In Iowa: Finding the heroes within us

In Iowa City visit, Nobel Peace Prize winner says we all can help children

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I remember vividly the morning I learned Asmita’s dad won the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was almost two years ago, in early October 2014, when I woke up because my phone was buzzing with a barrage of notifications and text messages. Friends from college days at the University of Iowa were discussing the news with excitement — Kailash Satyarthi, our friend’s father, had won one of the world’s most prestigious awards, a recognition of his humanitarian efforts to free child slaves and end child labor around the world.

He returned Tuesday to Iowa City to give a lecture at the UI, and I had the privilege of speaking with him before his talk.

He told me that when he started his work in 1980, he was building up grass roots movements against child labor from scratch. Now, 36 years later, there are international treaties, which he helped establish, and coalitions and partnerships around the world fighting alongside him.

There is a long way to go, but he sees hope — he said the number of child laborers worldwide has dropped from 268 million to 180 million.

At his lecture, he told gathered students and community members it is within our power to replace the tools in children’s hands with toys and the weapons of child soldiers with books.

“Only 3.5 half days of global military expenditure could send all the world’s children to school,” he said. “The world is not poor. It is the poverty of political will.”

He is launching a campaign at the end of the year, “100 Million for 100 Million,” calling on 100 million of the world’s privileged to band together on behalf of the more than 100 million primary school-aged children who are denied a basic education and other rights. The campaign will have a digital presence, with calls to action, as well as ways for people to connect with opportunities to act locally.

When he started, he said he was just one man, acting alone and facing ridicule from his peers for what seemed a hopeless cause.

But when, one by one, people joined their voices and actions together, that cause became less and less hopeless.

“I strongly believe there is a hero inside each one of you,” he said at the lecture. “Recognize it, identify it.”

I lived with his daughter, Asmita, for a year, back in the 2007-2008 school year, while she was attending the UI.

I remember her father visiting once, all the way from their home in India, so she could show him around her adopted town. I remember later she told me about his work, and I remember when she told me why she had moved to Iowa in the first place — because those who profited from child labor had threatened and attacked their family. After her father won the Nobel Prize, I remember thinking that heroes are all around us, and you never know when you might meet someone doing the extraordinary.

On Tuesday, he told me that yes, he is doing the extraordinary, but he believes that potential is in all of us.

I hope we can prove him right.

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