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Heroes you should know: Iqbal Masih

Heroes you should know:  Iqbal Masih
“I would like to do what Abraham Lincoln did… I would like to do it in Pakistan."
-Iqbal Masih
Iqbal Masih (b. 1983 - April 16, 1995) was a Pakistani boy cast into bondage at age four because of his family’s inability to repay a debt, but through extraordinary courage and perseverance became an international symbol for the dignity of children and a martyr for justice---all by the tender age of twelve.
Iqbal never knew his father, who had abandoned the family in the boy’s infancy.  And when it came time to pay for an older son’s wedding, the impoverished family decided to borrow 600 rupees (the equivalent of $12 U.S.) from a local man who owned a carpet weaving business.  They offered Iqbal as collateral.  And when the family could not repay the loan, the four year-old Iqbal was handed over to the business owner as a laborer until the debt was paid off.
Over the next few years the businessman added interest to the debt, along with expenses for ‘training’, and costs he incurred due to the mistakes the young boy made in the factory---all this insuring that Iqbal would never be free.  Six days a week Iqbal would rise before dawn and weave for up to 14 hours with other children at the factory, all of them chained to their machines to prevent escape. 
At ten years of age, Iqbal escaped after learning that the Pakistani Supreme Court had declared child bondage illegal.  However the local police, who had been bought by the local ‘carpet mafia,’ hunted him down and returned him to his captor. 
But humans are made to be free, and young Iqbal understood this---and acted on this.  So again he attempted escape, and this time found refuge with the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) of Pakistan, an organization that also helped him draft a letter of freedom which he reportedly presented to his former master personally.
Finally free, Iqbal began attending a school established by the BLLF for children who had been in bonded labor, and proved to be both an outstanding student and a compelling speaker.  But his training was not just theoretical.  Because his growth had been stunted by years of malnourishment, Iqbal appeared to be much younger than his actual age.  So he would often assume the role of a child laborer in order to gain access to child labor factories, and once inside, speak to children about their rights.  It is estimated that through his efforts Iqbal helped liberate over 3,000 Pakistani children. 
His influence growing, the BLLF began sending Iqbal to other countries to raise awareness of the evil reality of child bondage.  Despite death threats, the boy labored fearlessly for the cause.  In 1994, Iqbal traveled to the United States to receive the Reebok Human Rights Award, and used the opportunity to tell his story to audiences of adults and children.  His dream was to become a lawyer and fight on behalf of exploited children everywhere.
However on April 16, 1995, while visiting his family, Iqbal was shot-gunned as he rode his bicycle with friends.  The official police report claimed the boy was killed ‘accidentally’ by a farmer, who confessed to the accident after hours of torture.  However, it is generally understood that Iqbal was assassinated on orders from the ‘carpet mafia’ in Pakistan, who was coming under increasing international scrutiny due to Iqbal’s efforts.

The best way to measure a life is not in years lived, but in lives impacted.  Iqbal Masih, with remarkable courage and perseverance, used tragic circumstances to change the world for the good.  And his story will continue to inspire all those who fight for a world where children are free to be children---and the dignity of humankind is supported, not distorted, by work.  
Iqbal Masih is a hero you should know.
This blog was informed by the following:
Rodriguez, Junius P., and Orlando Patterson. Chronology of World Slavery. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

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