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Monday, November 28, 2011

Iqbal’s Spirit Did Not Die. It Found Its Way Through the Children That He Inspired

By Pamela J. Wells
Originally Published on 7-4-11

“We have a slogan at school when children are freed. We all together say we are free. And I request you to join me today in raising that slogan here. I will say, “We are,” and you will say, “Free.”


Iqbal Masih was born in Muridke, Pakistan. He lived his young life, unfortunately as a child laborer, which began when he was just 4 years old. He lived in Pakistan with his family who needed money to pay for their eldest son’s wedding, so they borrowed 600 rupees (around $12) from a carpet factory owner who was rich and influential in their community. They exchanged their son, Iqbal, for the money.

The factory owner would not release Iqbal until the debt was paid; unfortunately the family could not afford to buy back their son. The owner always had the option to sell the boy or any of the other children to another factory owner if he so desired.

Iqbal and several other children were forced to squat before loom and weave carpet in the factory. These special carpets were sold on the world market for high prices. He worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. He could not make mistakes or else the owner would add fines to the sum of what his parents owed. There was always the threat of the children getting a beating, or being hung by their legs for punishment in a back room. Many of them had visible scars on their hands and their feet from being whipped or struck with sharp metal tools or sticks because they had fallen asleep while at the loom. 

Many times, the children would accidentally cut themselves with the carpet knives and, to stop the bleeding, their wounds were dipped in hot oil, or matchstick powder would be put in their cuts by the foreman who lit them up so that the blood and skin would quickly bond together. Their main concern was getting the children back to work quickly.


At the age of 10, Iqbal knew he would remain indebted and enslaved to the carpet owner forever seeing that he would never have the money needed to pay off his family’s debt. The sum of the debt had reached 13,000 rupees, which had increased due to the charges for his lunch that he ate each day, a bowl of rice, and also fines for mistakes.

A human rights organization, Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), helped him “to escape and go to school.” He completed 6 years of school within 2 years. He joined BLLF, campaigned against child labor, and “became a world-renowned child rights activist.”

In 1994, at 12 years old, he traveled as a spokesperson for the BLLF throughout Europe and the U.S. speaking to children who were the same age as him about what he had went through as a child slave. He called for a boycott of the carpet industry in Pakistan and an end to child labor. 

One of the schools he had visited just before receiving his human rights award was Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, MA. After he had told his story, they asked him, “Why are you going to go home when you know you are in danger?” And, he said, “I need to finish what I started.”

In 1994, Iqbal attended a press conference in Stockholm, which the Swedish Industrial Union had organized. He told the reporters, “Now I am not scared of the factory owner. He is scared of me!” 

Later, that same year, he received the Reebok Human Rights Youth In Action Award in Boston. He had a carpet tool in one hand and a pencil in the other, standing in front of the audience, he began to speak of child labor and the horrors of it.

The audience rose to their feet as he told them, “We have a slogan at school. When children get free, we all together say, ‘We Are Free! We Are Free!’”

“We are…..” he said, filling the room with his voice.
“Free!” the crowd shouted.
“We are…..” he said again.
“Free!” the audience shouted again in-kind.

Iqbal helped thousands of children that were in bonded labor get released, which caused the Pakistani carpet industry to begin to wane. They had lost a lot of money from him speaking out. On April 16, 1995, on Easter Sunday, Iqbal was murdered in his native village while riding a bicycle. He was only 12-years old. 

Iqbal’s story had made such an impression on the students at Broad Meadows Middle School that they decided to take the anger over his murder and turn it into positive action, so they decided to raise money to build a school in Pakistan because they said that that was his dream. Amanda Loo, a 13-year old student there, co-founded, with her classmates, “A School for Iqbal,” and in 1996, they eventually raised $150,000 and built a 5-room schoolhouse that would also be used as a community health center in Kasur, Pakistan, near Iqbal’s hometown. 

10 years after his death, “A School for Iqbal,” raised enough money to build 8 schools around the world. Another program was also launched by the children’s organization that provides Pakistani women with loans “to buy back their children from slavery.”

Broad Meadows Middle School students testify before Congressional Roundtable on Youth Activism in Washington, D.C. At the microphone is Meagan Donoghue, 8th grade. From left are USAID administrator Brian Atwood; Democratic Congressman William Delahunt, of Maryland; Katie Sault, 7th grade, and Elizabeth Bloomer, 7th grade.

Amanda and other classmates testified before Congress shortly before the schoolhouse was finished about what she had learned of child laborers. Amanda also joined an international cause, Global March Against Child Labour, was flown by the garment-workers union, UNITE, to Geneva Switzerland, where she gave a speech against child labor.

Amanda said, “Once you meet kids who’ve been through this, 
you can’t just talk about it. You have to go out and do something.”

Copyright © 2011 Pamela J. Wells. All Rights Reserved

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