The champion of child slaves

"Kailash Satyarthi March 2015" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Kailash Satyarthi March 2015″ by Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Kailash Satyarthi has a better idea than high-powered weapons and draconian security measures. He believes the best defense plan is education. If young people are taught to think for themselves, if they have the prospect of jobs and a good quality of life, they are less likely to go off the rails.

He knows this from experience. In 2014 he and Malala Yousafzai shared the Nobel Peace Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Satyarthi did not plan to become a rescuer of child slaves. He was an electrical engineer until, at the age of 26, he founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement). That was in 1980. In the decades since then he and the organization he launched have freed more than 82,000 child workers. Their efforts began in the stone quarries, brick kilns and carpet factories in India and have expanded to other industries and other countries. They campaign tirelessly for anti-child labor and anti-trafficking laws.

The work is dangerous. He has suffered broken bones and severe beatings while rescuing children. Nothing deters him.

His concern for the plight of children began early. He was only six when he saw a boy sitting outside the school. He wanted to know why and was not satisfied when the headmaster and his parents insisted poor children did not go to school.

His compassion grew with his years. So did his dislike of the caste system. He gave up his high-caste family name and adopted “Satyarthi”, which means a seeker of truth.

A humble man, Satyarthi dreams of seeing an end to child labor in his lifetime. One of the ways he moves closer to that goal is through the Bal Mitra Gram. These are child-friendly villages, where all children attend school and are educated in gender equality and civic participation.

One group of child slaves at a time, one class of educated children after another, Satyarthi moves ever closer to realizing his dream.



The immigrant’s choice

Frithjof Petscheleit, new Canadian citizen; photo by Thomas Rule

On the 11th of March I went to a ceremony that never fails to leave me in a puddle of tears. In a packed auditorium, 82 people affirmed their allegiance to the country that had welcomed them, Canada.

The new citizens came from 20 countries. They were small children and grandparents and people in their work-and-family years. Judge Gerald Pash welcomed them warmly, as full participants in the country they had chosen. He also reminded them of the responsibilities inherent in becoming citizens in their new homeland.

He encouraged everyone to become involved in the political landscape of Canada. He pointed to one of the youngest new Canadians, a boy with ebony skin, and said, “You might be Prime Minister one day.” That would not be possible in the country of my birth, where only those born there can set their sights on such high office.

The judge invited all of us, new citizens and the people who loved them, to stand and repeat the loyalty oath together. My throat was tight, but I managed to get through it. I was not quite as successful when the last new Canadian signed her citizenship papers, and we stood again to sing, “Oh, Canada.”

Sometimes spontaneous cheers broke out as new citizens shook hands with the officials. Groups of friends and family, many of them also immigrants, were proud to welcome their loved ones into the Canadian family.

Among the new Canadians were economic migrants, coming in search of opportunity. Others had rejoined family members who had arrived earlier. Still others had lived through the painful uprooting of refugees. Whatever their reasons for coming to Canada, all were equally Canadian as of this day.

I was there as part of the cheering section for Frithjof Petscheleit, a beautiful human being any country would be proud to claim. Germany was his first home. Now he contributes his considerable talents to Canada. He also makes our friend Michele Rule a very happy woman. Our lives are richer because of him. The friends gathered around him swelled with pride as he officially became Canadian.

I go to citizenship ceremonies whenever I have a chance, though I like them best when I know one of the new citizens. I go because they move me to the core. They remind me of the unexpected twists and turns of our lives, of the doors that open to us when we most need them.

As for me, I came to Canada for love. When the marriage ended, I stayed for love of Canada. As an American expatriate, I grew up believing no other country could compare with my country of birth. The thought of ever pledging loyalty to another nation was unthinkable, bordering on treason.

Yet here I am, still an American citizen but also proudly Canadian. That makes me one of the lucky ones. Through a series of unlikely events, I found myself on the northern side of the Canadian/U.S. border. Gradually, my sense of dislocation and alienation in my new home morphed into uneasy acceptance and then into love.

I came to realize that for those of us who have the luxury of choices, the decision to leave one country for another is an enlarging experience. It forces us to examine the version of history and belonging we all inherit, whatever country gave us a start in life.

That cracks us open. For most immigrants, the initial disorientation of that cracking morphs into a surprising revelation. We have traded whatever losses we may have experienced in leaving our motherland for the incredible gift of deeper insight into another country.

New Canadians, new citizens of any country, straddle two worlds. Their children will be influenced by that but will fully belong to the country chosen by their parents. That makes us immigrants a breed apart. We retain love for the countries of our birth, but we open our hearts to another land.


Muslim families invite you for dinner

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It sounds so Canadian.

Concerned about widespread misconceptions about what it means to be Muslim, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community decided to invite people to their homes and mosques. Between March 1 and 14, anyone from Newfoundland to British Columbia could sign up online to be paired with a Muslim family.

The idea behind “Meet a Muslim Family” was to introduce Canadians to families who grab a coffee at Tim Horton’s, have favourite hockey teams, pour maple syrup on their pancakes, and just happen to be Muslim. They are loyal Canadians whose religious practices add to the colour of the country’s colourful mosaic.

In their press release, the Canadian Muslims wrote:

Violent extremist groups are using propaganda to create fear and divide amongst society; hence Canadian Muslims hope to debunk their efforts through this campaign.

They set up a Web page and a Twitter account, inviting Canadians to visit homes and mosques and get to know the Muslim community.

Recent terrorist activities make it all the more important to bridge barriers among the religious communities in Canada and elsewhere. It is a lot harder to hate someone you have shared stories with.



Farewell and thanks to an honest politician

"Mujicatopolansky" by Embajada de Estados Unidos en Uruguay - Embajada de Estados Unidos en Uruguay. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Mujicatopolansky” by Embajada de Estados Unidos en Uruguay – Embajada de Estados Unidos en Uruguay. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

After five years as president of Uruguay, José “Pepe” Mujica is stepping down. The poorest president in the world served the one, 5-year term allowed. His impact will be felt for a long time.

Becoming president did not change the former guerrilla. He gave away 90% of his salary and stayed in his small house. He continued to drive his 1987 Volkswagen.

What did change was his ability to affect public policy. During his time in office, he legalized marijuana, gay marriage and abortion. He was the rough-talking, truth-telling champion of the country’s poor. Veteran of the country’s guerrilla warfare, he refused to hold grudges against those who had imprisoned and tortured him.

In office, he was a canny blend of idealism and pragmatism. While that rankled some of his supporters, it also allowed him to get things done.

Mujica could not eradicate two of the most pressing issues at home and elsewhere, poverty and equality, though both improved in Uruguay. And he lived in uneasy alliance with a capitalist society he sees as out of touch with what is truly important in human life.

Still, he leaves a legacy that is far too rare. As BBC correspondent Wyre Davies put it, “this enigmatic leader remains an inspiration to many and is a reminder that politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession.”

Thanks, David Gunderson, for letting me know of President Mujica’s retirement.


The best way to avoid Alzheimer’s


My partner and I are in that chapter of life where organ recitals and death chats are common. In my younger years I was absolutely certain I would never be one of those boring old people who drone on and on about their ailments. I was young then.

I still don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning bad knees and failing eyesight. Neither do my friends. However, at our age a regular check-in is called for. We like each other’s company. We want to stay around a long time so we can continue enjoying it. So health and end-of-life issues are a lot more interesting to us than they were in our twenties.

Recently, Jay Ingram was in town to talk about the science of Alzheimer’s. The University of British Columbia Okanagan brought him as one of their Distinguished Speakers. So many people signed up, the Community Theatre filled quickly, and they rented a nearby theatre for a second night.

His talk was far from reassuring. In spite of the dramatic increase in life expectancy and the accompanying dramatic increase in Alzheimer’s, we are a long way from knowing how to prevent or treat it. The implications are staggering when we consider that past the age of 85, the odds of developing Alzheimer’s or some other dementia rise to 50 percent.

Still, two things in his talk give me hope. One is that education makes a difference. In other words, more education equals less dementia. Given what families and health care systems pay for dementia care, this seems a good argument for spending the money upfront. Give young people the best possible education, and at the other end of their life they will have a good chance of avoiding the greater cost of failing brains. (By the way, bi-lingualism is also correlated with Alzheimer’s prevention.)

The other thing Ingram said that gave me hope was that a 40-minute walk, every day of the week, is one of the best things we can do (along with eating a healthy diet and socializing with friends). Now I have one more reason for celebrating my very walkable neighborhood. While I’m picking up a library book, going to a play, buying groceries, listening to a lecture or photographing the nearby marsh, I will tell myself it is all part of a prescription to keep my brain healthy.


Whatever we do ripples outward, good or bad

Photo clip from video below

Photo clip from video below

This short video has been viewed millions of time, and it is no wonder. It is an example of compelling storytelling.

If you watch until the end, you will understand what this Thai ad is selling. But that is the only time you will be aware of the marketing message.

As this young man goes through his day, he performs small, random acts of kindness. They make a difference in ways he does not anticipate and does not seek.

Kindness is like that.

My thanks to Maitri Libellule for alerting me to this one.


#1210 Who’s under that turban?


Turbans galore; photo by Nagarjun Kandukuru, via Flickr Creative Commons

The guy under that turban could be comedian and writer Narinder Singh. Maybe it is jewelry designer and actor Waris Sing Ahluwalla, the “Chic Sikh”. Maybe it is business developer Sonny Caberwal, creator of (among other things) a robot that can hand write your personal notes.

On the other hand, it might just be software analyst and cartoonist Vishavjit Singh. Since the 9/11 attacks, he has been exploring issues affecting the Sikh community around the world, and he has been doing it through cartoons.

The road to Singh’s career was paved with hate. As a Sikh in New Delhi, he already knew what it was like to be the butt of racism, but when Prime Minister Indira was shot by two Sikh bodyguards in 1984, he experienced much worse. As he explains in an article he wrote for Salon (“My Life in a Turban”), thousands of Sikhs were burned alive in the days following the assassination, and anyone with a beard and turban was suspect.

Hoping to find a more tolerant society, Vishavjit Singh moved to back to the U.S. (where the family had lived before moving to New Delhi and where he was born). Instead, he endured the anti-Muslim backlash that followed the wars in Iraq and erupted after the attacks of 9/11. That Sikhs are not Muslims and that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful makes no difference to those who view with hostility anyone with darker skin, beards or hair coverings.’

Singh’s response has been to turn his own and others’ experiences of hostility, violence and racism into cartoon fodder. Whether explaining turbans to a non-Sikh audience, countering ignorance and intolerance with political cartoons or donning his Captain America suit to challenge racism and labels, Singh is on a crusade for tolerance and understanding.

Recently he was the target of hate comments when Facebook featured a short video of him talking about how he makes use of Facebook’s News Feed. His response to the haters is a brilliant example of his ability to meet intolerance with wry humor. So is the video below.

Vishavjit Singh is an inspiring example of one man’s refusal to be defined by bigots. Beyond that, he is smashing stereotypes with his gentle, intelligent humor.

You can follow Sikhtoons on Twitter and Facebook.


#1209 Superhero fights gender-based violence

Priya and her shakti, from Priya's Shakti Facebook page

Priya and her shakti, from Priya’s Shakti Facebook page


Like an achingly high number of women around the world, Priya is gang-raped. In the patriarchal culture of village India, that makes her an outcast. Her family throws her out of the home. The panchayat (local government) accuses her of bringing it on herself.

Priya flees into the jungle, where she is stalked by a tiger. The Hindu goddess Parvati intervenes and endows her with special powers. Now fearless and able to transform people’s beliefs, Priya tames the tiger and rides him back to her village. There she begins her fight against gender-based violence.

The brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi woman was the impetus behind Ram Devineni’s decision to create Priya. Days after the rape, the New York filmmaker spoke with a New Delhi policeman, who intimated the young woman deserved or provoked what happened to her. Traveling around India Devineni was disheartened by the attitudes toward women and the suffering of rape victims.

So he decided to create a superhero, who would ride around India on her tiger (shakti, her power), changing the world through persuasion. The comic book heroine’s name, Priya, means love. In the video below, from Animation Xpress, Devineni says his purpose in creating Priya’s Shakti was to challenge patriarchal values. Doing so through a comic superhero is brilliant. She will raise awareness among young men and give courage to young women.

The comic is available free, in multiple and augmented formats. But, of course, it takes money to do the work behind the scenes. So an Indiegogo campaign has been launched to make that possible.

Gender-based violence has staggering consequences around the world. Here’s to global success for the best superhero I have come across, Priya.

You can follow Priya on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Learn more:



#1208 Dance your heart out

"on her toes—and ours"; photo by Maria Brea, via Flickr Creative Commons

“on her toes—and ours”; photo by Maria Brea, via Flickr Creative Commons

Every parent has gone to some version or other of the dance recital. Cuteness trumps talent. A few of the munchkins in pink tutus and tap shoes show an aptitude for dance. A few more remember the steps. Everyone of them is totally delightful.

And then once in a while some child bursts out of the mold, spirit shining, stick-to-the-choreography filters turned off. That happened in 2013, when a pint-sized girl cut so loose she completely stole the show at The Dance Factory’s Pre-School Tap performance.

The video went viral and has recently started doing the social-network rounds once again. I watched it with a big grin on my face, happy to see a child so absorbed and free, hopeful she could hang onto joyousness throughout her life. You could see she knew the moves, in the tap video and in a ballet video ballet performance that same night. But those moves could only scratch the surface of her creative exuberance.

Heart-open performances like that are rare and mesmerizing. They remind us we are capable of so much more when we heed our own muse. No one can give us the gift of openness and joy, but a lot of people can take it away. This little one will have plenty of years in which to hear the messages that she must toe the line, curb her enthusiasm, and be like everyone else.

But she will also have this video to remind her, on the days when doubt creeps in, of the bright spirit she is and the happiness she spreads when she is being wholly herself. And we will have the video to remind us of our own inner dancer.


#1207 The unlikely alliance of lesbians, gays and miners

Cedwyn Davies [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cedwyn Davies [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In the UK of the Margaret Thatcher era, gays and lesbians were dealing with discrimination, barriers, suspicion and the onset of the AIDS crisis. Then On March 6, 1984 the government announced it was closing 20 coal mines immediately and 70 over the long run. Tens of thousands of British miners put down their tools and joined a strike that was to last a year.

I had followed news of the strike, the government’s intransigence, and the violent clashes between miners and police at Orgreave. My heart was sore for the stricken communities and suffering families. When the National Union of Mineworkers voted to return to work, it was clear the labor movement had been dealt a heavy blow. Somehow the story of how a mining community in South Wales and a group calling itself LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) became unlikely allies never reached my consciousness.

What changed that for me was the 2014 movie, Pride. Based on a true story, the film explores the life-affirming events that happened when gay and lesbian activists turned their attention on the fate of the strikers and the families.

At the Lesbian and Gay Pride March in July 1984, a collection was taken up for the striking miners. One of the organizers, Ray Goodspeed, wrote a stirring account of what happened in an essay for Left Unity, “Pride—the true story”. From the beginning, he said, the activists offered unconditional support for the miners, though they hoped to also raise awareness of their own struggles.

The movie focuses on a group of activists who traveled to the South Wales community of Dulais to show solidarity and share the struggle. Although Dulais was more welcoming from the start than the movie depicts, Goodspeed credits the filmmakers for remaining true to the spirit of what actually happened.

One of the lasting impacts of LGSM’s actions was that the National Union of Mineworkers reversed its position on the rights of women, gay and lesbian laborers. That makes the stirring final scene of the film all the more moving.

Next time bad news about prejudice against a marginalized or oppressed community gets you down, remember the alliance between the miners of Dulais and their LGBT supporters. We can change things when enough of us put our minds to it.