Child labors to free child laborers

Twelve-year-old boy determines to free millions of exploited children

FREE THE CHILDREN By Craig Kielburger with Kevin Major HarperCollins 319 pp., $23

At an age when most teens are worried about home-room politics or passing their next vocabulary test, Canadian Craig Kielburger took on a larger challenge: battling the scourge of child labor.

Galvanized by a 1995 newspaper article about the murder of child-laborer turned-activist Iqbal Masih, Kielburger persuaded some of his classmates to form Free the Children.

The group quickly went from being a cute bunch of kids that held garage sale fund-raisers to an internationally recognized organization that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help children around the world.

Still more impressive is the journey taken by its then-12-year-old head, who within months went from speaking in front of classrooms to meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrtien.

That last lobbying effort happened on a two-month, fact-finding tour of Southeast Asia. At the time, Kielburger wasn't allowed to ride the Toronto subway by himself. But he was so convinced that he needed to see firsthand the conditions children were forced to labor under that he persuaded his parents to let him travel with a college-age fellow activist named Alam Rahman.

During his trip, Kielburger helped bring children freed in a carpet-factory raid back home to their parents, talked his way past the Indian border guards, and learned to handle everything from spicy Asian cuisine to the international media.

It is this journey that is chronicled in "Free the Children," which Kielburger and Kevin Major wrote together. At the heart of the book, and Kielburger's work as an activist, is the question: "If child labor is not acceptable for white, middle-class North American kids, then why is it acceptable for a girl in Thailand or a boy in Brazil?"

With a conversational, vivid style that is mercifully free of jargon or cynicism, Kielburger introduces readers to the children and reformers he met during his trip through Bangladesh, Thailand, Nepal, India, and Pakistan.

There's Mick, a former Australian cop working undercover for a human-rights organization, who took Kielburger and Alam on a tour through Thailand's notorious child-sex district, and Alam, a shutterbug and free spirit whom Kielburger calls a renegade in track pants, and of course the dozens of child workers Kielburger interviewed.

One of the most touching stories is that of Nagashir, an Indian teen who'd been branded for trying to help his brother escape from the carpet factory where they'd been enslaved. When he was finally freed, he was unable to speak or cry. But after weeks at a rehabilitation center, his first words were a song of hope.

Nagashir's story is emblematic of the tone of the book. Despite the bleak lives of many of those Kielburger met, he writes with hope borne of his determination and commitment.

Far from being a dry treatise on the subject, in places "Free the Children" reads more like an adventure story - such as when Alam and Kielburger con their way inside a fireworks factory to interview the children working at that dangerous job.

One of the book's highlights is the chronicle of their all-night ride through the Indian countryside, carrying freed children back to their homes. On the way, the Jeep gets stuck in the river, and everyone gets soaked pushing it free. One of the boys, an undernourished eight-year-old with a holey tank top and scars from being beaten, offers Kielburger his blanket so he won't get cold.

"His first thoughts had been for someone else," Kielburger writes. "Perhaps that was how the children had all survived their years in the carpet factory - looking out for each other in the face of brutality, finding comfort in sharing what little they had. I imagined how ... when they were finally allowed to sleep, the children whispered encouragement to each other, told each other that a day would surely come when they would be free."

*Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.

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