Free the Children: A Young Man's Personal Crusade Against Child Labor

Overview

In April 1995, twelve-year-old Craig Keilburger opened the daily paper and began to search for the comics page, as usual. But that day, his morning ritual was interrupted when an article about a boy his own age caught his eye.

It was the story of a Pakistani child who, at the age of four, was sold into slavery by his parents. For the next six years, he was shackled to a carpet loom, tying thousands upon thousands of tiny knots, twelve hours a day, six days a week. For this he ...

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Overview

In April 1995, twelve-year-old Craig Keilburger opened the daily paper and began to search for the comics page, as usual. But that day, his morning ritual was interrupted when an article about a boy his own age caught his eye.

It was the story of a Pakistani child who, at the age of four, was sold into slavery by his parents. For the next six years, he was shackled to a carpet loom, tying thousands upon thousands of tiny knots, twelve hours a day, six days a week. For this he was paid three cents a day. Amazingly, his will was never broken; he escaped and began efforts to reveal the horrors of child labor. But when this courageous twelve-year-old began to gain international attention, and Pakistani carpet manufacturers began to lose orders, he was shot and killed.

That morning, Craig's life was changed forever. To find out more about child labor, he contacted human rights organizations around the world, and with a small band of his friends from school he formed Free the Children—his won human rights organization. In the weeks that followed, Free the Children took off, fueled entirely by the efforts and enthusiasm of children Craig's own age.

Soon Craig decided that he had to see firsthand the working conditions of South Asian children. At the time he was not even allowed to take the subway alone, but he convinced his reluctant parents to let him fly halfway around the world. For seven weeks, in the company of a young human rights worker named Alam Rahman, Craig journeyed through the world of slums, sweatshops, and back alleys where so many of the children of South Asia live in servitude, often performing the most menial and dangerous of jobs.

In his travels through Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, Craig witnessed the shocking variety and extent of child labor, and was transformed from a typical, middle-class kid into an activist. In New Delhi and Islamabad he created a sensation—and learned something of the power of the media—when he famously crossed paths with Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who was touring Asia with the "Team Canada" trade mission. By the time Craig returned home, he and the young people of Free the Children had gained an international profile.

Free the Children is a passionate and astounding story. It chronicles the continuing journey of one remarkable young activist—and it is a moving testament to the power that children and young adults have to change the world.

The extraordinary journey of "The Most Powerful Kid in the World"

Craig Keilburger—and the human rights organization he founded at age twelve—have made headlines around the globe and have brought unprecedented attention to the worldwide abuse of children's rights.

Free the Children is the dramatic and moving story of Craig's transformation from a regular middle-class kid from the suburbs to an activist fighting on behalf of child laborers on the world stage of international human rights.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Craig Kielburger is no ordinary 15-year-old. At the age of 12 he founded the international human-rights organization Free the Children, and in the past few years he has traveled the world and lectured its leaders on the horrors of child labor. Chapters of the Free the Children reach around the globe, and thousands of teenagers in the United States have answered the call.

Now Kielburger shares his inspirational story, and the story of the grassroots organization he founded, in a new book, Free the Children. This is a passionate and astounding memoir by the world's youngest and most visible activist, which certainly shows that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Kielburger was first inspired by a newspaper article in April 1995 about the assassination of a 12-year-old Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih, a freed child laborer and international rights activist. The youth was sold into slavery at the age of four for less than $15 and shackled to a carpet loom for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. After six years, Iqbal escaped and began to campaign against the exploitation of children. But when Pakistani carpet manufacturers started to lose orders, he was shot dead.

Iqbal's fate is not unique. Free the Children reports that there are an estimated 250 million children around the world working in child servitude, with no chance to get an education, live a normal life, or even play. Physical and sexual abuse is commonplace. Millions of children, often doing the most menial and dangerous work, are exposed to deadly agricultural chemicals andotherhazards.

Kielburger writes, "The day I read about the murder of Iqbal Masih...I never imagined that my first steps to the library to find out more about the issue of child labor would lead me to the many thousands of steps, both in miles and knowledge, that I have traveled over the past three years."

Kielburger's journey has taken him to the slums and sweatshops of Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. He has had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with prime ministers, presidents, and spiritual leaders, including Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth, and the Dalai Lama.

The teen volunteers of Free the Children believe that the subject of child exploitation is simply too important to be left in the hands of adults. Free the Children is intended to awaken people — to urge us to do something to end exploitative child labor. It is a dramatic and moving testimony to the power of children and young adults to change the world.

Library Journal
Not only has Canadian Kielburger campaigned hard to eliminate child labor worldwide, but, more remarkably, he is himself only 15 years old.
— Sue Hollander, University of Illinois at Chicago Library of the Health Sciences, Rockford
Quill & Quire
A remarkable portrait of the young activist and his journey to India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Bangladesh to get a firsthand look at child labor. This isn't gee whiz naive observation...[his] eyewitness account of a raid on an Indian carpet factory (activists liberated the children enslaved there) give this book the high drama and emotion of a top-flight thriller.
Kirkus Reviews
Not since Anne Frank has a child so effectively borne witness to the madness of adult reality. This volume retains the language and voice of 15-year-old Kielburger, its young co-author, while its subject matter achieves the status of an important work on grassroots political organization and international human rights.

Inspired at the age of 12 by a newspaper article about the assassination of Iqbal Masih, a freed child laborer and international rights activist from Pakistan who was reported also to be 12 years old at the time of his death. Kielburger, a Canadian, began to research the issue of child labor in South Asia. He enlisted the help of schoolmates and began spreading the word about conditions in factories in such distant countries as India, Pakistan, and Thailand. Free the Children, which he founded, grew into an internationally recognized organization and has raised awareness of labor conditions in South Asia as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause. Kielburger convinced his parents to allow him to travel to South Asia accompanied only by a young activist named Alam. He returned with reports of children beaten by their masters; hung upside down by their feet for punishment; poisoned in fireworks factories. He told of wounds from carpet knives dipped in hot oil or cauterized with match chemicals; of both boys and girls sold into prostitution at very young ages; of 18-hour workdays; and of lives cut off from future possibilities.

Kielburger's message is ultimately one of hope that the youth of South Asia may be set free from their inhuman labor.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060175979
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Craig Keilburger has received the Roosevelt Freedom Medal (with Free the Children) and the State of the World Forum Award. He is Ambassador to the Children's Embassy in Sarajevo and was named a Global Leader of Tomorrow at the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He has also received Canada's Governor General's Award for Meritorious Service. Free the Children is Craig Keilburger's first book. He lives with his family in Canada.

Kevin Major received the Vicky Metcalf Award for a body of work inspirational to youth. He lives in Newfoundland.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



Thornhill

My mind goes back to April 19, 1995. 1 woke to sun streaming through my window, a welcome sign that summer was on its way. It was Wednesday, another school day, one I was looking forward to, in fact. Today were the tryouts for the cross-country running team.

As I stretched my way from under the blankets, I watched my dog go through her own waking-up ritual at the foot of my bed. I hauled on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.

"Hey, Muffin. Let's go, girl." I gave her a playful rub about her neck and off she went, racing ahead of me and down the stairs.

My mother, up for an hour or more already, was in the kitchen making lunches. The Kielburger household would soon be heading off to school. Both my parents are teachers. There were just the three of us; MY older brother, Marc, had gone away to a junior college in January.

"Hi, Mom. The paper arrived yet?" I said, pouring cereal into a bowl.

"It's on the chair."

Every morning I read the comics before heading off to school. Doonesbury. Calvin and Hobbes. Wizard of Id. These are my favourites. If I find one particularly funny, sometimes I'll cut it out and post it on my bulletin board, or tape it to one of my school books. We all can use a good laugh every day.

I picked up the Toronto Star and put it on the table. But I didn't make it past the front page. Staring back at me was the headline "Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered." It was a jolt. Twelve, the same age as I was. My eyes fixed on the picture of a boy in a bright-red vest. He had a broad smile, his arm raised straight in the air, a fistclenched.

I read on. "Defied members of 'carpet mafia."' Scenes from old movies came to my mind. But this wasn't any such mafia; the dateline was Pakistan. The boy was someone named lqbal Masih.

I read quickly through the article, hardly believing the words before me.

Islamabad, Pakistan (AP)--When lqbal Masih was 4 years old, his
parents sold him into slavery for less than $16.


For the next six years, he remained shackled to a carpet-weaving
loom most of the time, tying tiny knots hour after hour.

By the age of 12, he was free and travelling the world in his crusade
against the horrors of child labour.

On Sunday, lqbal was shot dead while he and two friends were riding
their bikes in their village of Muridke, 35 kilometres outside the eastern city
of Lahore. Some believe his murder was carried out by angry
members of the carpet industry who had made repeated threats to
silence the young activist.



I turned to my mother. "Have you read this? What exactly is child labour? Do you think he was really killed for standing up to this 'carpet mafia,' whatever that is?"

She was as lost for answers as I was. "Try the library at school," she suggested. "Maybe you'll find some information there."

Riding the bus to school later that morning, I could think of nothing but the article I had read on the front page. What kind of parents would sell their child into slavery at four years of age? And who would ever chain a child to a carpet loom?

Throughout the day I was consumed by lqbal's story. In my Grade Seven class we had studied the American Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln, and how some of the slaves in the United States had escaped into Canada. But that was history from centuries ago. Surely slavery had been abolished throughout the world by now. If it wasn't, why had I never heard about it?

The school library was no help. After a thorough search I still hadn't found a scrap of information. After school, I decided to make the trek to the public library.

The librarian knew me from my previous visits. Luckily, she had read the same article that morning and was just as intrigued. Together, we searched out more information on child labour. We found a few newspaper and magazine articles, and made copies.

By the time I returned home, images of child labour had imbedded themselves in my mind: children younger than me forced to make carpets for endless hours in dimly lit rooms; others toiling in underground pits, struggling to get coal to the surface; others maimed or killed by explosions raging through fireworks factories. I was angry at the world for letting these things happen to children. Why was nothing being done to stop such cruelty?

As I walked through my middle-class neighbourhood, my thoughts were on the other side of the world. And my own world seemed a shade darker.

That evening I had great difficulty concentrating on my homework. I pulled out the articles I had brought from the library and read them over, again and again. I had often seen the faces of poverty and malnutrition on television. At school we had discussed the famines whole nations have been forced to endure. But this was different. For some reason these descriptions of child labour had moved me like no other story of injustice.

Perhaps it was because the stories were of people my own age, and many even younger. Perhaps it was because these few words had shattered my ideas of what childhood was all about --school, friends, time to play. I had work to do around my house-- carrying out the garbage, cleaning up the backyard-- but it all seemed so trivial compared to what these children had to do.

I thought of how I would react if I found myself in their place. I felt sure I would rebel, gather everyone together and stand up to the cruelty. But I wasn't in their place; I could only imagine what I would do.

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Interviews & Essays

On Friday, February 12th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Craig Keilburger to discuss FREE THE CHILDREN.


Moderator: Welcome, Craig Kielburger! We are so happy that you could join us to chat about your inspirational new book, FREE THE CHILDREN. I understand that you just got back from Munich, Germany. Why were you there, and how was your trip?

Craig Keilburger: While in Germany, I met with the FTC (Free the Children) chapter leaders from six countries across Europe. We discussed concrete actions that our members can take to help improve the lives of children around the world. For example, for only $2,500 U.S. we can open a school in the rural area of a country like Nicaragua. Therefore many of our chapters are involved in a campaign to open 100 schools in the rural areas of developing countries around the world. Education is the key to eliminating child labor and poverty of children.


Nicole from California: I found your comments regarding the World Bank very interesting. You wrote that the loans given by the international institutions such as the World Bank caused a great deal of financial strain on impoverished families. In fact, you compared the repayment schedule for these loans to a form of bonded labor. What other ways can developed countries help people in developing countries? What kind of actions can I take to help resource-poor children?

Craig Keilburger: Hi, everyone. I am glad that you are interested in the issue of children's rights. Nicole, I would like to bring to your attention the situation in Honduras and Nicaragua. Both governments were forced to pay a million dollars a day in debt repayment to the World Bank/IMF and other international financial institutions even while they were suffering from hurricane Mitch. There is currently a campaign for the financial institutions to forgive the debt of the poorest countries. You can help by writing to the World Bank and adding your support to this campaign. You can also challenge your government to give more in international aid to developing countries. These are only two of many examples.


Megan Dobchuk-Land from Manitoba, Canada: I recently finished your book. It was a great read and a wonderful inspiration! My question is, after all of your travels, what do you feel is the biggest problem facing working children?

Craig Keilburger: The biggest problem facing working children is lack of education, which keeps them poor and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.


Lexie from Richmond, VA: What inspired you to start the Free the Children organization? Is there a personal story behind it?

Craig Keilburger: When I was 12 years old, I read the story of another 12-year-old boy, from Pakistan, who was a bonded laborer and murdered when he spoke out against child labor and tried to organize and free other children. I compared our two lives and was shocked by the differences. I knew that I had to do something.


Shannon from Toronto, Ontario: Dear Craig, what do you feel was the key factor in your message being heard worldwide?

Craig Keilburger: The fact that we are young (between eight and 18) allowed us to bring a special perspective to the issue. Who can best speak out in defense of children than other children?


Robert from Connecticut: How can I join Free the Children in the United States?

Craig Keilburger: After this chat, send us an email at freechild@clo.com. Give us your full name, telephone number, and address, and we will send information to you. You can also check our web page at www.freethechildren.org.


Stefanie from NJ: What was it like to see firsthand kids your own age and younger being treated like that?

Craig Keilburger: It made me feel angry to see children being treated this way. To be honest with you, there have been times that I have wanted to scream at this world for ignoring the needs of its children. I have felt sad, angry, and depressed. But tears are not enough. I soon realized that we must channel all of these emotions into positive action. All of us are responsible for helping to bring about a change in the lives of these children.


Arden from New Hope, PA: Oprah just nominated Danny Seo for her Angel Award. Do you know Danny Seo? Are you friends?

Craig Keilburger: Yes, I have met Danny at various conferences and gatherings. I want to congratulate him for being nominated for the Oprah Angel Award.


Steve from Miami, FL: How many people belong to Free the Children worldwide? What is your rate of growth?

Craig Keilburger: Over the past three years, Free the Children has expanded to include members in over 20 countries around the world. We have over 10,000 youths who have become involved in our activities around the world. We have expanded so quickly because we are one of the world's only organizations of children helping children.


Berry from Williamsburg: What award are you most proud of winning? Congratulations -- I keep hearing more and more about you and your organization!

Craig Keilburger: Free the Children and I have the honor of winning such awards as the Roosevelt Freedom Medal, the State of the World Forum Award. A great honor was being named the Ambassador of the First Children's Embassy in Sarajevo. However, the greatest award is being able to meet with the children. I am always amazed by their courage and resilience. They are the real heroes.


Brady from Palmetto: In your years fighting for children's rights, have you seen any improvement in the human-rights policies of the biggest violators?

Craig Keilburger: Yes, change is coming about. Two years ago, when I visited Brazil, I went into the sugarcane fields and sisal plantations to meet with the child laborers. I recently returned to the same area to find all the children are now in school! The government introduced a program to provide a stipend to these families so that they can send their children to school. Pakistan is increasing the amount which it spends on primary education. Companies such as Nike and Reebok have felt the pressure from consumers and have recently introduced codes of conduct in their factories. However, there is still much more to be accomplished. There are 250 million child laborers in the world today, and we need your help.


Missy from Michigan: Which countries are the most abusive of children in terms of their child-labor policies?

Craig Keilburger: In Brazil one of the biggest problems is the abuse of street children. India has the highest number of child laborers in the world -- 55 million. In countries such as Afghanistan, the rights of the girl child are pushed aside. In Pakistan, there are many bonded child laborers in the brick kilns who are paying off debts incurred generations ago. Iraq now has a serious problem with child laborers because of the sanctions and poverty it has caused. A recent U.S. report stated that there are 300,000 children in the USA laboring in the fields and sweatshops -- mostly illegal immigrant children.


Melanie Spears from Seattle, WA: Hi, Craig! Do you foresee yourself leading your organization as an adult too? I know it is hard to predict, but is this your calling for life?

Craig Keilburger: Free the Children will always hold a special place in my heart. However, it is a children's movement. As I become older, my role will change from being one of the main spokespersons to someone who works more as a mentor for younger members. We will always ensure that FTC remains a children's movement at heart and that adults will never speak for or make all of the decisions for children. We need adults as support, but the power must remain in the hands of children.


Clark from Daytona: I know you have seen so many horrific abuses and violations of children's rights, but are there one or two cases in particular that burn in your mind?

Craig Keilburger: One of the children who I will never forget is an eight-year-old girl who I met in Madras, India. She was working in a recycling factory taking apart used syringes and needles for their plastics. She wore no gloves and stated that she didn't even own a pair of shoes. She was taking apart the needles piece by piece. At one point we even saw her step on the pile of needles to get to the other side, where her workstation was located. She had never heard of the disease AIDS -- she simply dipped her hand into a bucket of dirty water when she pricked herself with the needles. She was paid three cents an hour. And we couldn't even speak to her very long, because the worker next to her said that if the master saw her talking and not working, the master would beat her. This is why I wrote the book FREE THE CHILDREN, to tell her story and the story of so many other children I met and to challenge the world to action to help. All of my royalties from the book are going to Free the Children projects to help children like her.


Larry from Freeport: How did FREE THE CHILDREN grow from a local chapter to a world organization? You are amazing, Craig!

Craig Keilburger: We were fortunate to have a lot of publicity, such as "60 Minutes" and CNN International, which televised our work worldwide. But the most important reason is because people young and old alike have been moved by the issue and wanted to help. Thank you for your comment. However, I have learned that the children are the real heroes.


Marcy from Reno, TX: What do you like to do in your free time, Craig (what little you have)?

Craig Keilburger: Just like any other youth, I love getting together with friends and simply having fun. The big craze to hit North America is swing dancing! I love it! I also enjoy sports and the outdoors.


Mark from Little Rock: Is it ever daunting to you to talk to world leaders and presidents at your age? Do you get nervous? Who is the most exciting leader that you have met?

Craig Keilburger: I have been able to carry our message to people like the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and Al Gore. They were all wonderful people. However, the people who have inspired me the most are the children. For example, while in Thailand, I saw a person hand an orange to a young street girl, and she took it and automatically shared it with her friends. Or, while I was in India, I saw a group of street children carrying around their friend, another street child, who was crippled. They didn't want him to be left behind. Children in bonded labor who have never given up hope that they would be free one day moved me to tears. I think that we have a lot to learn from these children.


Lance from Alabama: What do you expect to be doing ten years from now?

Craig Keilburger: I hope to get involved in international conflict mediation. I have visited areas like Bosnia and parts of Africa, and I have seen what war has done to children. I hope to help stop wars before they begin.


Colleen from Dallas, TX: If you could wish for one thing Craig, what would it be?

Craig Keilburger: That every child around the world would have their rights -- the right to go to school, the right to laugh, the right to play, the right to have a place to sleep and food to eat, the right to be a child. All their rights as outlined in the UN convention on the rights of the child.


Colton Farrelley from New Hampshire: Do you often feel like you are being discriminated against because of your age?

Craig Keilburger: In the beginning adults wouldn't take us seriously. They would say, "How cute -- a group of little kids think they can change the world!" We soon learned that to develop credibility, we needed knowledge. Knowledge gave us power, and that is why we did so much research. And I went to Asia when I was 12 years old. We learned that each one of us can changing the world by helping one person at a time.


Denise M. Clapham from Albany, New York: Hi, Craig. FTC Capital District Chapter is underway. I know that some of the 15 kids who have joined are online. Can you give them some words of encouragement -- they already have a project in getting their individual school districts to sign a "Sweatfree" petition. Kate Ward is their leader and is exceptional at organizing. Best regards --D.

Craig Keilburger: Congratulations to all of you. I am certain that Kate Ward will be a terrific leader of the group! What a great idea. Perhaps you can write about your experience for our web page so that others can learn about what you are doing. Anyone else who wants to become involved and form their own FTC chapter, please send us an email at freechild@clo.com.


Moderator: Thank you, Craig Kielburger, for your inspirational answers! Do you have any closing remarks for your online audience tonight?

Craig Keilburger: Thank you for inviting me to be with all of you tonight. I can tell from your great questions that many of you are concerned about children and want to help. Once again, if you want more information about Free the Children, check our web page at www.freethechildren.org, or send us an email at freechild@clo.com. You can purchase a copy of the book at barnesandnoble.com. Whether you buy it here or at the bookstore, all of my royalties from the sale of the book go to Free the Children's projects to aid children.


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