I usually read the comics in The Toronto Star each morning before I go to school. But one day in April 1995, a front-page story stopped me. There was a picture of a smiling boy, his arm upraised. His name was Iqbal Masih. He looked to be about my age at the time--12. According to the article, he had worked in a carpet factory in Pakistan for most of his life. Then he escaped and traveled in his country and the West, speaking out against child labor. The previous Sunday, he had been shot dead by an unknown assailant.
Suddenly, everything seemed terribly still. Why was this kid murdered?
I wondered. Why did he have to work in a factory?
The most my parents asked of me was to take out the garbage, mow the lawn, and get good grades. My cereal went soggy as I read on. I never got to the comics that morning.
All through the school day, I couldn't stop thinking about Iqbal. Here I was memorizing algebraic formulas while somewhere kids were tying wool into tiny knots from dawn to dusk. How would I have handled it if I were in their place? The article had said that Iqbal's parents, who were extremely poor, had sent him to work in the factory when he was just 4. Some suspected that factory owners, angry with Iqbal for exposing their abuses, might be behind his killing.
I went to the library and looked for information on child-labor practices. Most of the articles were about the often terrible conditions in Europe and North America in the early part of the century. What about nowadays?
Then I heard about a group called Youth Action Network. I called and spoke to Alam Rahman, a recent college graduate. His father had immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh. "If things had been a little different," he said, "I could have been a child laborer."
So could I, I thought. If I'd been born in an earlier time or if my family had been poor--it could have been me denied the chance to get an education.
"I think there should be a children's organization fighting child labor," I said. "Kids speaking for kids."
"That's a great idea, Craig. Why don't you start one?"
Easy to say. But how could I convince my classmates? Would they think I was weird?
The next day in homeroom, I passed around copies of the article and told the class what I'd learned. On their faces was the same shock I had felt when I first read the article. "I thought maybe some of us could get together and see if there was anything we could do. Who's interested?" A dozen hands shot up.
We met at my house that evening. As we talked about child labor, I felt this intense connection--both to my classmates and to the kids on whose behalf we had come together. One of the clippings told of a rally of over 250 children in Delhi, India. "Free the children," they had chanted. We would take up their cry. Our group had a name.
FTC put together youth fair displays and spoke at schools and churches. We did a lot of research and sent petitions to foreign governments, including one with 3,000 names to India urging the release of political prisoner Kailash Satyarthi, a leading crusader against child labor.
By the time school started again the next fall, FTC had something of a reputation. Some kids resented our opposition to brand-name sneakers and jeans made by child laborers. "Do you want us to make our own clothes? Isn't that child labor?" one boy cracked. Some kids were skeptical about the articles I showed them about child labor. "How do you know all this is true?" a 10th-grade girl asked. "Have you seen these kids for yourself?"
"No, but I hope to someday," I replied weakly.
Then one day, Alam told me he was planning to spend a year in Asia. "I'll take you along. This could be your chance to meet some of the workers." My parents trusted and respected Alam. But they didn't even allow me to ride the subway to downtown Toronto by myself. They wanted detailed explanations of Alam's itinerary, whom I would meet, what safety precautions we would take. I began to get e-mails from contacts around the world, offering accommodations, wondering when I would be coming. My parents were being won over.
That fall, I was invited to speak at a convention of the Ontario Federation of Labor. I was a nervous wreck, an eighth grader speaking to over 2,000 adults. But I started with the story of Iqbal and soon found my voice. By the end of the evening, $150,000 had been pledged to help build a rehabilitation center and school for freed child laborers. When the OFL spokesperson raised my arm in the air to thunderous applause, I couldn't help but remember that original photo of Iqbal, his arm raised in the same gesture. I just stood there with a giant grin on my face, knowing that somewhere Iqbal was smiling, too.
I left home on December 10 and joined Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I wanted to meet as many working kids as I could. In Bangkok, Thailand, we saw really young kids being exploited in the sex trade. I talked to 10-year-old boys who had quit school to work 15-hour-days to help support their families and realized how frivolous my hours spent playing ball would seem to them. "It's easy to tell these countries that these kids should not have to work under such horrible conditions," a Western relief agency official told me. "But remember, a big part of the problem is us. We buy this stuff. Instead of merely being a market for these products, the West needs to help find solutions to the underlying poverty in the Third World."
He was right. I came from a society that prided itself on its material wealth. I thought of all the video games piled on my desk, the clothes in my closet. Was I part of the problem, too?
In Pakistan, I talked to a boy making bricks. He had been sold into labor by his grandfather to pay a debt. "Would you like to go to school?" I asked him.
"What is school?" he asked me.
All around me, I saw the poverty that drove people to such desperation. I figured the choice was pretty clear in many cases: work or starve.
I had read so much about child laborers, and yet face-to-face I was amazed at how many were lively, spirited kids. They weren't waiting for anyone to save them. They were making the best of conditions that would devastate most adults.
We found a girl with a ribbon in her hair in a run-down building in Madras, India. With no protection for her hands, she was taking apart used syringes so the plastic could be recycled. "Sometimes I cut myself," she said, "but I always wash with water."
What's the point of all this, God?
I wondered. I keep meeting suffering kids, and I can't do anything for them.
Then in Varanasi, India, we were contacted by Kailash Satyarthi, the man whose release FTC had petitioned for months earlier. He had been let go, and recently he had led a raid on a carpet factory, setting free 22 children. He invited us to help see them safely home.
We crammed into two Jeeps. The boy next to me was about 8, and his name was Munnilal. "I was given no money by my master," he told me. "I was hit again and again." The Jeep jostled as we drove down into a creek. Then it got stuck in the mud. Everyone jumped out and pushed it. When we reached shore, I stood there, exhausted and soaking wet. Munnilal took a blanket from around his shoulders and held it out to me. "Here, you'll catch cold," he said.
"No, you keep it," I said, staring at this child who had been through more hardship in eight years of life than I would ever go through. In that instant, I understood. Munnilal had almost nothing, but what he had, he offered me. For most of the kids I met, all I could do was share their stories and raise money, but I would do it as sincerely as Munnilal had offered me that blanket.
We got back into the Jeeps and drove the children to their villages. When Munnilal's mother saw him, she hugged him, weeping. "You are so thin," she said.
"When I hurt most," he said to her, "I saw you in my dreams."
"I saw you in my dreams, too," she answered.
I thought of my mom waiting for my calls, the way she was marking off each day of my trip on the calendar. Suddenly, I felt terribly homesick.
But there was one more stop to make, the one I had thought about most. In Muridke, Pakistan, we walked down the route of Iqbal's funeral procession. "The day Iqbal died, a thousand other Iqbals were born," a girl had said at his funeral. I was grateful to be one of them.
As I stood before his unmarked grave, I thought back to the story about him that changed my life. The world had come into a new focus that day. I saw lots of injustice, but I also saw how to change it. It starts with me--with each one of us, with what we can do to make things better. I took the first step of my journey because of Iqbal, but I continue it because of kids like Munnilal and the little girl in Madras. No, maybe I can't solve all the world's problems. But I can work to solve some, with the help of other kids--and grown-ups--who care, and a God who guides us all.