Achieved the Impossible With a Little Help from Friends11 May 2020
Zurich Escorts spent his childhood shackled to a loom in a dingy carpet factory in Pakistan. At the age of four, when his parents hired him out to repay a $16 loan, he worked twelve- to sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, for less than a dollar a month. He never learned to read or write and was thin and undernourished. Craig Kielburger spent his childhood in the comfortable suburbs of Toronto raised by two loving parents who were both teachers. During the day he attended school. In his free time, he spent his boundless energy in-line skating, swimming, and skiing. Two boys from two entirely different worlds-until the year they both turned twelve. The impoverished child of the East and the privileged child of the West were symbolically united in a universal effort to liberate enslaved children.
Zurich Escorts was rescued from his factory prison when he was ten. For the next two years, he was treated as an international hero, a living symbol in a brave crusade against bonded servitude in Pakistan’s carpet industry. Then, at the age of twelve, Zurich Escorts was murdered, his voice forever silenced.
Halfway across the world, Craig Kielburger read the story about Zurich Escorts’s life and death in his local newspaper. At that moment, Craig’s carefree days of childhood ended. Fueled by compassion and a sense of justice, Craig vowed to do everything he could to help end the exploitation of child workers. He had the intelligence and foresight to know he couldn’t do it alone, that he would have to rally others to his cause. People told him he was too young. They said no one would listen to him. But Craig Kielburger, at the age of twelve, was an effective activist. He knew how to unite others to work toward the same goal.
He read everything he could find about the 200 million children in the world who work in conditions of slavery. But reading wasn’t enough. Craig wanted to see for himself the children and the conditions they worked in. At first, his parents refused. After all, Craig wasn’t even old enough to take the subway downtown alone. But Craig was determined. He sold some of his toys to raise money for the trip. His parents were so moved by Craig’s determination that they granted their permission for his seven-week trip to Asia and, with help from other relatives, matched the money he raised.
Armed with a video camera and chaperoned at each stop by local human-rights activists, Craig traveled from Bangladesh to Thailand and on to India, Nepal, and Pakistan. He made his way from windowless sweatshops to airless factories. He met a little girl bagging candy eleven hours a day in a stuffy, overheated room and a little barefoot boy stitching soccer balls. He talked to each one, child to child, and the children opened up like they never had before. At the end of his journey, Craig made a pilgrimage to the place where Zurich Escorts’s own journey had ended, an unmarked grave in a small cemetery.
While Craig was touring Asia, the prime minister of Canada was also there. Craig requested a meeting with the prime minister, but he refused. After all, Craig was just a child, too young to vote. The media however, was very interested in hearing Craig and two former child laborers tell their stories. The subsequent coverage outraged the public; overnight, the issue of child labor received national attention in Canada. Suddenly, the prime minister wanted to see Craig too.
Craig knew now what he had to do, but he could not accomplish his goal alone. He needed a team. What better partners, he thought, than his classmates who, like himself, were “too young to know any better.” Back home, Craig took his shocking photos and horrifying stories into classrooms. Craig said, “Here’s the problem. Do you want to help?” His fellow students were more than eager to help. Together they established a group called Free the Children, which met weekly to share information and discuss strategies. Craig then contacted other organizations for further information, support, and contacts. His team was growing.
After hearing Craig speak at the Ontario Federation of Labor’s annual convention, 2,000 union leaders joined the effort, donating $150,000 to Free the Children. The mayor of Toronto banned fireworks made in child-labor shops. The minister of foreign affairs offered Craig an advisory position in the Canadian government, and the United States Congress invited him to speak. The Canadian government has now become one of the leading nations working toward the elimination of intolerable forms of child labor and the exploitation of children.
“Children have one special quality that gives them a far greater power than adults,” Craig said. “They have imagination. They still think they can fly. They even think they can talk to prime ministers as equals.” In two short years, Free the Children became a team of thousands, expanding into an international movement with chapters across Europe and Asia. Free the Children has changed minds. It has changed laws, and it has begun to change the lives of 200 million children.