Saturday, May 23, 2009

Small steps of big change
V. Radhika

Twelve-year-old Bilaal Rajan of Canada, Unicef’s child ambassador, has raised millions of dollars for the Gujarat earthquake and tsunami victims and various other causes

He has raised millions of dollars supporting various causes across the globe. As Unicef’s child ambassador he has travelled the world. His book, Making Change: Tips From an Underage Overachiever, is a step-by-step guide to changing the world and includes chapters on public speaking, a section on dealing with the media and tips on how to convince large corporations to get on board.

And this whiz kid, Bilaal Rajan, is all of 12 years old. If this comes as a surprise, read on.

Bilaal was four years old in 2001 when his father, Aman, read him a newspaper article about the earthquake in Gujarat that had devastated lives and property. The report was on an Ismaili priest, who had been crushed under the rubble. Aman remembers, “I told him, ‘You know, Gujarat is where our ancestors came from. Our great-grandfather was born there before he immigrated to Kenya. And the priest, he is from our mosque.” After his dad finished reading the report, Bilaal responded by saying, “I want to help”. When Aman inquired as to what he had in mind, the little boy, who was eating an orange said, “I am going to sell these oranges and raise money”.

For the next couple of hours, the four-year-old traversed the neighbourhood with his parents selling oranges for a cause and by the end of the day they had raised $ 350 (Canadian). Today, Bilaal recounts the trigger for his desire to help, “I knew he (the priest) had a family and kids of his own. I would not want my dad dying if an earthquake happened here. I just put myself in their shoes and said it was not fair.”

The journey that began in Toronto’s Richmond Hill neighbourhood continues and has taken Bilaal to places and people that need help. Three years after Gujarat, his attention was riveted to the 2004 hurricane in Haiti. This time he sold nearly 1,000 boxes of cookies donated by his father’s company, raising $ 6,000. But that wasn’t enough and he searched out large corporations he thought might donate to the cause.

“I knew that they had lot of money and was sure they would be generous,” he says. Having short-listed 50 companies, he sent out a letter, an email and capped it with a phone call. While six companies offered $ 200 gift cards, two responses were substantial: impressed with the perseverance and reposing trust in his abilities, APOTEX, a pharmaceutical company, donated $ 342,700 worth of prescription medicine. Heinz Canada donated more than 2,000 cases of baby food.

These donations came after the company’s representatives had a personal meeting with Bilaal. In that meeting and in all subsequent fundraising efforts, it was Bilaal who wielded the mike. The middle school student never gets intimidated while addressing top corporate honchos or celebrities.

It is through exploring such opportunities that Bilaal has mobilised resources for various causes. When the tsunami ravaged South East Asia, he contacted the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) with a proposal that would be mounted on a nationwide scale. And so was born the Unicef Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge.

Bilaal challenged every child to raise $ 100 with a goal of reaching $ 1 million. He flew across the country talking about how he, just a regular kid, had been able to make a difference in the world. In the end, with the federal government matching contributions, dollar for dollar, Bilaal’s challenge garnered nearly $ 4 million in aid efforts for tsunami-affected regions.

A lot of funds raised by Bilaal are channelled through Unicef to projects that are close to this youngster’s heart and the rest are funnelled through his foundation — Hands for Help. Not surprisingly, the money funds projects meant for children. Paraphrasing a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, he says, “Why should not children in other parts of the world have exactly what we have here and what we take for granted?”

Gandhi and his idea of change has been a source of inspiration for Bilaal. The other contemporary he admires is Aga Khan. “He is my spiritual leader but he works not just for his religious community but the entire humanity. Knowing how devoted someone is and how devoted someone can be has really inspired me to go out and do more,” says the young boy.

Bilaal runs a website, ‘’ and is an active blogger. Last year, he established a leadership award in his school for the middle school student who has completed the most volunteer hours. He also sits on the school’s outreach committee, which raises funds for various charities and local projects.

All this, however, does not take away his academic or sports pursuits. Bilaal maintains high scores and his name figures on ski and tennis teams. But all these laurels rest lightly on this pre-teen’s shoulders. Shrugging off the “celebrity” tag, he says his classmates and friends know him “not as a superhero out to save the world, but just another 12-year-old fond of taking action.”

His parents, Aman and Shireen, are often asked about their role in shaping Bilaal’s efforts or in pushing him to do more. A gentle laugh precedes Aman’s response, “Never. All we have done is lend him our ears and let him pursue his passion.” He adds, “Bilaal is a very out-of-the-box thinker.”

He’s very good at doing what he does. He’s very passionate about what he does.” It is this passion, which will never let Bilaal pursue fundraising as a profession. “I will continue fundraising, but not as a job. I should not be paid to make a difference,” he says. On the professional front, he wants to be a neurosurgeon and an astronaut. Not either, but both. — WFS