In this heart warming and inspiring interview, Bilaal Rajan of Toronto, Canada, discusses his vision for change that he set out to accomplish when he was only four, and explains how he balances his activities to help humanity with his busy school schedule. He also shares his personal interest in sports, food, movies and books. In his trips abroad, he has come across kids who have lived through the worst of circumstances and yet have the courage to “make the most of life”.
Simerg: Bilaal, thank you for this opportunity to interview you. Your life appears to be full of action. It is therefore very exciting to be interviewing you. How old are you, Bilaal?
Bilaal: I am presently12 years old.
Simerg: “Making Change”, this initiative started when you were four. You must have found a lot of support at home from your parents to launch this incredible phenomenon that is taking place today. Tell us something about how you first realized that you wanted to “Make Change”.
Bilaal: I was eating a clementine at the age of four when I found out about the India earthquake in the province of Gujarat (in January 2001). My family and I were reading a newspaper report describing the devastation and we then found out that a Mukhisaheb there died from this earthquake when he got buried in the rubble. I thought to myself how his family and the Jamat must have felt, and because my own dad was the Kamadia at the Richmond Hill Jamatkhana at that time this news of the Mukhi’s death prompted me to ask myself how I could “Make Change” and raise funds to help people there. Since I was eating one at the time, the easiest way was to sell clementines!
Simerg: What did you do?
Bilaal: I sold the box we had at home and went through nine more boxes and raised $350 which was quite a fortune to a four year old!
Simerg: By 2005 you were already UNICEF’s youngest “advocate and spokesperson”, as mentioned on their web site. All this at the age of 9?
Bilaal: I was actually eight years old when I was given this honour. After raising funds for UNICEF for the hurricanes in Haiti in the fall of 2004 and then goods, then hand made acrylic plates for HIV/AIDS soon after that, and finally issuing the Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge which raised millions for the tsunami relief in early 2005, UNICEF made me their child ambassador.
Simerg: The UNICEF web site has a number of articles about you – including one from 2005 where you are seeing playing with children in Thailand who were affected by the Tsunami. You appear to have brought joy and happiness into the children’s lives, as can be seen from the picture. What did you see when you got there? Were you saddened by what you saw? Tell us something that touched you?
Bilaal: Based on what I had seen through the media before I went there, I felt that I was prepared for what I was to see. But it was actually worse than I thought when I saw destroyed schools with their concrete walls dangling and swaying in the wind, and ships and boats washed inland as far as 2 kms. I felt that a giant hand had wiped out everything there and left only rubble and lots of destruction.
The interesting part I saw was that generally in whichever country I went, the religious buildings (mosques, temples, shrines) were barely touched while all around them the was nothing left. You can interpret that any way you want to.
Throughout the trip, I was very sad for the kids who had lost their parents and siblings. I was really touched by a story of a young boy I met in a town near Phuket, in Thailand. He sadly told me about watching his parents being washed away by the Tsunami and how he could not do anything to help them as he was clinging to a tree. He was very sad that he was not able to pull them out and I really felt that same emotion I had when eating the clementine years ago.
Simerg: And what about those lovely happy faces of children a lot younger than you playing with you?
Bilaal: It was amazing to see that these kids, no matter what the circumstance they were in, made most of life. They had nothing yet they played with what they had, had started going to school even if these were in make shift shelters. They were happy even though they were in displaced camps!
Simerg: Do you still keep in touch with those victims?
Bilaal: I have lots of children write to me from different parts of the world. There is one youth I met in Malawi who has now finished high school and was looking for school fees to go to accounting school. I am supporting him through Hands for Help. I met him in 2005, and after 4 years we are still in touch. He is one of the kids I met and played soccer with. The soccer ball was made from a pig’s stomach stuffed with paper and then wrapped in plastic bags and held together with string. The kids in these countries improvise and make the most of life.
Simerg: Many kids of your age and even adults might just think when they see children afflicted with illnesses or suffering from disasters, that they are better off supporting through material means, such as making donations rather than being in the front-line. How can you sustain this energy level? Do you ever get discouraged or does anything hold you from doing your work?
Bilaal: I keep one phrase in my mind as my motivation and that is: “Why shouldn’t children in other parts of the world have exactly what we have here and what we take for granted!”
It keeps me going and the only discouraging part I feel at times is when I see and talk to kids that just don’t see and feel what is going on outside their world and perhaps their four walls. That’s why I wrote my book for them to realize that if I can do it, so can they.
Simerg: An adult member who read the book just a couple of days ago was absolutely struck by your book’s contents and the ideas therein. I hope the children and youth read it. You must be extremely happy that Chapters, Canada’s largest book chain, invited you for a book signing on March 21, 2009 – the day being Nawruz – the Persian New Year. How did this event go?
Bilaal: The book signing at Chapters went really well. There were some kids who had come especially to meet me and discuss their initiatives they have started and how they could move forward with them. Other people who were not aware of me being there were very surprised to see a youth author and were very supportive as well. A lot of other people had either heard about me, seen me on TV, or read about me somewhere, which really surprised me. All in all it was a very humbling experience. I was surprised to see that a lot of older people were very interested in hearing about how children can make a difference. One woman bought the book to give to her two year old grandson to make sure that when he grows up to read, this will be one of the books he can get inspiration from.
Simerg: Congratulations on a great New Year beginning. What other places have you visited to help children out?
Bilaal: I have visited children in Tanzania, Malawi, Ecuador, and South East Asian countries like The Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Simerg: How do you make people, especially children show their support for you? Tell us some of the incredible ways in which you have received support.
Bilaal: For example, the Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge was incredible. This initiative got kids across Canada involved and participating to help kids from the other parts of the world who they will never meet. It felt like the whole country’s children were coming together for one purpose – to help children in whatever way they could. I get a lot of emails daily from youth from all over the world asking for ideas and sharing their ideas as well.
Simerg: What grade are you in?
Bilaal: I am presently in Grade 8 at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario. My school has been very supportive of me and I would not be able to do all this without this support since I do tend to miss school because of all my activities and events.
Simerg: How do you find the time to balance your studies with your activities to improve the lives of millions of children?
Bilaal: It is very difficult at times but I study hard and do my work while on the road, in the plane and late at night. I try to work ahead as much as I can. All my homework and assignments are posted online so I am able to see a couple of weeks ahead and try to finish whatever I can so that I don’t fall behind.
Simerg: You are a member of the Ismaili Muslim community? How have the youth in the community reacted to your noble goals that you set out to do many years ago?
Bilaal: I see a good movement of Ismaili youth getting involved. Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness The Aga Khan, our spiritual leader, has always emphasized the importance of giving back and helping others so I believe it is in our very nature to think of others in need. This is very apparent with our World Partnership Walk (WPW) as I see many youth get involved each and every year and you see lots of community teams as well as school teams. This year in fact is the twenty fifth anniversary of the WPW in Canada. Also it is held in many cities across Canada and in the United States. The Walk is ALL volunteer run and 100% of all the funds collected go to eliminate global poverty which by the way is also a UN Millenium goal. In Canada, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) matches up all funds collected.
Simerg: Are you actively engaged with community institutions or various AKDN agencies such as the Aga Khan Foundation?
Bilaal: Yes I am. I am a Junior volunteer in my Jamatkhana and do my duty when I am in town and have been fundraising for the WPW for the last 8 years. I have personally raised over $50,000 to date for WPW and I participate each and every year. My goal is to raise $5,000 personally and $15,000 as a team. I encourage and urge each student to go to their principal or head of school and get a school team involved. We have to reach outside our community to get others involved in solving the problem of poverty. Last year, I brought two friends from school, Justin Ford and Jonathan Tse, and their families to the Walk. This year Justin is captain of my team because he was so impressed with the work and effort of our volunteers and the cause we support. Furthermore, his sister is getting her school involved to bring and captain a WPW team at her own school!
Simerg: You know, the Imam of the Ismailis once noted “do not let time pass without being aware that once it has passed it has gone for ever”. Does this advice hold for you?
Bilaal: Certainly it does as I tell everyone to take action now – not next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow. Take action now! Once the time has gone, it is a lost opportunity. It is something I live by everyday of my life.
Simerg: Is the Aga Khan your inspiration in the work that you do?
Bilaal: Yes he is. I have dedicated my book, Making Change – Tips From An Underage Overachiever, to him for his tireless effort for humanity for the past 50 years and I try to lead my life by his teachings. He has said that in the Islamic context “we are instructed to leave the world a better place than it was when we came into it”. Another quote by the Aga Khan that is remarkable is when he speaks of people who enter the world in utter poverty. Tha Aga Khan ask us – those more fortunate – to provide them the spark which will ignite their spirit of determination and individual enterprise. That spark of hope will prevent them from sinking into even deeper apathy and despair.
Simerg: How did you celebrate the Golden Jubilee of his Imamat? Are you carrying forward memories from the Golden Jubilee? What are your most special memories from the Golden Jubilee Year?
Bilaal: When Hazar Imam started the Golden Jubilee celebration visits in Nairobi, Kenya, in the summer of 2007, I was actually in Tanzania volunteering there for a month to educate communities of rural people in the outskirts of Arusha about HIV and AIDS as well as conducting rapid AIDS tests graciously donated by a Canadian company called Medmira (www.medmira.com). Furthermore, I conducted many workshops on my eight success principles to numerous schools there. After that, we went for didar in Nairobi before heading back home.
Simerg: What are your immediate challenges?
Bilaal: I don’t have any immediate challenges but I do want to urge each and every one to help spread this message of change because my goal is to inspire 1 million children in the next three years to make a difference in this world. I believe that together, we can make a difference.
Simerg: And yes, do you play sport or do you have a favourite sport or favourite sport team?
Bilaal: I play tennis and alpine ski race. In fact this year my K1 team won the Ontario Championships in our division.
Simerg: Are you disappointed about the progress of the Raptors or the Maple Leafs? Do you think any of the team will make it for the play-offs this year?
Bilaal: Sorry, but I really don’t have time to follow these teams but am aware that they are having problems but that’s nothing new to either team.
Simerg: Tell us about one or two happy moments from your life.
Bilaal: Some of the happiest moments in my life are always with my family on vacation. I love spending time with my parents and having a great time.
Simerg: Do you enjoy good food, and where do you most often go with your parents or friends?
Bilaal: I love pizza with pineapple and I love homecooked meals – especially pilau and butter chicken with naan. My favourite restaurant is Richtree Marche in downtown Toronto because everyone can get what they want and they have amazing desserts like the crepes and waffles.
Simerg: What is your favourite book and movie?
Bilaal: I have lots of favourite books and movies. One non-fiction book that stands out for me is Heart Matters; and the movie is Slumdog Millionaire. My favourite fiction authors are Eric Walter’s and J.K. Rowling. I read a lot, I find it very relaxing. In terms of movies, we watch a lot of documentaries- War Child is amazing. There is a list of suggested reading and movies on my website www.makingchangenow.com
Simerg: Do you keep a pet?
Bilaal: I have a dog called Bobby who is 6 years old. He is a Scottish Terrier.
Simerg: What is your message to the children, youth and adults?
Bilaal: Be an agent of change and take action now. As Mahatma Ghandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in this world.”
Simerg: Thank you, Bilaal, and all the best in your incredible and astonishing work. Would you like to add anything more?
Bilaal: Just that you need to take action. It maybe the first and hardest step but it’s no doubt the most important. Without taking action, you are not doing anything, you are not making change.
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