A one-man mission turned global crusade

Sunday interview Craig Kielburger's high school petition to prevent child labour has turned into one of the biggest children's charities in the world.

Craig Kielburger, pictured here with a child labourer, established Free the Children after reading a newspaper article about a Pakistani boy who was murdered for campaigning against child labour.
Powered by automated translation

Not too many people have shared a stage with Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Queen Noor of Jordan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, let alone at the age of 24. And even fewer could pick up the telephone to ring King Constantine of Greece, Gwyneth Paltrow or Michael Douglas and be confident that they would take his call.

Craig Kielburger, the founder of the Free the Children charity, doesn't take any of this for granted but neither does he hesitate to use his stellar contacts when he thinks it will help. He's been marching up to celebrities for so long now that it's just second nature to him. It doesn't occur to him that they might turn him down, and few do. Even the all powerful Oprah Winfrey has had him on her television show several times and lent her unparalleled backing to one of his projects.

Kielburger was recently in Dubai to receive a cheque for his charity for Dh7 million from Nakheel. His story and the story of the charity is testament to his determination to prove to the world that the actions of a single person, even a child, can change things for the better. He was just 12 years old when he read an item in a newspaper that was to alter both the course of his life and that of the hundreds of thousands of less fortunate young people whom he has helped.

Two months short of his 25th birthday, Kielburger still remembers his feelings of anger and outrage all those years ago as he was sitting at the breakfast table at his family home in a suburb of Toronto on April 19 1995. "I was flicking through The Toronto Star looking for my favourite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons," he says. "It was my morning ritual, but this particular morning I didn't get past the front page. A picture of a young boy caught my eye. He was wearing a bright red vest and raising his hand over his head. The headline said 'Battled Child Labour Boy, 12, Murdered'."

The details of the story still have the power to shock. The murdered boy was called Iqbal Masih and his parents sold him to a carpet weaver when he was four to pay back a loan of less than $16 (Dh58). Masih, from the village of Muridke, 35km from Lahore, Pakistan, used to work for 12 hours a day, six days a week tying tiny knots to make carpets. When he was 11 or 12, he managed to escape from the factory and run away. He then became an active campaigner and with the help of human rights groups travelled around Pakistan on a one-boy crusade against the evils of child labour. The newspapers got involved and he became so well known that he began to receive death threats from people connected with the carpet industry. One Sunday morning, he was riding his bicycle with two friends around the village when he was shot dead. The newspaper article said he had been murdered for raising the issue.

"I was so angry. He was the same age as me when he was killed," says Kielburger. "I tore the piece out of the newspaper and went into school and asked my teacher if I could speak to the class. I remember feeling nervous standing there but when I started to tell them the story of Iqbal, everyone went quiet. I asked them if anyone wanted to help me. Eleven people put their hands up. They were mostly my friends. After school, we got pizzas and sat working out a plan. We really didn't know what we were doing or where we would go with this but just felt the need to do something.

"We went to the public library and looked up stories of children younger than us who spent endless hours in dimly lit rooms making carpets, often chained to the looms. We read about other children who worked in coal mines bringing coal to the surface and there were other stories about explosions in fireworks factories where children were killed. "My feelings and those of my friends were of horror and outrage. We had so many questions about parents who would sell a child into slavery and employers who would chain children to the looms."

Kielburger already had a role model in his elder brother Marc, who at the age of 13 turned a passion for environmental issues into a serious local issue. He founded environmental clubs, created petitions and eventually became the youngest person in the province to receive the Ontario Citizenship Award. "I just asked myself what would Marc do and I knew he would say we could make a difference if we tried. Very soon, our group was being approached by other schools and we would copy the story of Iqbal and go and visit them to tell them what we were doing. It just seemed to spread. I think we were very lucky that this was the beginning of the age of the internet and that was the preferred medium for most people our age. We were absolutely stunned to realise how quickly we were growing.

"We began writing petitions and holding garage sales to make money," Kielburger recalls. "Our home became the campaign headquarters and my parents got used to coming downstairs in the morning to find 10 or more of my friends sleeping on floors and sofas. The phone would always be ringing as other kids let us know they were going on a march or that they had found out some new statistic that they thought would help."

One particular milestone was when the group learnt that a young man called Kailash Satyarthi, who had been campaigning in India against child bonded labour, had been arrested and detained. Kielburger and his friends went out and collected 3,000 signatures, wrapped them up in a shoe box and sent it off to the prime minister of India. "A year later, Kailash came to North America to speak after he had been freed and said our shoe box was one of the most powerful actions taken on his behalf."

By September 1995 the impact of the movement on the Kielburgers' family life was so severe that Craig's mother took him aside and told him they needed to get back to a normal life. "I thought about it for a while and realised I just couldn't give it up now. To my surprise, they gave us their support and even decided to move out for six months so that the family home could be turned into our offices.

"Then I asked my parents if I could take two months out of school to go and see for myself about child labour in Pakistan. I felt that I couldn't talk with authority without actually seeing it with my own eyes and talking to child workers. They were a little taken aback and my mother said, 'No, you aren't even allowed to go on the subway on your own'." He had already been in communication with Alam Rahman, a 24-year-old student and human rights activist who was studying at the University of Toronto. "One day, Alam mentioned that he was going to South Asia to visit his family and would I like to go, too.

"Fortunately, my parents thought very highly of him and agreed that if I raised the money I could go, but my mother still needed to be convinced that I would be safe and that the trip was well organised. So I began faxing organisations asking if I could come and visit them and applying for visas as well as trying to raise money by doing household chores and basically asking my relatives for donations.

"A few months later we set out to visit Pakistan, India and Thailand. We would go into factories and talk to children. There was one eight-year-old girl who was taking needles apart with her bare hands to recycle the plastic. She had never heard of Aids or any other diseases. She was frightened that if the boss saw her talking to us she would be beaten. Then we met a 10-year-old boy who had been badly burnt in an explosion in a fireworks factory. We also went to one of the worst slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where people were sleeping in cardboard huts and wearing rags. This was real poverty and we heard their stories and took pictures and went back home to talk to our friends about it."

In Delhi they learnt that the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, was there talking to business leaders. Kielburger was concerned that he wasn't saying anything about child labour. "I was really shocked and angry. He was signing huge trade deals but not talking about the kids who were making some of the products. I wrote to him but was palmed off with a letter saying he was too busy to see me."

Showing some of the determination that has turned Free the Children into one of the biggest children's charities in the world, Kielburger decided to hold a press conference, and to his amazement, the media came in force. He had just had his 13th birthday and stood in front of them in his T-shirt and jeans to speak about the evils of child labour. He had brought with him a 14-year-old boy called Nagashir who had been traumatised so badly by his experiences in a carpet factory - where he was whipped and beaten regularly - that he had lost the power of speech. The television crews were riveted and the story was beamed around the world. Kielburger says he was "both frightened and thrilled", but carried on with his trip, unaware of the impact.

"Finally the prime minister wanted to meet me and promised he would bring up the subject with the heads of South Asian governments. It was a strange feeling realising that I could actually make a difference. It floored me," he says. "When I got home, I realised that life was never going to be the same and we had to go on with this. It soon became clear to me that although there were more than 250 million children being made to work all around the world in terrible, unhealthy and often dangerous conditions and many human rights organisations trying to help them, they didn't have any young children working for them.

"We had a lot to learn about running an international movement, but we were all sort of learning as we went along and the great thing was that people were helping us," he says. With the help of his brother Marc, Kielburger has built an organisation that has grown into the world's largest network of children helping other young people through education. More than one million young people are now involved. Young volunteers have built 500 schools that are now providing education for 50,000 children in 45 countries.

One of the most successful projects is their Adopt a Village campaign, whereby a local community will concentrate on the needs of a particular village in Kenya, Sierra Leone, China and Sri Lanka to help raise money and send teams out to the rural communities to help build schools and clean water installations. They also help set up educational and health care projects and provide alternative income projects to people in rural areas. "It could be something as simple as buying a cow to give a family a source of income," says Kielburger.

They organise international conferences and events, such as the first National Me to We Day held in Toronto last year. More than 7,500 students attended and thousands more tuned in to a live webcast. Me to We is a concept devised by the Kielburgers to encapsulate their philosophy of thinking of others rather than themselves. Last year, they published Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World. Free the Children has received a number of awards, including the World's Children Prize for the Rights of the Child, sometimes called the Children's Nobel Prize, along with four nominations for the Nobel Prize. The Kielburger brothers also founded Leaders Today in 1999, a spin-off organisation that concentrates on leadership training and education.

These days, Kielburger has handed over the day to day running of the charity to others as he travels around the world raising awareness and support and speaking about the rights of children. After leaving Dubai, he was flying to another speaking engagement in California. By the end of the year, he will have visited projects in China, Thailand and Kenya. He doesn't take a salary and says he helps fund his travels from the proceeds of a column he writes for The Toronto Star and because people very kindly pay for many of his trips. "Free the Children is a passion, but our mission is to put it out of business," he says.

So what about his personal life? Does he ever just want to have some fun? Does he see himself settling down, marrying and having children of his own? Kielburger blinks and looks slightly puzzled, as if he doesn't quite understand the question. "I don't see why not. My brother Marc is married," he eventually answers, adding that other things became more important to him than his personal ambitions. "When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. In 1999, Nato was bombing Milosevic and we were driving across the border into Serbia with medical supplies and toys. There was this young boy we met on the outskirts of Belgrade. I asked him what he wanted to be and he just looked at me and said, 'You know what would be nice would be that we don't need these supplies any more because the bombs wouldn't fall.'"

"I eventually figured out that the best way to stop these wars from happening in the first place is by looking at basic needs. Disputes are mainly over water or historical grievances. We teach the idea of a peace curriculum, communication, human needs and history. "One of our main goals is to convince young people that they can make a difference and free them from the notion that they are powerless to affect positive change in the world."

He's no saint, he says, faintly embarrassed when people compare his achievements to the work of someone such as the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta. "I was lucky enough to meet her once and she is the person who inspired me the most," he says. "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 realise that we can do no great things, only small things with great love'."