Free the Children founder advocates universal primary education

Human rights advocate Craig Kielburger urged York Faculty of Education students to support the cause of universal primary education for children worldwide. In a presentation to teacher candidates at the annual Faculty of Education Students’ Association conference on Jan. 27, Kielburger, founder of Free the Children, the world’s largest network of "children helping children through education," described both the plight of disenfranchised young people and successful strategies for addressing their needs.

Left: FESA professional director, Cinzia Strazzeri (left), with human rights advocate Craig Kielburger and FESA president Naomi Yehia

More than 113 million children in the world have never been to school, exposing them to exploitation, abuse and chronic poverty, said Kielburger. He outlined that it would cost roughly $12 billion to "put every kid in school", a mere fraction of the $1 trillion spent annually on armaments. Europeans, he noted, spend $12 billion yearly on ice cream alone. Quoting Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Kielburger said, "Education is the solution to everything."

Kielburger encouraged York teacher candidates to seek out the passion and individual "gifts" of their future students, and to engage them in classroom activities that explore the numerous challenges faced by children internationally. He said that there is no end to the creative projects which teachers and students can initiate and sustain.

Shocked by the 1995 murder of 12-year-old Iqbal Masih, a former Pakistani child labourer-turned activist, Kielburger, a native of Thornhill, Ont., founded the Free the Children network later that same year at the age of 12. The network has since developed into a large international organization involving more than 1,000,000 children in 45 countries. Free the Children has built 450 schools in impoverished communities, provided $11 million in medical supplies, and distributed more than 200,000 school and health kits to people in need. It sponsors school-building and community development programs for high-school students who receive academic credit for their work abroad.

Kielburger has received numerous honours for his efforts on behalf of children, including the Nelson Mandela Human Rights Award, the Roosevelt Freedom Medal and the Governor General’s Medal of Meritorious Service. His first book, Free the Children (1999), has been translated into eight languages.

The conference was organized by the Faculty of Education Students’ Association (FESA) at York, and supported by a "peace education" grant from the Government of Spain.

Naomi Yehia, president of FESA, thanked Kielburger for what she described as an overwhelming and inspirational address.

Paul Axelrod, dean of York’s Faculty of Education, described Kielburger’s talk as "extraordinarily moving. I predict that their encounter with Mr. Kielburger will be transformative for many of the students who attended his presentation."