There’s a clothesline running through the machine shop where 16-year-old Kadar* works in Bogra, Bangladesh. On it hang the clean pants and shirt he will wear to night school. I wonder if they remind him of what his future holds, if only he can get through the day.
The April day is 40 degrees in the shade—and several degrees hotter inside the machine shop. By 11 a.m., Kadar is working under a heavy blanket of heat. While children in Canada spend their days at desks and at play, this boy is almost one with his machines. He has to be. A lapse in concentration could be disastrous —a cut hand or even the amputation of a finger. Since Kadar’s father died, the teen has had no choice but to help provide for his mother and siblings.
Watching Kadar work, I’m struck by the intensity in his eyes. He reminds me of my own son back in Toronto, who is consumed with becoming a professional soccer player. The way my son’s eyes change as he battles down the field toward the goal net. Kadar is also fighting his way toward a goal.
“I want to earn my engineering certificate once I finish high school in two years,” he says, leaning on his machine as he stops to rest. “The job I’m doing here helped me choose this future.” If Kadar rests too long, he seems to wilt a little, the fatigue and hunger pulling him down. But resuming the work that will help make him an engineer, his eyes light up again.
I can see that Kadar has an understanding of force, speed and torque. His hands fly over the machines, tightening a vice grip here, tweaking a moving part there.
“He’s a very good worker, and so smart,” says Kadar’s boss, Mr. Masoud. He recalls the day the boy’s mother came to the shop, begging him to accept her son as an apprentice. He also remembers a visit from a World Vision staff member, asking him to consider releasing Kadar by 6 p.m. each day, instead of keeping him until 10, so the boy could attend night school.
“I never had a chance to go to school,” says Mr. Masoud, a man so young that the honorific weighs heavy on him. His eyes are kind, but if there was once a fire inside, it’s gone out now. The feeling of what he’s missed out on must still be fresh. “But I want Kadar to have the opportunity. He’s learning math and that helps me to run my business.”
But Kadar’s opportunities don’t come easily. To apply for an engineering program in the future, he must do the work of both a man and a student now. At 6 o’clock he changes clothes and sprints to a large building with many rooms—night school.
The World Vision-supported program there provides an education for nearly 100 working boys with the hope of tripling that number by 2015. In recent years, 80 boys have successfully completed their high school equivalency, allowing them to continue to college or university. Many have earned engineering diplomas, as Kadar wants to do, and now enjoy handsome salaries that some use to put their siblings through school. Graduates also work for the government as office assistants, or own their own businesses.
The sky is darkening, but the classroom windows are bright. I walk through room after room, listening to the teachers drill their students. I’m astounded by how alert the children are. By rights, every one of these children should be having dinner with his family or kicking a ball with his friends. Many haven’t eaten since lunch and have already worked a full day.
“I’m going to be a doctor,” says one boy of about nine, springing to his feet to answer my question. “I plan to be a teacher,” shares an adolescent with a broad smile. One teenager stands several inches taller while declaring, “I want to be a politician so I can serve my country.”
I’ve heard many children in developing countries share their dreams for the future, but this feels different. Could it be that because these boys make steady daily progress in their education, they’re better able to withstand the punishment and deprivation life lays on them as child labourers?
My suspicion is confirmed when World Vision Bangladesh’s director questions the boys during an assembly about their commitment to their schoolwork and their desire to succeed. The boys nod their heads affirmatively. Their desire can’t be questioned.
Later in the assembly, when the topic of cricket comes up, the room goes wild. The deafening noise is joyful and continues for many minutes. It’s as much love of life as I’ve heard from any group of kids in the world. I leave exhilarated, a feeling I doubted I would experience while visiting child labourers.
Children working at the next town the writer visited.
Driving away from the town where Kadar lives, I wonder whether I had misunderstood what I was seeing in that school. Was it really World Vision programs that were helping make a difference? Or was it possible that all Bangladeshi children had the same inherent love of life, the same drive to succeed?
How I wish it were so. At the next town I visit, I see children hauling huge baskets of fish into a market or rooting through garbage at the side of the road. I try to catch their eyes, but they look past me. Their faces are blank, as though they are trying to survive the day by doing the minimum to express their feelings. They have no employer encouraging them to leave early for a nearby night school. They have no school clothes hanging at the ready, beckoning toward the future.
Even in an automotive shop where boys had steady shops as apprentices, my questions about the future yield little more than “I want to keep working here.” I find myself praying that World Vision can one day help them the way it’s helping the hundred or so boys in Kadar’s night school—give them a reason to fight toward a worthwhile goal.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
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