There’s no way a 12-year-old Pakistani boy named Iqbal Masih knew what his legacy would become when he was killed nearly 20 years ago.
But the boy’s story was splashed across the pages of American newspapers the morning of April 19, 1995, inspiring things as big as worldwide movements and service organizations, to small things like an annual mid-January lesson plan in a Coon Rapids middle school.
Pam Zimba, an integrated language arts teacher at Northdale Middle School, said she saw the story about Masih’s death that morning 18 years ago and his story really struck her.
“I just couldn’t turn away from that face,” she said, looking at a picture of him that she has tacked to a wall in her classroom.
Masih won international acclaim in the 1990s for highlighting the horrors of child labor in Pakistan. For much of his life, he was a slave laborer, bound to other children like him, working 14-hour days, seven days a week, in a carpet weaving factory. His parents sold him to the owners of the factory to pay off a debt.
In 1993, at the age of 10, he escaped and hooked up with a human rights group fighting child labor in Pakistan. But two years later, after a trip to the United States to receive an award for his efforts in freeing child laborers, he was gunned down while riding his bike with friends.
“I was reading about his murder and at the time my own kids were 10 and 13,” Zimba said. “I go to work and I’m teaching 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds. I didn’t even know kids could be sold into slavery.”
Inspired to do something, Zimba took a year to research and develop her lesson plan and since 1997, she’s been teaching about child labor and inspiring students to act.
Meanwhile in Canada, on that same spring day in 1995, a 12-year-old boy named Craig Kielburger was flipping through his morning newspaper when he saw the story of Masih — the same one Zimba saw.
Kielburger felt he, too, needed to do something. He gathered together a small group of his seventh-grade classmates from his Thornhill, Ontario, school, and created Free the Children, which has turned into one of the largest children’s rights groups in the world.
“Those factory owners that were upset by (Masih) thought they were going to silence him,” Zimba said.
“But a teacher in Coon Rapids has a unit dedicated to child labor because of that boy, and another person in another country has created one of the world’s largest children’s rights groups — all because they were inspired by this one little boy. It’s amazing.”
And nearly 20 years later, with Masih still serving as the primary inspiration for both, the paths of Zimba’s class and Free the Children crossed in a remarkable way. “An amazing piece of serendipity,” Zimba called it.
In January, around the time Zimba’s child labor unit was heating up, Free the Children provided Northdale with a gift — youth ambassadors who provided group presentations to the school, talking about ways for children to make changes in their communities.
Following that, the school had the opportunity to apply for a Free the Children leadership seminar.
Zimba said she asked her students if they were interested — it required an essay to be written — and the answer was a pretty emphatic yes.
That’s when Zimba says she got the surprise of her teaching career.
Two of her seventh graders — Abraham Joseph and Tyler Young — wrote about how they had created a student activist group called Youth For Change just a month earlier. Zimba’s child labor unit, the boys said, inspired the group.
“I was absolutely blown away,” she said. “The boys — they did this all on their own. It’s totally self-directed.
Joseph said Northdale’s Youth For Change group was born soon after the child labor unit began, following a conversation between he and his friend, Young.
“It hit me hard, and we were talking about how we both felt terrible for (Masih) and the other kids who are wrapped up in this,” Joseph said. “We decided to do something.”
Young said the group began with he and Joseph meeting on Tuesdays in the school’s library. Following the Free the Children leadership workshop, he said they honed in on what they wanted from other potential members.
“We knew we’d want a lot from the people who became members — more than just members of a club,” Young said. “We wanted some good qualities.”
Now, Youth for Change has a core of 11 leaders, including Young and Joseph, and a total of 60 members, all from Northdale.
“We didn’t really know a lot of the other kids,” Joseph said. “But they were part of the leadership workshop and seemed dedicated. Now we’re all friends.”
One of those students is Milkessa Gaga, and he points to the child labor unit as the catalyst for his joining Youth For Change.
“What if it was me working those long hours?” he said. “I’m so grateful for the life I have.”
Ensar Smailagic said he joined because of a personal connection.
“We have a family friend who, as a boy, worked 10-12 hours a day on a farm,” he said. “He didn’t get to go to school much, and this unit hit me — he was kind of like these kids we talked about. I wanted to join at that moment.”
Youth for Change isn’t fooling around.
Just a couple of months after forming, the group of seventh-graders held a Free the Children sponsored “pennies program” where the group solicited donations of spare coins and pennies.
Zimba said the results were staggering. In a week, the group managed to fill a number of jugs and raised more than $600 in coins.
But that’s not even the half of it. Staff in the building, also inspired by Zimba and Youth For Change, raised another $610.
Another donation of $100 came in, too, Zimba said, resulting in $1,310 being raised in just one week, all of which was given to Free the Children.
“That’s enough money to provide clean drinking water to 50 people for the rest of their lives,” she said.
In addition, the group has held a movie night to raise funds for the school’s food shelf, Victor’s Pantry, and on April 18 participated in Free the Children’s “We are Silent” fundraiser that challenges students to stand in silence for 24 hours with children whose voices are silenced by not having their rights upheld.
Those two fundraisers earned enough money for the group to give a third of the proceeds directly to Free the Children, with the rest paying for two Cub Foods shopping trips for Victor’s Pantry.
The success has generated notoriety, too. WCCO-TV recently filmed a story about the group that will air on a newscast in June.
“I hope we don’t get too famous or anything with all the attention,” Joseph said.
“I do,” Young said. “It would be a sign the group is growing and we’re really making an impact.”
Zimba said it’s wonderful to see the students making a tangible impact with fundraising, but it’s equally gratifying to see them grow as people.
“These kids, they aren’t your typical leaders,” she said. “I see them developing this quiet confidence as they discover their own strengths. It’s wonderful to see them empowered.”
According to Zimba, small-scale projects have happened before with her students, such as a time in 2007 when some of her students raised enough money to build a school in Kenya.
“This is the first group that’s formed a student activist group,” Zimba said. “It says so much about them. When I talk to the kids, I encourage them to find ways to make a difference, but not for a grade. That’s the thing here — this is for personal satisfaction and to make the world a better place.”
That doesn’t mean their hard work isn’t recognized. Back on Feb. 6, a number of Northdale students, including Joseph and Young, participated in Free the Children’s first We Day event held in the U.S.
Held every year in stadiums across Canada, We Day is Free the Children’s culmination to year-long student volunteer projects. The program attracts a star-studded roster of speakers, and this year’s event, held at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, featured the Jonas Brothers, actress Mia Farrow and local dignitaries.
“You can’t buy a ticket to We Day,” Zimba said. “The kids had to earn a spot by doing something to make a difference globally, and also do something locally. They really earned it.”
And chances are they’ll earn a return trip to this year’s We Day, which will be held Oct. 8 at the Xcel Energy Center.
For Zimba, Youth For Change is something of a crowning achievement. She’s retiring in June, but says she plans to stay connected to the group she helped inspire.
“At the end of the school year, when I’m wrapping up everything, my students tell me that the child labor unit has the biggest impact on them,” Zimba said. “But this is different. It means a lot to me to think I may have helped to inspire them to do this.”
Northdale Principal Laurie Jacklitch gives a lot of credit to Zimba and says the school will help Youth For Change continue to flourish.
“(Zimba) is an exemplary educator who’s not just a teacher, but a person who instills a passion for lifelong learning as well as service to others,” Jacklitch said.
“This is a group of young people with huge hearts and it’s very refreshing to see. I’m encouraged about their excitement for next year, too, and we’ll help in whatever way we can.”
Joseph and Young are already planning summer meetings and hope to have the group grow next school year, not only at Northdale, but maybe at other middle schools in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, too. “We’re doing something that makes a difference and that feels good,” Joseph said.