Craig Kielburger's 2001 Distinguished Peace
Leadership Award Acceptance Speech
Every Child is a Treasure
(Acceptance speech upon receiving the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation's 2001 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award, November 9, 2001)
Thank you to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation for this great honor and for being a visionary organization that recognizes and supports the efforts of young people as peace builders.
Tonight, at the 18 th Annual Evening for Peace, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation decided to recognize the achievements of young people. The truth is that we're simply following in the footsteps of organizations and groups like the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
Groups like KIND, Hafsat's organization, and our organization, Kids Can Free the Children , realize that we're merely a heartbeat in the history of social justice movements. For example, tonight is the 18 th Annual Evening for Peace; I sat there realizing, wow, I was born eighteen years ago! But the sad reality is that during those eighteen years, there was never a time in which it was so important or so urgent, in fact, to gather together for a united cause-the reason why we're here tonight.
In our post-September 11 th world, the word peace carries an entirely different meaning for my generation. This is the first time that we've ever actually experienced war. Conflicts have always been fought far off, in some distant country. We've never actually had, in my generation, a Vietnam , or a Martin Luther King, or a JFK. The fact is now, in our post-September 11 th world, even the most politically disinterested young person realizes that they cannot ignore what is happening, even halfway around the globe.
Over the past six years, I've had the chance to travel the world, to visit about forty countries, meeting with street children and working and war-affected children. In Palestine, I had the chance to visit the refugee camps and to see how up to sixty people live, sleeping side by side, cramped together, in each tent. I have seen situations where there were no jobs for the men, very little hope amongst the women and the children. These situations breed anger and frustration.
If we lived in Israel today, for most of the young people here tonight including myself, we would be enlisted in the army. When I was in Israel earlier this year, I met with elementary and middle school students who spoke of the horrors of war in their country. You heard from Hafsat this evening about the situation in Africa , which is even worse in many cases. There are refugees who live literally in sub-human conditions. Children have become acceptable targets of war. In fact, actually, we just recently shipped medical supplies, including forty wheelchairs, to Sierra Leone because the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel group there, mutilates-cuts off the hands and feet of women, children and men-as a fear tactic to gain support.
In Northern Ireland , I have had the chance to meet with teenagers who worked as spies and as runners in the current conflict. I have spoken with children as young as twelve years old who left their villages to go into the mountains and join the rebels to fight. Three hundred thousand child soldiers every single day pick up guns because they have no other option to survive.
I will never forget visiting Belgrade and Serbia during a halt in the NATO-led bombings, and meeting with a thirteen-year-old boy who had lived in refugee camps in Bosnia , in Kosovo, and in Serbia . His entire life, he knew nothing except war. When I met him, I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. He did not have an answer-he was silent. To encourage him, I tried to explain how I wanted to be a doctor when I was older. He stopped and was silent. Then he said, "You know what would be nice? If we didn't need the doctors anymore because the bombs wouldn't fall in the first place." He was only thirteen years old.
The most extraordinary part of these war-affected children is that they're a source of amazing inspiration because of their courage, because of their indomitable spirit. Their stories never make the front pages of newspapers and never end up on the evening news, but these children are real heroes. These are children who have an indomitable spirit like Anne Frank. They are children who have courage like the students who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in World War II, children with a spirit of hope, like Sadako.
Sadako was a young Japanese girl. When she was two years old, the bomb fell on Hiroshima . When she was ten years older, she developed leukemia. Following a Japanese tradition that if you fold a thousand paper cranes, you will be granted a wish, Sadako began folding paper cranes to be well again. She died before achieving that dream, but fellow students folded the rest of the paper cranes for her. Her story inspired people around the world to action. Last year, I had the chance to visit Japan and meet with students and educators and to travel to Hiroshima . The most amazing experience was standing there, watching hundreds and hundreds of young people lined up to place paper cranes at the base of the statue erected in Sadako's memory. These children folded paper cranes to symbolize their wish and prayer for peace in the world.
Around the world, the reality for most of these children is there is very little hope. However, young people, whether they be child soldiers in Sudan , whether they be children affected by war in Colombia , whether they be children anywhere around the world, continue to hold onto that dream for hope. And that dream is spreading.
As young people, we are often called naïve dreamers for hoping that one day there will be a world without war, without suffering. The truth is, it was the dreamers who thought that one day we would end the slave trade. It was dreamers who fought so that the Berlin Wall would fall. It was dreamers who struggled to end apartheid in South Africa . Just imagine if all the young people who are with us here, all the university students, all the high school students, became involved in a single action to promote peace. Just imagine the power that we would have. Or imagine if young people, coast to coast, across the United States , all became involved under one banner, for a single action, united in a cause, promoting peace. We would be unstoppable.
I know that some people here may say that's simply a dream. I know that some of the students here may say that it's hard enough to even organize a school to rally around a spirit week, never mind organizing young people coast to coast across the United States under a single banner, for a single cause. That is exactly what has been happening over the past two months. Young people across the United States , young people, in fact, around the world following September 11, were united in their grief, in their compassion, and also in their action.
I was in New York City on September 11. I was amazed to see the number of young people volunteering in the hospitals, in the blood clinics and the young people collecting supplies for the rescue workers. Young people in Kids Can Free The Children as far away as Australia sent letters and cards of sympathy to families, and now youth across North America are collecting basic need kits for children in the refugee camps of Pakistan and Uzbekistan .
Over the past six years, Kids Can Free the Children grew from a group of twelve -year-olds into what is now the world's largest organization of children helping children. We have over one hundred thousand members in thirty-five nations. We believe that if you are to achieve true peace in this world, you have to work to alleviate the absolute poverty that exists in so many parts of this planet. You have to work to promote education, not only to create greater tolerance, but also to create an embracing of different cultures, different nationalities and different ideas.
This year alone, it is estimated that the world will spend over a trillion dollars on the military. It would only take one hundredth of that, ten billion dollars, to put every single child in the world into school. But where the adults fail, the children meet the challenge. Young people, through bake sales, car washes and collecting their birthday money, have come together and have raised money to build over three hundred Kids Can Free the Children primary schools in the developing world, providing education to over fifteen thousand children every day in 21 countries. Children have raised money to build medical clinics, cooperatives and alternative income projects, especially for women. In the alternative income projects, cows, land and sewing machines are given to families so that they can actually earn an income and do not have to send their child to the military or to labor in hazardous conditions, and instead can send them to school.
Three days ago, I was in Ecuador visiting our projects for the opening of three new primary schools. I had the chance to meet with a young boy there named Justo who is thirteen years old. When he was three years old, his father died. A few years later, his mother fell very ill and was bedridden. He had to take care of his two younger sisters at the age of eight. His dream was to go to school. Not only was this an impossible dream because he was poor, but it was impossible because he was indigenous. In Ecuador , they do not build schools for the indigenous Quechua-speaking population, only the Spanish-speaking population. About five years ago, a group of students who knew of our work fundraised and built one of the first ever Kids Can Free the Children primary schools, which was in Justo's community. I had the chance to meet him. He explained to me how he went to school, how he is now in high school, and how his dream is to become a lawyer and one day fight for education for all children in his country.
One of the greatest developments over this past year is the fact that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Under-Secretary General Olara Otunnu, came to Kids Can Free the Children with a unique challenge. They asked us to be the lead organization for the Decade of Peace and Non-Violence towards Children . With the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we are working to empower young people by teaching them about the horrors of wars and horrors of nuclear weapons. We are also teaching them and empowering them with conflict resolution skills. Our sister organization, Leaders Today, hosts trainings, literally across the United States and around the world. In fact, the Foundation's Youth Outreach Coordinator, Michael Coffey, came with us last summer to Kenya . He joined us on a volunteer trip on which we take young people to Kenya , Nicaragua , India , Jamaica and Thailand to build bridges with young people by volunteering and learning about other cultures and traditions.
I'm excited to say that tomorrow, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is sponsoring us to work with forty young people here in Santa Barbara . We are holding an event to empower young leaders here so that they can become ambassadors for peace. We are also partnering with the Foundation in a project to build a hundred schools in post-conflict nations and we are shipping medical supplies to meet the needs of children. One of the most exciting things we are doing is a project called "War is Not a Game" for young people here in the United States . In exchange for handing in their toy war guns during Christmas and Hanukkah, the money raised will be sent to Kids Can Free the Children . In turn, we will set up a scholarship fund to buy real guns from ex-child soldiers and give them a chance to go to school. The reason I share this with you is not just so you know about what we are doing, but as a challenge to the young people here to show what youth are capable of, to become ambassadors for peace and to become positive change-makers.
As I close, I want to share with you an experience that I had during the trip to Ecuador three days ago. We were in the indigenous communities and were fortunate enough to take part in an age-old tradition. It is a tradition in which all the neighboring villages put aside their differences, and they come together for a united goal, a united cause, to work as one to help all. Men and women, children and elders from three villages all walked to one community, where they worked in the pounding sun all day to hoist and place the roof on a Kids Can Free the Children school. While they were working side by side, they were not receiving money. They were not receiving any personal gain. The reason those villages came together was because they shared a united belief that the future lies in that of their children, a future which they all share.
When we were up in these incredibly isolated communities that haven't changed in the past hundreds of years, they had never heard of the attack on America . They had never heard of the war in Afghanistan . But I am sure that they would share with us a message that whether a child be born in New York City or Kabul , whether a child be born in Santa Barbara or Quito , they are the children of the world, and it is our future which we all share. Every child is a treasure. Every child has the potential to be the next Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela. Every child has the potential to be the next Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King, Jr.
I want to leave you with a final thought, a quote from one of my heroes, Mahatma Gandhi. He said, "If we are to achieve true peace in this world, it must begin with the children."
Thank you for this honor.
Craig Kielburger, an 18-year-old human rights activist from Toronto , Canada , is an international spokesperson for children's rights. His efforts to end child labor abuses worldwide have earned Craig the respect and admiration of the international community. For his outspoken leadership and commitment as an advocate for young people around the world, Craig earned the Foundation's 2001 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award.