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Three years ago, when Amy Popile and Amanda Loos were 11 and 12 years old, they met Iqbal Masih at their school in Quincy, Mass. Iqbal, who was 12, had been rescued from virtual slave labor in a Pakistani rug factory. He then began a campaign to help free other child laborers and was given a Reebok Human Rights Youth in Action Award in 1994. He was an impressive boy.

Amy and Amanda turned out to be just as impressive. Inspired by Iqbal, who was killed in Pakistan in 1995, they designed and launched an Internet appeal for money to build "A School for Iqbal." In a year, they raised more than $100,000. The school is up and open in Sialkot, Pakistan.

Amy and Amanda, in their turn, earned Reebok awards. Now 14 and 15, they were in the audience the other night at the 1998 Reebok International Human Rights Awards.

This ceremony, held this year at Columbia University in New York City, is my annual transfusion of inspiration. Whenever I need justification for my incurable optimism in the face of the four or five newspaper front pages I read every day, I think about the people I have met like Amy and Amanda. There are thousands and thousands of them out there, most of them never noticed or honored, working with dedication and energy to make some small change in the world they inherited.

The Reebok awards were founded 10 years ago in cooperation with musician Peter Gabriel, among others. Each year they honor several men and women under 30 years old for their work in human rights. This year's winners are:

Van Jones, founder of the (San Francisco) Bay Area Police Watch and Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Jones leads a growing movement to curb police intimidation, harassment and brutality in northern California. This year, he is bringing his program to New York, launching the New York Police Watch Project.

Abraham Gebreyesus, who at age 11 lost part of an arm and most of his sight to a land mine in Eritrea. He has been one of the leaders of the international movement to ban land mines.

Rana Husseini, a journalist at the Jordan Times and a member of the Jordanian Women's Union. At considerable risk, she was the first to investigate, document and expose the custom of "honor killings," in which women are murdered by members of their own family for suspected "immoral" behavior, or even for just being the victims of rape. About 60 women a year are believed to die this way in Jordan alone.

Dydier Kamundu, founder of a rural development and human rights organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). A refugee himself and a baker by trade, Kamundu risks his freedom and even his life to campaign for displaced people and human rights.

As Gabriel said at the awards dinner, these four, and the other 50 or so Reebok has honored, are just a sample, just a few of the many, many people around the world determined to make things better. And they do.

This year, several previous award winners, led by Stacey Kabat, founder of Peace Begins at Home, an organization that fights domestic violence, and Martin O'Brien, a peace activist in Northern Ireland, have decided to see if they can develop any synergy among this disparate group of incredibly energetic people. They are setting up a worldwide "human rights defenders network." Its first and main project will fight for the release of the three people who received Reebok awards while in prison, and who remain in prison.

The three are Phuntsok Nyidron, a nun serving a 17-year prison term for taking part in a peaceful demonstration for Tibetan independence; Fernando de Araujo, jailed for organizing a peaceful demonstration in East Timor; and Ma Thida, a doctor and writer serving a 20-year term in Burma for nonviolent work supporting democracy.

If Amy and Amanda and the rest can accomplish as much as they have on their own, before they're 30, what do you suppose they can do with the rest of their lives, and banding together?

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