Excerpt from Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.
— Viktor E. Frankl
Some people's lives are transformed gradually. Others are changed in an instant.
My own moment of truth happened over a bowl of cereal one morning when I was twelve years old. Sitting at our kitchen table munching away, I was about to dive into the daily newspaper in search of my favorite comics—Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, Wizard of Id. The cartoons were my morning ritual. But on this particular day, April 19, 1995, I didn't get past the front page. There was one headline that was impossible to miss: BATTLED CHILD LABOUR, BOY 12 MURDERED.
I read on.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — When Iqbal 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 traveling the world in his crusade against the horrors of child labor. On Sunday, Iqbal 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.
(Used with permission of The Associated Press, copyright © 1995. All rights reserved.)
After reading this article, I was full of questions. What kind of parent sells a four-year-old child into slavery? Who would chain a child to a carpet loom? I didn't have any ready answers. What I really wanted was to talk to Marc, my older brother by six years, but he was away at college. I knew that even if Marc couldn't answer my questions, he would at least know where to start looking. But that day I was on my own.
After school, I headed to the public library and started to dig through newspapers and magazines. I read about children younger than me who spent endless hours in dimly lit rooms making carpets. I found stories about kids who slaved in underground pits to bring coal to the surface. Other reports told of underage workers killed or maimed by explosions in fireworks factories. My head was swimming. I was just a kid from the suburbs, and like most middle-class kids, my friends and I spent our time shooting hoops and playing video games. This was beyond me.
I left the library bewildered and angry at the world for allowing such things to happen to children. I simply could not understand why nothing was being done to stop the cruelty. How could I help?
As brothers, we've never been rivals. We are too far apart in age to feel any sibling jealousy. And, as corny as it sounds, we've always been there for each other. When I was younger, I watched in awe as Marc seemed to excel effortlessly in everything—school, public speaking, rugby, and tennis. But what set Marc apart was his belief that he could make a difference.
When Marc was thirteen, he turned a passion for environmental issues into a one-boy campaign. For an eighth-grade science project, he tested the harmful effects of brand-name household cleaners on the water system. Next he used lemons, vinegar, and baking soda to create environmentally friendly alternatives that did the job just as well, if not better.
Marc seemed to be unstoppable. He gave speeches, founded an environmental club, created petitions, and collected thousands of signatures. As a result, he became the youngest person in our province to receive the Ontario Citizenship Award.
A younger brother could have no better role model. I knew that young people could have the power to make a difference when it comes to issues they care about. Why not me?
Riding the bus to school, I would uncrumple the newspaper article and look at Iqbal's picture—he was wearing a bright red vest, his hand in the air. One day, I asked my teacher if I could speak to the class. Although I was generally outgoing, public speaking was definitely not my favorite activity. I can still remember how nervous I felt standing up at the front of my classroom and how quiet everyone became as I shared what I knew about Iqbal and the plight of other child laborers. I passed out copies of the newspaper article and shared the alarming statistics I had found. I wasn't sure what would happen when I asked for volunteers to help me fight for children's rights.
Eleven hands shot up, and Free The Children was born.
As I jotted down the names of volunteers, I still didn't know the next step. But as we started to dig up information, things became a lot clearer.
We began researching the issue, and soon after we were out giving speeches. We began writing petitions and held a community garage sale fund-raiser. Before long, Free The Children chapters were popping up in other schools. In a few short months, my family's home had literally become a campaign headquarters. Phones rang with news of protest marches led by children. Fax machines churned out shocking statistics on child labor in Brazil, India, Nigeria. The mail brought envelopes from human rights organizations all over the world offering photographs of children released from bonded labor.
Then we learned that Kailash Satyarthi, a leader in the fight against child bonded labor, had been detained. We wrote to the prime minister of India and demanded he be set free. We collected three thousand signatures on a petition and mailed it to New Delhi in a carefully wrapped shoe box. A year later, a freed Kailash came to North America to speak. He called our shoe box "one of the most powerful actions taken on my behalf."
We were making a difference.
Then in September 1995, just as eighth grade was about to begin for me, my mother took me aside. As Free The Children continued to grow, our house had been overrun by youth volunteers, kids were sleeping on couches and floors, and the phone rang at all hours. "This can't go on," she told me. "We have to live as a family. We have to get back to having a normal life."
But how could I give up when I was only getting started?
My parents had instilled in me the belief that goals come with challenges. "Go for it!" they always told me. "The only failure in life is not trying." That's what I thought I was doing, but I guess even they were not prepared for what Marc and I would do with the lessons they had taught us.
I asked for time to think.
To my surprise, they understood. I think they were even proud. Later, I would learn that the roots of their understanding stretched back generations to the teachings of their parents.
When he was just nineteen, our father's father arrived in Canada from Germany during the Great Depression. He earned "suicide pay," fighting boxers in Toronto. It was dangerous work, but every bruised rib or black eye was in his mind a small price to pay for achieving a not-so-humble Depression-era dream. When he had saved enough money, he opened a small grocery store with our grandmother. They worked there day and night, closing only one day in twenty-three years to visit Niagara Falls.
That was how our father grew up: working in the store after school and on weekends. His dream, however, was different. He wanted an education. But he thought there was no chance for college. Then, in his last year of high school, his parents announced that they had saved enough over the years to make his dream possible. He was overjoyed.
Our mother, the second youngest of four children, was born in Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit, Michigan. She was only nine when her father passed away. At ten she was working weekends in a neighborhood store. There were lots of struggles. One summer her family's only shelter was a tent. Life was hard, but my grandmother, with only an eighth-grade education, taught herself how to type and then worked her way up from cleaning other people's homes to an office job at the Chrysler Corporation (she eventually headed her department). Through her stoic example, she instilled in her children the belief that they could achieve anything they wanted in life.
I was unaware of this history and I was also ignorant of my parents' commitment to supporting social issues. Although they were not activists, both were dedicated teachers who believed in teaching both inside and outside of the classroom. Whenever they had the opportunity, they tried to help us learn about the world and what we could do to make it a better place. These lessons didn't involve marches or protests, they were simpler than that. When we asked a question about the environment, it would lead to an afternoon picking up garbage in the park. A comment about the Humane Society would lead to a challenge to reserve part of our allowance to help the abandoned animals we saw on TV.
Our family history of helping combined to sway my parents. They knew about fighting for ideals and dreams. Our house remained a zoo and Free The Children continued to grow.
Yet if they had known what was coming next, they might have had second thoughts.
Then one day, Alam told me that he would be going to South Asia to visit some relatives. Would I like to come? My poor parents never knew what hit them. I pestered them for weeks. Fortunately, they thought very highly of Alam and eventually my mother said, "Convince me that you will be safe."
If I could somehow prove to her that I would be fine, that the trip would be well organized, that the mountain of details could be taken care of, then I could go. I began faxing organizations throughout South Asia advising them that I would be coming, applied for travel visas, and raised money through household chores and the generosity of relatives. Then, with my parents' blessing, I marked the date of my departure on my calendar.
The plan was a seven-week trip to meet children who worked in the most inhumane conditions imaginable. We met children working in metal factories, pouring metal without any protective gear. We met children as young as five years old in the brick kilns, working to pay off debts taken out by their parents or grandparents and passed from generation to generation. We met a ten-year-old boy who worked in a fireworks factory, badly burned all over his body from an explosion that had killed fourteen other kids. In another encounter, we met an eight-year-old girl working in a recycling factory, taking apart used syringes and needles with her bare hands.
My first stop was Dhaka, Bangladesh, where we were taken to one of the city's largest slums, an entire valley filled with corrugated tin, woven reed, and cardboard huts. The people who lived there owned next to nothing. Their clothing was in rags. Human and animal waste filled the gutters. There was little food. When I saw the utter poverty, I wanted to stay there for the entire seven-week trip and volunteer, so I asked a human rights worker in the slum how I could help. He told me, "Continue your journey. Learn as much as you can. And then go back home and tell others what you have seen and ask them if they think it is fair that places like this exist in the world. Because it's the lack of action, the refusal from people at home to help, that allows this to continue."
See how Craig and Free The Children are changing the world today!