A Forgotten Humanitarian

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.

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