Craig Kielburger’s been fighting for children since he was a child himself
BY KATIE HYSLOP
Twelve-year-old Craig Kielburger was looking for the newspaper funnies when he came across an article about Iqbal Masih, a human rights activist and former slave from Pakistan.
“When he was four years old he was sold into slavery to weave carpets. He escaped when he was 10 and he started travelling first in Pakistan, and then quite literally around the world, speaking out against child labour,” Kielburger said. “And he was killed at the age of 12.”
Inspired by Masih’s work, Kielburger brought the story to his Grade 7 class and asked who wanted to help him in putting an end to child labour. Eleven classmates put up their hands, and the precursor to Free the Children was born.
The group led talks on child labour at local schools and was often asked by students if they had ever seen child labour first-hand. The question came so often that Kielburger was determined to backpack through Asia to see child exploitation for himself.
“I managed to convince my parents. It took about eight months for them to say yes and with a chaperone, [I] went travelling through India, and Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Thailand, and Nepal, documenting the lives of these kids, just with a hand-held video camera, and taking photos and capturing their stories and bringing them back to kids here.” Part-way through his trek, Kielburger turned 13.
When the budding child’s rights activist returned to Canada, the media took interest in his story and Free the Children took off.
“There are always groups appealing to college campuses or university campuses. There are very few that would help if you were a middle school student or an elementary school student or a high school student and wanted to do more than just raise money—wanted to really get socially involved in issues and wanted to have a youth-led series of campaigns.”
Flash forward 14 years and Free the Children has built 500 primary schools, created 27,000 microcredit cooperatives for women, and begun clean water and medical programs for over half a million people in 45 countries.
Free the Children has 1.2 million members, with chapters in over 3,200 North American schools. Educating children on this continent is just as important to Kielburger as helping impoverished kids overseas.
“It’s part of our mandate to have two levels; one is freeing children in North America from the idea that they’re too young to make a difference, powerless to influence change,” he said. “And the other is freeing kids overseas from child labour, poverty, exploitation.”
Kielburger and his teams work to educate children in the west about becoming global citizens, conscious of the clothes they buy, books they read, music they listen to and politicians they will one day vote for.
Free the Children also aims to educate kids in developing countries, working with communities to ensure their needs are met in a sustainable fashion so they can take over the projects begun by the organization.
Fourteen years is a long time to devote yourself to one project. Kielburger, now 26, is still passionate about his work, but there are other things he’d like to accomplish.
He’s currently working on his masters in business administration and would like to get his PhD in peace and conflict studies.
“I know this type of work is what I want to be doing; I don’t know [in] what capacity,” he said. “Truth [is], I always wanted to be a university professor.”
It’s hard to get completely away from Free the Children, however. All of the 11 other students who helped start the project are still working in the field. “Everyone stayed involved in human rights in some way, or social justice,” he said, adding a couple is still involved with the organization. “Once you got the bug, once you got bitten, it never went away.”