On the fateful day of July 8, 2016, a tragedy befell the nation when the most revered humanitarian and philanthropist of Pakistan, Abdul Sattar Edhi, passed away. His death came as a huge shock and was received with deep, profound grief. Edhi Sahib was a ray of hope for the poor, helpless people of Pakistan as he never turned anyone away from his hospitals, homeless shelters, rehab centres and orphanages. His determination to ignore considerations of creed, cast or sect earned him accolades from all over the world. Revered by many as a national hero, Mr Edhi created a charitable empire out of nothing. He masterminded Pakistan’s largest welfare organisation almost single-handedly, entirely with private donations.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was born to a family of traders in Bantva, a small town in Kathiawar, a former district of the state of Gujarat in India on January 1, 1928. When he was eleven, his mother became mentally ill, paralyzed and eventually died within a period of eight years. His mother’s illness – and death – made him think about millions of women who would be suffering like his mother, with nobody around to look after them. His personal experiences caused him to develop a system of services for old, mentally-ill and deprived people. He said he felt an urge to do welfare work after “observing the environment I was living in, where injustice, bribery and robbery were common”.
It is said that Edhi Sahib, along with his family, migrated to Pakistan six days after it was formed in August 1947. Initially, he worked as a street peddler, hawking pencils, matches that he would hold on a tray, and towels. Later, he sold paan, and then worked for his father who was a trader. But he found his time doing this unsatisfying. He later became a commission agent, selling cloth in Karachi’s wholesale market.
Edhi Sahib, full of idealism and hope, opened his first clinic in 1951 offering drugs and basic medical care, regardless of people’s ability to pay, in a tent next to his family home in Jodia Bazaar, Karachi. “Social welfare was my vocation, I had to free it,” he says in his autobiography, ‘A Mirror To The Blind’. He later established a welfare trust named “Edhi Trust”. The range of work of Edhi Trust expanded with remarkable speed under the driving spirit of the man behind it.
Edhi’s charitable activities expanded especially in 1957 when an Asian flu epidemic swept through Karachi. He borrowed money for tents to treat people who were only asked to contribute financially if they could afford it. “It was the first mass recognition of my work,” Edhi later told the journalist Steve Inskeep. A single generous donation from a businessman, a fellow member of the Memon community, allowed Edhi to buy his first ambulance, which he drove himself around the city. Once asked why he was prepared to help Christians and Hindus alike, Edhi replied, “because my ambulance is more Muslim than you”.
He converted one second-hand vehicle into ambulance to start the Edhi Ambulance Service that would later become “the largest volunteer ambulance organization” in the world as per ‘The Guinness Book of World Records’. The organization is now consisted of more than two thousand ambulances including air ambulance support and offers 24-hour emergency services. Free old people’s homes, orphanages, clinics, women’s shelters, and rehabilitation centres for drug addicts and mentally-ill individuals are operative under Edhi Foundation. It also runs relief operations in Africa, Eastern Europe, Middle East, the Caucasus region and US.
Edhi Sahib never accepted any donation from any government. He said, “It is my principle never to accept any donations from any government or any foreign-funded organization.” He never took any sort of credit of his works and support rather he asks, “People do not perceive that stone idols have transformed into other shapes. Is the greatest form not self-worship?”
Edhi Foundation endures to grow in both size and service. Presently, it is the largest welfare organization in Pakistan. Till now, Edhi Foundation has rescued over twenty thousand abandoned infants and babies and took care of over fifty thousand orphans. It also runs nearly four hundred welfare centres in rural and urban areas of Pakistan which operate as food kitchens, rehabilitation homes, shelters for abandoned women and children and clinics for the mentally-challenged people. He did hectic work till his last breaths as he believed “Emphasis on heaven and hell is a distraction; it breeds in minds that have turned lazy to do anything today.”
Abdul Sattar Edhi married Bilquis Edhi, then a nurse at Edhi dispensary, in 1965. The couple had two daughters and two sons. Bilquis Edhi, an epitome of compassion and generosity much like her late husband, runs the free maternity home in Karachi and organizes the adoption of abandoned babies. The husband-wife team became to share the joint vision to alleviate the human sufferings under a sense of personal responsibility to respond to each call for help, regardless of caste, creed, race, religion or status. In a country with a negligible public welfare system, Edhi Sahib offered cradle-to-grave services. Some 20,000 people have Edhi registered as a parent or guardian after he and his wife began taking in abandoned babies. They started to place cribs outside their offices where unwanted infants could be left. It was a court case filed by Edhi that ultimately won the right for abandoned children with unknown parents to get the vital national identity card.
The Edhi duo’s message is of love, care and help of others as they believed: “Love is not a sentiment that words can express. You must learn to judge it by my feelings and passion for the whole of mankind, in that you will also find yourself.”
Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mother Teresa were the personalities who influenced Edhi Sahib. On his death, BBC wrote that he was “Pakistan’s most respected figure and was seen by some as almost a saint.” He devoted all his life to alleviating pains and sufferings of humanity and never felt any discrimination while helping a person. He always said “My religion is humanitarianism, which is the basis of every religion in the world.”
He was known for his simple lifestyle. Content with just two sets of clothes, he slept in a windowless room of white tiles adjoining the office of his charitable foundation. Sparsely equipped, it had just one bed, a sink and a hotplate. He never took a salary from his organization.
An extraordinary social worker, Edhi’s humility knew no bounds. “I’m an ordinary man. and if you want to find me then you will find me among ordinary people,” he said in These Birds Walk, the 2013 documentary marking his humanitarian efforts.
Edhi Sahib became only the third person in the history of Pakistan to receive full state funeral, given guard of honor and gun salute by Pakistan Army before funeral prayers began. His funeral prayers were led by Maulana Ahmed Khan Niazi. President Mamnoon Hussain, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister Sindh Qaim Ali Shah and Governor Sindh Ishrat-ul-Ebad attended the funeral held at the National Stadium. People from all walks of life including Sindh DG Rangers Maj General Bilal Akbar, Naval Chief Admiral Muhammad Zakaullah, and DG ISPR Gen Asim Bajwa also attended the funeral.
Edhi Sahib has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and appears on the list again this year — put there by Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan’s teenage Nobel laureate. But, some people are above the worldly rewards. His persona is too big to all awards, and all words of praise. Although bodily he is not with us anymore, his charitable world, or more rightly his mission to serve humanity, will live on.
May Allah shower His countless blessings and mercy on Edhi Sahib!