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

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

by Craig Kielburger, Kevin Major

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

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.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


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.

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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