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.