Inspired by the brave acts of a twelve-year-old boy from Pakistan, seventh grader Craig Kielburger and his brother Marc created Free the Children, an organization where children could help end child slavery around the world.
At four years old, Iqbal Masih was sold into slavery by his father at a carpet factory in his native Pakistan for the princely sum of $12.
There, he crouched in constant darkness in a windowless room, using his tiny hands to tie knots, over and over, twelve hours at a time, until his fingers were raw and blistered and bloody.
When he finally escaped from the factory at age ten, he was frail and wizened, scarcely larger than the four-year-old he’d been. He’d never gone to school, never kicked a ball or played outside on a sunny day. Iqbal had been robbed of his childhood – but he didn’t want other children to share his experience.
After gaining his freedom, Iqbal began to speak out about the brutality of child slave labor practices. He traveled around the world to share his horrific stories with schoolchildren and communities, inspiring everyone he met with his courage and compassion.
Tragically, when Iqbal returned home to Pakistan in 1995, he was gunned down outside of his grandmother’s house, likely by a member of the “Carpet Mafia” that had once enslaved him. He was twelve years old.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Toronto, another twelve-year-old, Craig Kielburger, was living a very different sort of life. Craig was a student in seventh grade; instead of windowless factories and tiny knots, his days were filled with playgrounds, basketball courts, and comic books.
But one fateful day, he opened his parents’ newspaper to take a look at the funny pages – and instead, he stumbled upon the story of Iqbal Masih’s life and death. From that moment on, Craig was inspired – he knew he had to make Iqbal’s mission his own, and to do whatever he could to help the millions of children forced into slave labor around the world.
That year, Craig, his brother Marc, and a group of their classmates traveled to South Asia to meet with child laborers, and to learn about the issues that concerned so many children around the world. After returning home, moved by their experiences, they founded their own organization dedicated to ending child labor, Free the Children.
Now, twenty years later, Free the Children is a shining example of the work that young people can do to improve the planet. The group has built over 500 schools around the world, providing educational opportunities to more than 400,000 children. They’ve built health clinics and shipped more than $11 million of medical supplies overseas, improving the health of half a million people. Over 350,000 children throughout North America have gotten involved in at least one of Free the Children’s many programs. “It’s the world’s largest network of children helping children,” says Craig.
Through Free the Children, Craig advocates the philosophy of “Me to We.” “It’s about the ways we live, shop, vote, and interact, recognizing that we can live a life larger than ourselves,” says Craig. “Our daily choices have an impact far beyond what we can imagine.”
To that end, Free the Children works to engage young people in North America in their mission, teaching them simple ways that they can help improve the lives of children on the other side of the world. Often, entire classrooms and schools will join the cause, forming “Youth in Action” groups to raise enough money to build a school, through bake sales, car washes, and even “rock-a-thons” in rocking chairs. For their birthday parties, some children have decided to accept only Free the Children donations, in lieu of presents.
There’s no question that Free the Children’s work has had a positive impact around the world – thanks to the organization’s remarkable efforts, hundreds of thousands now have access to medical care, clean water, education, and sustainable business opportunities. But the impact on the participants is equally profound, says Craig: “In helping others, it helps you.” Volunteering with Free the Children and similar groups “increases students’ grades, and lowers the rates of drug and alcohol use and teen pregnancy,” he says.
Whether children help the organization by fundraising from home or travel overseas to build schools with their own hands, the important work “changes the way you look at the world around you and yourself,” says Craig.
As Free the Children proves, today’s youth are capable of being leaders and making a difference. They’re getting kids out of sweatshops and into classrooms, raising awareness of social issues, and using their brains and passions to improve circumstances for struggling children and families all around the world.
Iqbal would be proud.