprise donates half of its net profits to its partner charity, Free The Children and invests the other half back into growing the enterprise.
In 2004 Craig co-authored a book with his brother Marc also entitled Me to We. It focuses on explaining their philosophy of volunteerism, service to others and social involvement with contributions by Oprah Winfrey, Richard Gere, Jane Goodall, Desmond Tutu and others.
In 2008, the Kielburger brothers were presented with the Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award for creating Me to We.
Free The Children implements its development projects through its "WE Villages" program, formerly known as "Adopt a Village", in rural China, Nicaragua, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Haiti, India, and Ecuador.
The program is made up of five pillars: education, clean water and sanitation, health, opportunity and food. The fifth pillar, food, was announced by Free The Children in 2012.
Among its other projects, WE Villages builds schools and water wells, provides medical treatment and helps create opportunity programs for people in developing communities. These projects are designed to address the root causes of poverty and remove the barriers to children’s education in the developing world.
In 2008, Free The Children celebrated the construction of its 500th school. In 2010, the organization updated its website to show that it has now built 650 schools and school rooms which educate 55,000 children a day.
Today, Free The Children has built more than 650 schools and school rooms in developing regions worldwide and it has established offices in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, London England and Palo Alto California.
Free The Children works with schools and families in Canada, the United States and the U.K. "to educate, engage and empower young people as agents of change." It does so through its overarching program called WE Schools, a year-long service-learning program launched by WE Day.
The program includes a team of Youth Programming Coordinators who mentor school and community youth groups; curriculum resources for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms; online resources; service campaigns; action kits; professional development sessions for teachers and motivational speaking tours and workshops.
A third party evaluation found that youth participants in Free The Children programs are more interested and successful in school, more likely to vote, better working in teams, better role models to peers and siblings, better prepared for college and careers and more confident in their ability to graduate from high school.
The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative and Free The Children together run the "WE Stand Together" campaign. Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada, wrote in the Globe & Mail that the campaign “generates dialogue for students to share with their family and friends about the history, cultures and traditions of aboriginal Canada.”
More than 400 schools across Canada were involved in 2012, with the goal of emphasizing Canadian aboriginal history, such as the life Tecumseh in classrooms in Canada.
Free The Children holds an annual series of events called WE Day. A stadium-sized event, WE Day brings together tens of thousands of youth in an inspirational event as part of the year long educational initiative of WE Schools.
Attended by thousands of students, tickets are not purchased but instead are given to students who earn their tickets through service in a local or a global cause.
The first WE Day was staged in Toronto in October 2007. It has expanded to into 13 other cities, including London, Chicago, Seattle and San Jose.
Free The Children’s funding comes from young people. In classrooms and youth groups across North America and the UK, young people fundraise for WE Villages through independent fundraising campaigns or Free The Children’s organized campaigns.
A portion of Free The Children’s funding also comes from independent adult supporters, grants and corporate groups.
A final portion of the organization’s funding comes from the social enterprise Me to We, a business with a social mission: to donate half of its net profits to Free The Children and to provide consumers with socially-conscious products and experiences.
The ME to WE website lists its cash and in-kind contributions to Free The Children at over $5 million since 2009. The Board of Directors, who drive much of the corporate funding, consists of dozens of industry leaders. The Board Chairwoman is Michelle Douglas.
According to Free The Children’s website, its administration costs are 10 per cent of total revenues and on average 90% of donations support its programming.
If you would like to fundraise for Free the Children/WE Charity, click here.
If you would like to donate to Free the Children/WE Charity, click here.
Some of this article has been sourced from Wikipedia. Contents have been compiled, edited and remixed. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/. Other sources include Free The Children/We Charity website, Free The Children book, The Ottawa Citizen, The Chronicle Herald, My Hero and Seeds and Fruit. Image Credit: Top Feature Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Craig_Kielburger.jpg
Has there ever been a time that you felt that you just had to do something to help out others less fortunate?
What was it?
Have you ever wanted to make a real lasting difference in the world?
Have you ever wanted to fight for and improve the lives of others?
Call to Action:
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Mark Blaise is an idealistic, socially conscious content creator on a mission to raise people’s awareness while promoting social justice for all. He enjoys curating and writing inspiring and thought provoking posts on social issues, The Golden Rule, personal growth and other amazingly helpful "stuff". His goal is to inspire you to grow and to be a better person by spreading more kindness, showing more compassion, doing unto others, giving back, contributing and helping make the world a better place, while living a truly happy, more fulfilling and inspired life.
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