Students Honor a Friend's Memory With a New School

Human rights lessons have never been so lifelike

Ron Adams's seventh grade classes will never forget the slight, Pakistani boy who told them the story of his life - long hours knotting carpets under harsh conditions, and eventually escaping from the factory where he was beaten.

And since Iqbal Masih will never again be able to tell his tale, Mr. Adams's classes are picking up his quest to end child labor.

So with the same tools they sharpened to raise consciousness about child labor in Pakistan when Iqbal first visited last December - letter-writing and communication via the Internet - a few dozen teens have decided to build a school on the other side of the world in his memory.

Iqbal was killed April 16 while riding a bike through his village, Muridke. He and his family had reportedly received death threats for his activism against bonded labor in Pakistan's carpet factories, but the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has concluded his death was not political.

The students at Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Mass. met Iqbal when he came to their classroom as a recipient of the 1994 Reebok Human Rights Youth in Action Award.

In a soft voice, holding up the crude tools of his childhood trade, he brought the issue of bonded labor to life as no book, video, or computer could.

When Iqbal was killed, "it was shock, pure shock," says seventh-grader Amy Papile, one of the two girls spearheading the school-building campaign. "I was out in the rain that day collecting signatures" for an investigation into his death.

The students decided to build a school in Muridke because "it was Iqbal's dream for children to be free and to be educated," she says. The decision sent students into overdrive during the last month of their school year. They've had bake sales and candy drives and hit up their friends, family, and former teachers for money to contribute to a fund for the school in Pakistan.

They've also logged on to the one computer in their classroom, haphazardly decorated with pictures, T-shirts, and responses to letters about Iqbal. They've e-mailed classrooms from California to Connecticut asking other students to spread the word of their campaign, help raise money, and offer advice.

They've made fliers to hand out around the community and written letters to the band members of R.E.M., a popular rock group, to gain permission to collect money at a recent concert outside Boston. They've been in contact with Amnesty International and MTV about setting up a page on the Internet, where interested users could see a small video about Iqbal, the issue of child labor, and the students' drive to build the school in Pakistan.

The Broad Meadows class has opened a bank account - they've collected close to $2,000 in a month - and set December as the deadline to raise their goal of $5,000.

But amid their flurry of activity, the students and teachers are beginning to sense how tough it will be to make their - and Iqbal's - dream a reality.

What kind of school are they planning to build? Who will train the teachers? Is $5,000 enough?

"We don't know," says Amanda Loos, working with Amy Papile on the campaign. "We're just taking one step at a time."

The next move, Adams says, is finding adult partners to help make those decisions. "We've got to form a partnership with the people of that village, Adams says. "That's the bridge that's going to have to be built next.''

Other organizations have aided the Quincy seventh-graders as well - Amnesty International has invited Amy and Amanda to speak at its annual meeting in Boston. June 23 - but none has signed on to steer the students through the complicated process of building a school overseas.

Broad Meadows has even lost contact with the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, a group dedicated to eradicating child labor in Pakistan, whose director accompanied Iqbal on his US visit. The group has come under pressure from the Pakistani government since Iqbal's murder and is even accused of taking part in his killing, though Amnesty International discounts those claims.

"We're trying to stay out of some of the politics," says seventh-grade social studies teacher Donna Willoughby. "We're trying to leave that up to the governments."

Those kinds of politics are just the kind of thing that can halt an overseas project in its tracks, says Joel Charny, acting president of the Boston-based grass-roots organization Oxfam America.

"The key is to have an organization or institution on the ground on the other side of the globe," Mr. Charny says, speaking from Oxfam's experience in planning literacy and food production projects in third-world countries. "Anything under the sun could go wrong" in a project like building a school, he says. The land could be privately owned, unstable currencies could cause budget problems, or someone could corner a market on needed supplies, such as bricks. And that's nothing compared with a civil war breaking out mid-project, he says.

But the daunting scope of the task at hand has not kept Broad Meadows' teachers and students from forging ahead. "The unexpected benefit of this project that I really love," Mr. Adams says "is that students don't look at their desks and their chairs the same way anymore."

Holding up the tools of his childhood trade, Iqbal Masih brought the issue of bonded labor to life as no book or video could.

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