He is a philathrokid: an internationally recognized social activist, fundraiser (for charity), a motivational speaker and author; United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Canada’s child ambassador, and founder of the Making Change Now organization. Yet he’s only 13 years old.
Bilal Rajan belongs to the increasing legion of philanthrokids – kids involved in philantrophy – who have followed in the footsteps of Toronto born, Craig Keilburger. In the fourteen years since 12-year-old Keilburger took a stand against child labor, wound up on the Oprah Winfrey Show and won the children’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, many more young people have followed his lead. What is less known is that Kielburger was inspired by children’s rights activist Iqbal Masih of Pakistan. Today Bilal Rajan is the torchbearer for this unique set of children activists.
Iqbal was sold as a child slave at the age of four for the equivalent of $12US. He was forced to work on a carpet loom in a small town called Muridke near Lahore, for up to twelve hours per day while suffering from insufficient food and care. At the age of 10, he escaped the brutal slavery and later joined the BLLF (Bonded Labor Liberation Front of Pakistan) to help stop child labor around the world. Besides making speeches about child labour all around the world, Iqbal helped over 3,000 Pakistani child laborers escape to freedom. He was murdered on Easter Sunday 1995 in the middle of a busy road.
Bilal’s road to philanthrokidom was less torturous. When his parents, originally from India, told him about the suffering of people in Gujarat, after the 2001 earthquake, he felt compelled to help and ended up raising $350 just by selling oranges. Thus his foray into the world of social activism was launched.
He later sold handmade plastic plates to raise $1,200 for HIV/Aids orphans and cookie boxes to raise over $6,000 for the affected people and children of Hurricane-devastated Haiti, raised $50,000 for the victims of the tsunami in South-east Asia, and more than $50,000 for the World Partnership Walk. In 2004, Rajan launched the Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge for the Canadian National Committee, raising the total funds for tsunami relief to around $1.8 million. To date, he has raised over $5 million for various causes, and in March 2005 he was chosen as an official ambassador for UNICEF.
Rajan visited Tanzania in July 2007 to bring awareness and education of HIV/AIDS to their communities. As a participant of (Canadian) Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s Order of Canada Mentorship Program, he visited Ecuador in August 2008 to help build a primary school. Two months later, he published Making Change: Tips from an Underage Overachiever, which focuses on how young people can work together in their local communities to increase awareness about global issues and raise funds for those in need.
In April 2009, Rajan established the Barefoot Challenge, an annual event whereby he wears shoes for seven days during National Volunteer Week in Canada. Thousands of people from more than 25 countries around the world kicked off their shoes to better understand the struggles faced by poor children in underdeveloped countries. He was also involved in a project that used solar powered LED lighting to provide lights to a village in rural Mexico.
In July 2009, Rajan met with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa to discuss several of his upcoming youth initiatives. He also spoke to students at several schools in Cape Town. Also, filmmakers produced a documentary about his journey called My Name is Bilaal.
Rajan, who is a recipient of the 2008 Top 20 Under 20 Award and the 2009 Huggable Hero Award, has addressed organizations such as URISA Canada, FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance USA, Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Haitian and Indonesian communities of Toronto, Canada. Curently, he is establishing a youth volunteer award program with every middle school in Canada and partnering with Ben Mulroney, CTV’s Canadian Idol and eTalk host, for the UNICEF Trick-or-Treat Campaign.
Motivation for Rajan’s volunteerism came in the form of “the values my parents taught me”, that people who have the tools to help others should do so to the best of their ability. Added Rajan, “It’s kind of weird to listen to other kids my age complain about school and homework. I’ve been to central Africa where I met children who walked to school barefoot and sat three to a desk, and those were the kids who actually had a school to go to. Other kids I met lost a parent, or both parents, to HIV/AIDS, and are just trying to survive. This is the kind of injustice that drives me, and millions of others in the world, to work for social change.”
“Great figures from history also really inspire me…Mahatma Gandhi, President Obama, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr…”
Rajan’s own experiences cause him to take a different perspective on young people. “They (adults) say that youth are the leaders of tomorrow. I kind of disagree with this statement, because it essentially says that young people have to grow up first to really make a difference. I don’t think you have to wait until you’re an adult to make change. Why can’t you start right now?”
“I think young people, especially in the West, need to learn more about the rest of the world. That way, we can start engaging people at an earlier age to get involved, whether through fundraising, writing letters, meeting with government officials or raising awareness through public speaking or other events.” In short, according to Rajan, people should follow the advice of Mahatma Gandhi who urged, “Be the change you want to see”.
Rajan’s concerns are myriad. Besides the plight of young people and the victims of natural and man made disasters, he also focuses on social infrastructure, poverty alleviation, diseases eradication, environmental degradation and renewable forms of energy, like wind, solar and geothermal.
What about his plans for the future? “I want to continue my education onto university and attain a Ph.D. in the medical sciences. I’m really aiming to be a neurosurgeon, and I want to do research and help develop treatments for the world’s deadliest diseases. I’ve also always been interested in astronomy, and I would love to be an astronaut and travel to outer space. My interest in politics is also strong, and I want to eventually run for the Parliament of Canada.”
He does admit that it is a challenge to balance education with his volunteer activities. However, with the help of his teachers and parents he manages an average of 90 plus. As he points out, “You can’t help anyone, unless you help yourself first”.
Meanwhile, Rajan definitely plans to continue to be involved in volunteerism even as he aims to achieve his educational goals, although he does indicate that his biggest challenge is the daily negative reactions from people who criticize the work he does. This tends to occasionally “slow you down” but it certainly does not lessen his resolve. In fact, Rajan believes that those involved in volunteer work should not seek financial remuneration, since, in his view, it’s a privilege to serve. He takes not a cent while his travels are paid for either by UNICEF or his parents, who are highly supportive of all he does.
“As for fundraising, Sudokuhub is my newest project. It is a website (www.sudokuhub.com) where web users pay to play Sudoku…all of the proceeds will go to UNICEF’s Plumpy’nut® Program, which feeds malnourished children throughout the world. We are planning for Sudokuhub.com to be a premier destination website for Sudoku players worldwide”. Already a number of sponsors have come on board.
“The Haiti fundraising efforts are going well. My Help for Haiti Challenge is asking each young person in Canada to raise at least $100. We’re getting schools involved as well. And just for fun, the school, which raises the greatest amount of funds, will hold a public event where the students will shave my head. The Headmaster at my school, David Thompson, has also agreed to have his head shaved if his students raise more than $35,000. My overall goal for the Help for Haiti Challenge is $1 million.”
So how does this wunderkid keep his feet on the ground? For one, his parents set limits so that he has quality time to be a kid. Once, the Rajans turned off their phones and Internet for two days so Bilaal could simply play with his friends. And he points out that his friends and school treat him as one of them so he is involved in the things in which a normal thirteen-year would indulge; in his case skiing, tennis, watching soccer and hanging out.
Also, Mrs. Rajan, who acts as her son’s manager, has limited him to one engagement per week. However, his parents also take measures “to ensure the public doesn’t perceive them as overzealous puppet masters: The Rajans avoid being in the room when their son is interviewed.”
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