Malala Yousafszai was pulled out of chemistry class at her high school in Birmingham, England last week and told she had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was thrilled, humbled, grateful — and then excused herself to return to class.
This is fitting. Her struggle to be able to go to class almost cost her her life. She was shot in the face by extremist cowards in Pakistan who wanted to make an example of a little girl who spoke publicly about the rights of girls and women to an education. Of course, she returned to class. She will permit neither tragedy nor triumph to stop her education. From the time she was a small child, she has been clear on her purpose: Every child has a right to go to school.
Kailash Satyarthi was working on organizing a raid when he learned he would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Malala. He was thrilled, humbled, grateful — and the very next day he went back to work to organize the raid on yet another secret, illegal factory to rescue child workers living in virtual slavery.
This is fitting. His struggle to free children from slave labor worldwide has cost him bullet wounds by those who exploit boys and girls for financial gain. Kailash speaks out, but doesn’t limit himself to brave words. Brave deeds are called for. He and his teams put on flack jackets, and armed only with video cameras, cell phones, and determination, they raid illegal factories and mines to rescue children who have been kidnapped or sold into servitude. Of course, he returned to organizing the next raid. For 30 years he has been clear on his purpose: No child shall be a slave.
Malala is famous for the tragedy that resulted from her brave voice. At the age of 11, she became a blogger for the BBC, speaking of the struggle for girls’ education in her native community in Pakistan. She gave interviews and became more and more open about the cause of education for girls. Her courage was met by the cowardice of the Taliban intent of terrorizing children and their families. At the age of 15, brutal gunman boarded her school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her in the face. In critical condition, she was sent to England for surgery and recovery.
She remains there to this day, speaking out, without fear, on the cause of education for all girls.
I met Kailash years ago while I was on an assignment in India. It was to be a free afternoon to do some sightseeing in New Delhi before returning to the states after a busy four-day schedule of conferences and interviews. David Edwards, our NEA international relations staff at the time, traveled with me and told me I had some options: My last chance to do some sightseeing or visit with the head of the Global March Against Child Labor.
We headed for Kailash’s office. He is a quiet but passionate advocate. He speaks of his own awakening to the issue when, as a young upper-middle class electrical engineer with a family and a bright future, a young boy whose parents worked for Kailash’s family was kidnapped. Kailash became a detective to find him and succeeded.
Upon returning home by train with the little boy, he witnessed a group of other boys being shepherded into another train by a group of men. He knew they were being taken to work as slaves. He knew few of them would have someone like him to rescue them. He decided to become their rescuer.
One of his volunteers drove us to a hidden ashram where rescued boys live while the organization finds their families or foster homes. There are other ashrams for rescued girls. There is a school. There is a kitchen and dining hall. They share small dormitories.
I talked with the teachers there. They told me that for most of these children, it was their first time in school. They do their homework. They make their beds and clean their rooms. That is their only work. The goal of the ashram is to teach them to be children again. They teach them to play (since playing is forbidden to children working as slaves). They teach them to sing. They teach them to be free.
Kailash decided to devote his life to rescuing children not deemed to be completely whole and human beings by powerful and violent cowards determined to keep these children as powerless and frightened slaves with no rights to determine the course of their own lives.
Malala decided to devote her life to becoming the living voice of girls not deemed to be completely whole and human beings by powerful and violent cowards determined to keep these children powerless and frightened slaves with no rights to determine the course of their own lives.
They are true brother and sister. Their work is our work, as educators and parents and advocates for justice. They are our examples and proof that heroes exist.
They remind us that to fight for the rights of children to be children is the fight for our own humanity.