Amid the current turbulence in Karachi, humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi remains an inspirational beacon of hope
Having recently read his hard to come across autobiography, ‘A Mirror to the Blind’ in sixth form, I remember childishly describing the great man to a curious fellow pupil: ‘think another Mother Teresa but without the publicity’. Narrated to Tahmina Durani, who some will know of ‘My Feudal Lord’ fame, the book kicked in to readers the true meaning of the word selfless.
Lamenting Abdul Sattar Edhi’s lack of recognition in the West, I was elated to see Peter Oborne pick up on the great man in the Telegraph a few weeks ago, describing him quite rightly as a ‘living saint’. Following the piece with an edition of Unreported World – ‘Defenders of Karachi’ – from the increasingly lawless and blood spattered streets of Pakistan’s largest city, Oborne gave viewers an idea of the type of work the renowned humanitarian’s charity, the Edhi Foundation, does on a day to day basis, accompanying one of its ambulance drivers around for a period of two weeks.
To its name the Edhi foundation has the establishment of numerous hospitals, the rescue of 35,000 abandoned babies, the housing of 50,000 orphans, the delivery of one million children, the provision of the country’s biggest ambulance service, and the setting up of homes for individuals with mental health issues and behavioural problems, which, unlike the norm, treat sufferers with dignity. Providing also legal aid services that have helped secure the release of countless innocent prisoners, there’s hardly a corner of welfare administration that the organisation doesn’t cover. It’s hard to believe however, that all of this has its beginnings in begging.
Born in Gujerat in pre-partition India, Edhi (1928) hails from a Memon trading family which relocated to Karachi in 1947 following the departure of the British. Although the Memon community has long been associated with philanthropy, from a young age Edhi had an unusually strong connection with the poor and vulnerable; an experience strengthened in his formative years through the nursing of his mentally ill mother, and through witnessing mass suffering during the Calcutta famine (sometimes referred to as ‘Churchill’s famine’) in 1943. As a school boy, his mother would give him ‘one pesa to spend on lunch, and one to give to a poor man’; he had always felt however, that the poor man deserved more, and would also beg in the streets only to redistribute his collections amongst poorer beggars. The death of his mother strengthened his resolve to serve humanity; in his own words, ‘the first night she spent buried in the ground, I promised my life to the service of mankind’.
Working for a charitable medical dispensary in his early 20s, he grew angry at its discrimination towards non-Memons and in the face of much adversity, set up a non-exclusive service in 1951. With his mind on greater things, in due course he bought an ambulance – then one of only five in the province – in which he would travel around the city providing medical assistance where needed, and picking up unclaimed bodies for burial. As his nature became known to the locality, donations began pouring in, which he used to expand and diversify his services. Opening centres across the region, he eventually gained enough funds to purchase South Asia’s first air ambulance.
Today, comfortably putting the central government to shame, his is Pakistan’s largest welfare organisation. Working also outside of the country, in 1983 the Foundation provided aid to victims of the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and in 1991 to Iraqi victims of the Gulf war. More recently, Edhi was distraught when he was unable to enter Gaza during Israel’s brutal bombing campaign (08/09); having waited at the border in Egypt for two weeks, a spokesman said that in their years of service, covering 28 countries, this was the first time they had been stopped.
A deep-rooted mistrust of politicians, both Pakistani and other, has proven key to Edhi’s success as a philanthropist. Everyone from General Zia to Musharraf has unsuccessfully attempted to court him. He has also humbly returned millions to the Italian government amongst others, based on his belief that all government donations come with strings attached. In abstaining from dirtying his feet in Pakistan’s filthy political waters, he has cemented a reputation enjoyed by no other in the country. This reputation has enabled everyone from rickshaw drivers to businessmen to donate to the Edhi Foundation without fret; an amazing accomplishment given the public’s little faith in Pakistan’s vastly corrupt landscape.
Other great virtues that have endeared millions to Edhi include his incredible humility – shunning unnecessary publicity and disliking reminders of his own achievements – and an insistence upon living in as simple a way as possible, regularly blaming ‘land owners and capitalists’ for the world’s woes. Thus, despite the fact that millions flow through his charity, he refuses to take a penny for himself, and chooses to live in a two room flat in one of Karachi’s most congested areas, renowned for its narrow alleyways.
Once, having sent his son Faisal to open a branch of the charity in Afghanistan, Edhi was horrified upon arrival to see that furniture and beds had been purchased. Furious of what he felt were his son’s excesses, the philanthropist refused to use the beds and opted instead to sleep on the floor with his staff.
He continues to work in excess of 12 hours a day, eats every evening with hundreds of the city’s poorest at his ‘langars’ which provide free food to the needy, and spends Fridays with disabled and mentally handicapped children in his centres – many of whom he personally helps bathe before leading Jumm’ah prayers. In what is the kind of selflessness usually present only in story book characters, at the age of 82 Edhi can still be seen helping in calamites of every sort, whether knee deep in flood water or rubble, or pulling out dead bodies with his bare hands. He also opts to wear clothes stitched from rough material, and still begs when his organisation requires funds urgently. Skipping even his own wedding celebrations for work, the man hasn’t had a break in over 60 years.
In him we all have a role model, one that has set a high (perhaps impossibly high) humanitarian standard for everyone to aspire to. The sad fact is however, that your average Brit wouldn’t have a clue who Abdul Sattar Edhi is. When it comes to Muslims, most of the Western press would much rather blabber on about extremist fringe groups, and reactionary self-publicists like Anjem Choudhury whose 40 man following apparently warrants headlines. All efforts to have this moral giant nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize have been ignored. His book isn’t available on Amazon let alone stocked by the likes of Waterstones, and he still gets stopped, searched and disrespected at airports because of his beard.
A blogger I came across wrote on his website that in relation to Edhi, the famous quote comes to mind: ‘There is no limit to what a man can do provided he doesn’t care who gets the credit for it’; here it is truly fitting, for although many of us remain furious at his lack of recognition in the West, Edhi most likely couldn’t care less.
Photo Source: Unknown
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.