A young mother, wearing a black abaya over a bright red shalwar kameez, her hair loosely covered and her hands painted with henna, waits in the front office of the boys school at Edhi Village. Her 10-year-old son, his cheeks streaked with dirt and tears, clings to her legs.
“Koi masla hai” (“There’s some problem”), she says when I ask why she has brought him here, a 65-acre campus outside Karachi that includes a center for runaway and abandoned boys. Later, she reveals that her son had been stripped naked, beaten severely and dumped in the middle of the night. The issue was a money dispute between her husband and others in the village. Their son was used to settle the score. “If I take him home, someone will kidnap him again and beat him badly,” she says. “He’s safe here.”
Abdul Sattar Edhi has been taking care of Pakistan’s desperate young and old for nearly 60 years. He and his wife Bilquis have built a vast network of health and welfare centers, guided by the principle that self help is the only way out of poverty. This includes homes for the mentally and physically handicapped, shelters for runaway children and abused women, medical clinics and blood banks, drug addiction programs and nursing courses, mortuaries, adoption agencies, ambulance services, animal shelters, even a cancer hospital, staffed by more than 7,500 volunteers.
In a country with no national health service or insurance program and with inadequate facilities for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, Pakistanis depend on Edhi, an octogenarian with a flowing white beard and a primary education, to fill the void the government cannot. In the aftermath of the 2010 floods, the country’s worst natural disaster in history that affected 20 million Pakistanis, Edhi’s single-minded commitment to healing is all the more profound and evident.
Thousands of Pakistanis, regardless of their faith or social background, are fed, schooled, nursed and nurtured each day in one of the more than 300 Edhi Foundation centers across the country. Outside most centers, there is a white metal cradle shaded by an awning, with a sign in bold letters that says, “Do Not Kill.” Several babies, mostly girls, are left in these cradles every day. Previously they would be found in the garbage heap, says Bilquis, Edhi’s wife of 44 years who heads the Bilquis Edhi Foundation and manages the orphanages, maternity clinics and women’s shelters. About 300 babies are found each year; 200 already dead. Behind each is a story too unbearable to fathom. Bilquis cares for the abandoned babies and places them with families, but only after she has personally conducted a thorough interview and background check of potential parents. In the past 58 years, she has placed 19,400 children in homes around the world. “It makes me so happy,” she says with a smile, her eyes lighting up behind silver rimmed glasses. The children who are not adopted grow up in Edhi centers, go to school there and get married. Bilquis screens possible suitors and meets the young men and their families for months before she agrees to a proposal. She arranges for the girl’s wedding clothes and dowries, and hosts their weddings in beautifully decorated rooms at the Edhi center. The girls call her “Mummy”; Edhi is “Abbuji” (respected father).
Edhi attributes his sense of compassion to his mother. Each day before school, his mother would give him 2 paisas and tell him to spend one on himself and the other on someone in need. The first thing she would ask when he returned home was how he had spent the money.
“You have a selfish heart, one that has nothing to give,” his mother would scold if he hadn’t found someone to help, Edhi recounts in his biography “A Mirror to the Blind.” But it was in caring for his own mother, who became paralyzed with diabetes, bathing her emaciated body and feeding and changing her, that Edhi truly imbibed the lessons that have guided his life’s work: to value life no matter how frail or disabled, to give people dignity in life and in death, to care for those whom society has disregarded. The night his mother died, Edhi committed his life to serving humanity.
“The greatest thing Islam teaches is insanyat (humanity),” Edhi says. “At the basis of all religions is humanity.”
Born in India in 1928, Edhi’s family moved to Karachi in 1947, six days after the partition of the subcontinent. In 1951, Edhi, then 23, used some of his savings to buy an 8-footsquare run-down shop in the poor neighborhood of Mithadar. With the help of a doctor, he set up a dispensary open to everyone, rich or poor, Muslim or not. He slept on a cement bench outside the dispensary so he could be available at all times. A sign outside read:
In 1957, when thousands of people fell ill during a flu epidemic, Edhi set up tents he bought on credit, where people received free immunizations. Outside each camp he placed a tin box with a sign, “Pay what you can. Don’t if you cannot.” In one week he had received 30,000 rupees, and was able to expand his services to include a maternity center and a nursing school.
Soon after, Edhi got his first ambulance – a dented blue car bought from donations by a local businessman, on which he had painted “Poor Man’s Van.” There were only five ambulances in Sindh province at that time, and absurdly they had to be booked in advance. Edhi’s free ambulance was in great demand. He drove it himself night and day, taking the injured to the hospital and unclaimed bodies for burial. At the time, he had an ambitious dream about one day having helicopters, he notes in his biography. Today, the Edhi Foundation has 2,000 ambulances, 40 rescue boats, two airplanes – and a helicopter. It is considered the largest volunteer ambulance fleet in the world, according to Guinness World Records.
Pakistanis are assured that if they need emergency help, they can dial 115 and an Edhi ambulance will be on its way. The control room for this nationwide ambulance service is a tiny, narrow room next to the Edhi headquarters in Karachi. Four volunteers sit in front of four computers juggling multiple phones and fielding about 6,000 calls a day. One of them shows me how it works, the computer screen constantly flashing with coordinates of accident sites. He explains that an Edhi ambulance – the vehicles are scattered throughout the city – reaches the scene of an accident within five minutes, and within 10-15 minutes, the injured arrive at a hospital. It’s what he calls the “golden” time to save a life. “In the end it’s all up to God,” he says, “but we do what we can.”
When I first met Edhi in March 2009 in the front office of the Mithadar clinic, a dilapidated three-story building in a noisy, dingy back lane – the same location as his first dispensary – he had just returned from Islamabad. He’s in a jovial mood, clearly satisfied that the “long march” of the lawyers’ movement from Lahore to Islamabad ended without incident with the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. Wearing his uniform gray kurta pajama, brown sandals and his trademark black Jinnah cap, he is answering a constant stream of phone calls. “Hello – Edhi,” he says in his impatient manner, “Kya kaam hai” (“What do you want?”). The caller has a few seconds to explain his request before Edhi passes the phone to one of his volunteers.
Edhi suggests we continue our conversation in his office. Seated behind his desk piled with files and papers, he says, “I’m just a beggar for the poor. Through begging, I run this charity.” But he stresses that he doesn’t ask people for money. “People just give.” Hundreds of thousands of rupees, in small amounts, pour in from ordinary Pakistanis every day. “Taxi drivers, rickshaw walas, they all give me money,” Edhi says. He refuses to take money from the government, religious groups or international organizations because he says conditions are usually attached. He recounts a story recently when he was walking in a procession. Every few steps, people gave him money. After a mile, he had collected 1 lakh rupees (about $1,200); by the end, he had 2 ½ lakh rupees. Edhi still sometimes sits on the side of the road to collect funds, like he did when he first began. Recently, in Peshawar, sitting on the roadside with a basket in front of him, he collected the equivalent of $15,000 within a few hours for flood victims. The total budget for the Edhi Foundation is $22 million per year, according to Anwer Kazmi, Edhi’s assistant for more than 30 years.
Edhi sleeps in an adjacent room, on a traditional bed covered by a thin mattress; in one corner is a pile of medicines, flashlights and sun glasses. He gets up every morning before 6 a.m. and has roti and chai (bread and tea) for breakfast. The rest of the day he’s on call, available to anyone in need at any time. He has never taken a salary, and continues to live off the interest of government bonds. Before I leave, he shares with me his three abiding principles: live simply, be punctual, act with honesty.
In a country riddled with corruption and blighted by words rather than action, Edhi’s simple, frugal lifestyle and his indefatigable commitment to action and compassion has given Pakistanis a sense of hope and calm. Pakistanis know that Edhi, even at 82 years old, will be at the scene of any calamity. In August 2010, within days of the devastating floods reaching Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northwest Pakistan, Edhi was in Peshawar. He had mobilized 60 ambulances and hundreds of volunteers to help evacuate more than 32,000 people, and distribute flour, rice and water to 60,000 people. The foundation has set up medical camps in flood-1)affected areas and is distributing cooked food to thousands of people each day. It has also helped in other international crises, donating $200,000 after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, $100,000 in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, and delivering relief supplies to refugees in Bosnia, Lebanon, Egypt, Japan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. For his work, Edhi has won numerous international awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service – referred to as the Asian Nobel Prize – the International Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood, and the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence.
With love and pride, Pakistanis call him Maulana Edhi. But Edhi is not impressed with awards and such titles make him nervous. “I’m not a maulana” (Islamic scholar), he says in his brusque but harmless way. “I’m a communist. I’m a revolutionist. I fight against cruelty. I fight against injustice. My mission is insanyat (humanity). If you don’t have humanity, you have nothing.” §
Salma Hasan Ali writes about cross-cultural issues and people making a difference. Her personal essay “Pakistan on the Potomac” appeared in The Washingtonian magazine.
Photos by Shahidul Alam. Alam is the founder and CEO of Drik Picture Library, Principal of Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, Director of the Chobi Mela festival, and Chairman of Majority World agency.
“Those who give charity are blessed, those who do not are also blessed.”