By Kate Dudding
Storyteller, Kate Dudding, tells the story of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old boy in Pakistan who led thousands of children to freedom from 1993-1995. Even after his death, Iqbal went on to inspire other children and show that even the youngest among us can make a difference.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Come-With-Me-and-Be-Free
- Why did Iqbal keep running away from the factory where he worked?
- Why do you suppose that the Bonded Labor Liberation Front had to hold rallies in villages?
- What gave Iqbal the courage to sneak away from the factory to go to the Bonded Labor Liberation Front rally in his village?
- What must it have been like for Iqbal to travel to Boston to receive his Reebok’s Youth in Action Human Rights award? What new experiences did he have to deal with?
- A history of how Craig Kielberger learned of Iqbal and founded Free the Children
- Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery by Susan Kuklin
- Asian American/Asians
- Living and Traveling Abroad
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Kate Dudding. Some people say children can’t make a real difference in this world. I’m going to tell you a story about one who did. His name is Iqbal Masih of Pakistan. By the time he was 12, he had led thousands of children to freedom. He talked to them at meetings. He told them his story.
I was born into a poor family. My father was a laborer, my mother a house cleaner. When I was two, my father deserted us. Later, when my older brother was getting married, my father knew he had to help pay for the festivities but he didn’t have the money. He couldn’t borrow from a bank so he borrowed from a carpet factory owner the six hundred rupees, ($12) that he needed. I was the collateral. I would work at the carpet factory until the debt was paid off. I was four years old when this happened, when I became a bonded laborer. This is a modern story. This happened in 1987.
I left home every morning at four o’clock and returned at 7:00 in the evening, six days a week. I only had energy to play on my day off. I worked in a small, airless room. The windows were sealed to keep the insects out that might harm the fac… the carpet. There was one light bulb hanging from the ceiling. There were 20 looms in this little, this little room. We were not allowed to speak. The factory owner said, “Children who are talking are not paying their full attention to their work and could make mistakes.”
Sometimes I ran away and when I came back, I was always beaten and sometimes chained to my loom. Once, I ran away to the police station to tell them of the horrible conditions and the beatings and the threats. But all policemen did was return me to the factory where I was severely beaten. And the carpet factory owner told me, “You are a working boy. You are a carpet weaver. You will be a carpet weaver for the rest of your life.”
Members of my family kept on borrowing money from the factory owner. The debt grew from the original $12 to $260. Far more than I would ever be able to pay off. But wonderful things started happening after six years, when I was 10 years old, in 1993. A law was passed making it illegal to have bonded labor and cancelling all the debts. But I didn’t read. No one in my family could read. We didn’t know about the law. Luckily, a man called Ehsan Ulah Khan and others founded the Bonded Labor Liberation Front. They went from village to village telling people about the new law.
They came to my village. The factory owner said to all of his boys, “Do not go to this meeting. It would be bad for you.” But I thought if he said it was going to be bad it must be good. So, I ran away again. I learned of the new law cancelling my family’s debt at this meeting. Ehsan Ulah Khan noticed me, and called me up on stage, asking me to tell my story. When I said I was 10, I could see people looking startled. And, and I heard some of them saying, “I thought he was six.” You see, I’m rather short because I’ve never had enough food to eat.
After the meeting, I insisted that a freedom letter be written to terminate the contract bond, the bonded contract. You had to give a freedom letter to the factory owner. So, I insisted that a lawyer there write me one. And then I insisted on delivering it because I wanted to tell the boys I worked with, “Come with me and be free.”
The factory owner was furious but he could do nothing. I started going to school for the first time and traveling to meetings like this, telling people my story.
Iqbal always ended his talks by saying, “Come with me and be free.” Thousands did.
When Iqbal was 12, two years after he had been free, he received Reebok’s first Youth in Action Human Rights Award. As part of the award, he traveled to Boston at the end of 1994. While there he visited the Broad Meadows Middle School. All the children were so excited to meet him. They talked to him. They listened to his presentations. His interpreter was exhausted by the end of the day.
Later that week, when he received his award, he said, “Children, in my country use this tool.” Holding up his carpet weaver tool. “They should be using this tool.” And he held up a pen. He also called on President Clinton to invoke sanctions against countries that had bonded child labor. At the end of the presentation, he was asked many questions by reporters. One of them, that so many children are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Iqbal said, “A lawyer to fight for the rights of my people. But first I must finish school.”
Unfortunately, Iqbal will never get a chance to finish school. Four months after he received the Reebok award, he was shot dead in the street. There have been many investigations. No one has ever been arrested. Some of the investigations blame a villager who was tired of screaming children and took a pot shot at them, that accidentally hit Iqbal. Other investigations say it was a member of the carpet mafia in Pakistan. But amazingly, Iqbal’s story does not end with his death. The students of Broad Meadows Middle School decided to collect money in Iqbal’s honor. They contacted schools and youth groups around the world suggesting a donation of $12. Symbolic of both Iqbal’s death, age when he died, and the size of the original debt. They collected $127,000 from children and another $19,000 from Reebok and other adults.
With this money, they built a school in Pakistan, in Iqbal’s honor, In Canada, twelve-year-old Craig Kielburger read of Iqbal’s story. With friends, he started the organization Free the Children. In the 17 years since Iqbal’s death, Free the Children has built over 650 schools and donated $16 million dollars in medical supplies, among other achievements. Two and a half years after President Clinton’s… 2 ½ years after Iqbal’s death, President Clinton signed a law making it illegal to import goods made by bonded child labor.
Some people say children can’t make a real difference in this world. Clearly, they have never heard of Iqbal Masih, the students at Broad Meadows Middle School or Craig Kielburger.