Child activist: Interview with Bilaal Rajan
- Published: 16 January 2010
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Thirteen-year-old Bilaal Rajan is UNICEF's Children’s Ambassador, youth activist, best-selling author and fundraiser. Barely a teenager, the Toronto-based activist has raised millions of dollars for children's causes. He spoke with Katrina Fox about his passion for justice and how he fits everything into his life.
You are only 13 but are already a campaigner, writer and motivational speaker. What do you say to people when they ask you: What do you want to be when you grow up?
I have some pretty specific goals 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. I hope to ensure that it remains a multi-cultural democracy and takes responsibility and lives up to the promises it has made to provide real aid to those in the developing world.
At the age of just four, you did your first fundraising mission. Who helped you and inspired you to do this and to continue your campaigning work?
Back in January 2001, a devastating earthquake had ravaged the province of Gujarat in India. My parents were reading a newspaper story about the event and told me about a priest from our very own religious community who, tragically enough, had died in the rubble. I thought of how different my life would be without parents.
I happened to be eating a clementine orange at that time, and I suggested I could help out by raising funds by selling them door to door in my neighbourhood. I remember it was the dead of winter and freezing cold out, but I wasn’t exactly going to wait until summer to do it.
At first, I was pretty scared talking to strangers, so I always had one parent or grandparent with me. Some people said “no,” but others said “yes,” and I managed to raise $350. Of course, at that time, it seemed like an absolute fortune.
People inspire me as well. Mahatma Gandhi is huge for me, not only because my family is originally from India, which he helped free from British domination, but because of the values he stood for: peace, justice and unity.
If we want a better world, than we have to be better people and rise above ourselves, challenge outdated systems and ways of doing things, and speak out to have our voices heard. The independence movement in India threw off the shackles of the greatest empire the world had ever known – and they did it peacefully without firing a single gun shot.
There are other greats that I’ve always looked up to: President Obama, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., just to name a few.
How do you fit all your writing, campaigning and so on in with school work?
I’ll be honest, it isn’t always easy. I really have to plan my time well. Some of the fundraising projects I run take place only at certain times of the year, so I have to space them out to maximize their impact. This gives me a little breathing space. Other than that, I have to work around my school schedule the best way I can. My parents help out a lot. They’re always supportive of me, as are my friends. I couldn’t do any of this without them.
Please describe a typical day in your life.
I’m in the ninth grade at Lakefield College High School. After classes, I’ll get home at about 3:30 pm. I always have something to eat and catch up on some reading or a bit of homework. I’ll also do some writing or preparations for my next speech. If I have a speaking engagement that night, my mother will pick me up right from school and drive me there.
After dinner with my Mom and Dad, I’ll continue my homework. I also write for my blog once a week. I do a lot of reading at night to keep me up-to-date with events taking place in the world. On the weekends, I also volunteer at my local mosque.
Other than that, I still find quite a lot of time to just hang out with friends, watch movies and play sports, especially tennis and skiing. Of course, when you are engaged in so many different things, there’s really no such thing as a typical day!
Many young people – especially in the West – are only interested in music, fashion and entertainment. What motivates you to help others?
The greatest challenge that social activists face is apathy. It is true that consumer culture and the corporate media drive young people away from important issues that really affect their lives.
As a 13 year-old, I am told that happiness is based on what clothes I wear, what food I eat and what car I will drive as an adult. I am also supposed to care about what celebrities are doing in their personal lives, who they’re dating, and what kind of legal troubles they’re facing.
It is this nonsense that is preventing people from creating the kind of world they really deserve. I think understanding this is the first step in determining what really is important and what isn’t.
I think my motivation comes from the values my parents taught me. I was always told that people who have the tools to help others should do so to the best of their ability. I’ve never had to worry about poverty. I live in a free and democratic country and benefit from an excellent education system.
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. Knowing the truth about how many people are suffering on earth propels people to work together and help create a better world.
Why is it important, especially for young people, to help those less fortunate than themselves?
They say that youth are the leaders of tomorrow. I actually 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 started fundraising when I was four. By the age of twelve, I had raised millions of dollars for programs that help children in need all over the world and had already published my best-selling book, Making Change Now: Tips from an Underage Overachiever. Any young person can do the same.
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.
If people start engaging in these kinds of activities as teenagers, just imagine what they can do as adults. The values we teach young people today will affect the economic and social policies of the future. Kids today are showered with corporate marketing, violence in video games and consumer culture from the time they stand on two feet. Why can’t we do the same with progressive social values and environmental consciousness instead?
Please tell us about your organization, Making Change Now.
Making Change Now is a non-profit activist organization that I founded in 2004. Like many movements for social change, it started very small with me and a few friends at school who sold cookies to raise funds for UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund).
We later sold acrylic plates to raise $1,200 for HIV/AIDS orphans, helped build a school in Tanzania for HIV/AIDS orphans, sold cookie boxes to raise over $6,000 and raised in-kind donations of over half a million dollars of goods for the affected people and children of Hurricane-devastated Haiti, as well as more than $55,000 with the World Partnership Walk (organized by the Aga Khan Foundation).
The organization has grown to a point that we are planning to open up branches in communities throughout North America. We hope that they will provide young people with the tools and an outlet to become engaged and make a difference not only in their communities, but around the world.
In 2005 you were chosen to be ambassador for UNICEF. What does this role involve?
Being a UNICEF Canada Children’s Ambassador is a huge responsibility, and I really love it. One of my first duties was to personally visit the areas of south-east Asia that were devastated by the huge tsunami five years ago.
I helped raise funds for the relief efforts here in Canada and was asked by UNICEF to oversee some of the projects in the area. I met with the President of the Maldives and hundreds of relief workers. I also spoke with children in the area and ensured them we were doing our best to help them get back on their feet.
I also take on fundraising activities for the organization throughout Canada, visiting schools and speaking to thousands of children and teenagers every year. This especially takes place in September and October, when I promote the Trick or Treat for UNICEF program, where kids raise funds for the organization when going door to door on Halloween night. The monies are used to build schools and provide education to children in the central African countries of Malawi and Rwanda.
Please say something about the ‘Barefoot Challenge’ – how it came about and has developed?
When I visited Malawi two summers ago as a UNICEF Ambassador, I was surprised at the number of children who didn’t have shoes, let alone other basic necessities. I watched them play soccer barefoot on the rocky, red sands of central Africa and thought of how painful it might be.
So last April, I decided to live life without shoes for seven days during National Volunteer Week. It was a great way to raise awareness about child poverty in the developing world.
Thousands of young people from more than 25 countries around the world kicked off their shoes to better understand the struggles faced by underprivileged children. Throughout the week, I participated in more than 60 radio, TV, newspaper and magazine interviews.
Some very unexpected things occurred. I was barred from gym class and attending a field trip and was kicked off my school’s tennis team. I was also prevented from attending a reading in the Ontario Legislature about the Challenge by my Member of Provincial Parliament, so I had to watch it on TV out in the hallway instead.
I got some strange looks on people’s faces when I walked down the street. But when they asked me why I didn’t have shoes, I reminded them that millions of children throughout the world didn’t either.
What have been some of your achievements – ie concrete results that have come about from your campaigning?
In 2004, I issued the “Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge,” urging children to raise a minimum of $100 each to achieve a total goal of $1 million. By the end, we raised a total of $50,000 and as a result, in January 2005, the Toronto District School Board presented us and the President and CEO of UNICEF Canada, Nigel Fisher, with a cheque for $1.3 million. The Government of Canada then matched this, making the final donation nearly $3 million.
In addition, I reached out to more than fifty major corporations by phone and letter. APOTEX, a leading pharmaceutical company, donated prescription medicine worth $342,700 for the cause. Heinz Canada donated over 2,000 cases of baby food, while Loblaws and Shoppers Drug Mart responded to my appeal with the sale of gift certificates.
These monies went to the devastated areas of south-east Asia after the terrible tsunami struck there five years ago. I travelled to the countries affected by it and saw first-hand the difference the funding was making. They were building emergency shelters and food distribution centres, repairing schools and hospitals and constructing additional housing.
To date, I’ve helped raise over $5 million for charitable programs. But I think that in today’s world, raising awareness about issues is almost as important as raising money for charitable purposes. The reason is that when you tell people about the state of the world, many of them will take action and do more than one individual fundraiser can do on his or her own.
That is why I have spoken to thousands of people throughout North America, Africa, and Latin and South America. This way, we can have more people in getting involved and making an even greater difference than before.
Some activists can get ‘burnout’ – they put so much energy into campaigning for issues that it becomes exhausting. What advice do you have for activists on how to keep motivated, especially when faced constantly with often shocking images or information about those less well-off?
It’s always important to give yourself a break and time-off. I dedicate an entire chapter of my book, Making Change, to explain how important this “downtime” really is. For me, this means playing sports and just hanging out with friends. I’m not big on video games, but I love going to see movies and getting out on the tennis court or soccer pitch when I can.
I think a lot of the burnout that people experience results from doing the same thing over and over. I perform a lot of different activities: event organizing, fundraising, writing, public speaking, media interviews, and working with public officials, to name a few. This keeps things fresh and really brings the best out of you.
As for some of the depressing news we may see and hear from the internet or independent media, it has actually never caused burnout for me. In fact, it always seems to keep me going. When people realize how much injustice there really is in the world today, I feel it sometimes acts as a spark that propels people to do more.
It is important, however, to highlight the accomplishments of activists. This positive outlook keeps people engaged and helps them avoid burnout.
You’ve written a book on the subject, but can you tell us what are a couple of ways that young people can help to initiate change and help others?
The best thing about getting involved and making change is that there are literally a thousand ways of doing so. Fundraising is the obvious example. Kids in countries like Australia and Canada can organize local events at school or in their communities to raise money for important charitable programs. In Making Change, I list over 90 different kinds of fundraising projects that are easy to organize, fun, and can go a long way in helping others.
Raising awareness is the other major way to make change. What’s stopping the average 13 year-old boy or girl in Sydney from contacting their local Member of Parliament to discuss the environment? Or what about a classroom of young students writing letters to their local newspaper, or asking their school to invite a guest speaker to discuss child poverty in the developing world?
I would argue, however, that the best thing a young person can do is to get involved with something they really love. If you like animals, for example, why not volunteer at an animal shelter? If you care about the environment, why not join a green group that educates the community about climate change. If young people are engaged in something they really like doing, they’re obviously going to be more effective at it and make a greater difference.
I understand you met with Nelson Mandela in 2009. Please tell us about this – what was it like meeting him? What did you discuss?
I had the honour – and it is an honour – of meeting Nelson Mandela in June 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa. My mother was really nervous, and I was a pretty jittery as well, but Mr. Mandela was so easy-going and laid back. We first talked about the young students I met in South Africa a few days earlier in schools throughout the country. They have so much hope for the future.
They may not remember the old days of Apartheid, but they certainly have challenges of their own. We talked about these problems and what people, especially youth, are doing to help. Poverty and inequality, for example, are still very high. The difference is that students are now empowered to do something about it in a way they weren’t before.
Mr. Mandela and I also discussed some of my activities here in Canada and throughout North America. What never ceases to amaze me is that no matter where you travel or who you talk to, young people share all the same goals. They want to get a good education and live in a free and democratic society. They are all concerned about peace on earth and the environment. They all want to see an end to discrimination and injustice. Mr. Mandela agreed that young people don’t have to wait to become adults to make change in their communities.
It was an incredible privilege to meet one of the most celebrated persons in the world today.
There is a lot wrong with the world and so many things that need remedying. What issues are you most passionate about and why?
I’ve always been concerned foremost with children’s rights and child poverty. I’ve seen it first hand in developing countries like Tanzania, Malawi and others throughout the Global South. What is so frustrating, of course, is that there is more than enough wealth to provide every single young person on earth with a good education, clean drinking water, health care, and a home to live in.
It is amazing what just a fraction of the world’s wealth could do to eradicate malnutrition and poverty on earth. Most of the funding I have raised goes to UNICEF, which does incredible work, especially in the areas of schools, shelter and health.
Another area I am deeply involved with is the environment. Again, all of us could make some relatively minor changes in our daily habits that would radically improve the condition of our ecosystems. Our economies could also move towards renewable forms of energy, like wind, solar and geothermal, that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
But none of this is going to happen if young people don’t get involved and pressure those in government who have the power to make such necessary reforms.
What are your latest and upcoming projects?
I’m in the process of extending a program I founded at my school two years ago, when I established an endowment fund from the advance of my book. Each year, a student who completes the greatest number of hours of community volunteer service receives a special award provided by the endowment fund and is recognized by his or her teachers and principal at graduation.
Based on the success of the program, I am currently starting a similar one across the entire country. Our goal is to establish a youth volunteer award program in every middle school across Canada within two years.
Sudokuhub is our newest project. It is a website where web users pay to play sudoku. As soon as sponsors come onboard, 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 the premier destination website for Sudoku players worldwide.
I’m also looking forward to this year’s Barefoot Challenge. We hope that thousands of additional young people from all over the globe will participate. And I’m also particularly excited about speaking at the World Peace Festival in Berlin, Germany in August 2010. I can’t wait!
What do you do for ‘fun’ in your downtime?
I like to hang out with friends and play sports. I ski competitively in the winter and play tennis and soccer during the summer. I think keeping a healthy body is so important. I also love music and movies, especially those that help me see the world a little differently.
Kids today probably suffer from as much stress as adults did a generation ago. I think the best way to overcome this is to always save time for just having fun.