Abdul Sattar Edhi
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‘The exception to Pakistan's faults’
Edhi — The exception to Pakistan's faults
For our entire lives, Abdul Sattar Edhi was the exception.
“All Muslims are terrorists.”
“All Pakistanis are corrupt.”
“All Karachiites are violent.”
“All men with beards are extremists.”
Our lives as Pakistanis and the experiences within tell us that Edhi should not have been. People aren’t that noble in real life, no one can be that selfless truly.
To have access to millions of dollars, and still only own two changes of clothing, and the same cramped apartment in the same cramped part of the city.
To start with a single van in which he carried corpses, no matter their level of degradation. And to build the world’s largest volunteer ambulance service purely on the weight of reputation alone.
Take a look: Edhi, the man, the idea
These things do not happen. People don’t remain uncorrupted their entire lives. Politics gives them promises of power, wealth gives them a lust for luxury, religion gives them the narcissistic egotism of a messiah.
I know people who when they met him in person, were so overcome with emotion, they wept. I did too.
He was small, frail in appearance, even years ago. Until you noticed his arms. Edhi’s hands were the kind that only develop after a life of hard work, with gnarled fingers and a fierce, yet effortless grip.
His forearms were thick, muscled from carrying the dead, carrying the children, carrying the weight of all our exceptions.
People aren’t that brave, they cannot be.
Edhi did not stop working. Even when the religious parties lashed out against him because he didn’t discern between Muslims and non-Muslims, he kept on sending his ambulances out to save the wounded and to bury the dead.
They hurled abuse at him for not praying as much as they did, yet he kept working. He knew, as did we all, that they hated him because he showed their farce for what it was. They could pray all day and pass judgement all night, but they would never be as revered as he was.
Political parties threatened him, yet he kept working.
One night, when I was working in a newsroom many years ago, Karachi had been submerged under monsoon rains. The death toll was high, higher than the ruling political party could allow.
They knew they couldn’t stop people dying, not in a Karachi so neglected by development and consideration for care, so they instead stopped the ambulances from collecting the dead — the toll would not rise if there were no more bodies to count.
Edhi’s son called the news channels for help. The political party leaders also called, to threaten with silence. No channel ran the story. Yet, Edhi kept working. He personally went to collect the corpses, knowing they would not kill him. Anyone else they would have.
Gangs fighting in Lyari would cease fire to allow his ambulances to collect bodies. Infants, who would have died unwanted, were saved by his cots, given lives through his orphanages.
He began with a single van, and died with a fleet of ambulances, helicopters, orphanages, and an army of volunteers dedicated to saving life. Even in death, he donated his last functioning organs, a final act of charity.
Pakistanis know how to grieve; it is the one thing we know all too well. However, I worry that this grief is too large for all of us — it is the kind of grief that no one can carry for us. But, Edhi.
Sami Shah is a comedian, writer, and doer of other stuff.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was a Pakistani philanthropist ‘whose name became synonymous with charitable causes and who achieved an almost saintly status in Pakistan’ (The New York Times). He was called ‘Maulana’ (religious leader), though he was not one, because he created a nation-wide, privately funded social welfare system.
He died in 2016 at age 88.
In the course of his lifetime, he had gone from being a refugee to running Pakistan's most renowned philanthropic organization, the Edhi Foundation. Established in 1951, the foundation currently runs hospitals, orphanages, morgues, legal aid offices, centers for the abandoned and drug-addicted, and has almost 2,000 ambulances, which it dispatches to the scenes of the terrorist attacks that occur with alarming frequency across the country. (Max Bearak The Washington Post July 8, 2016)
Edhi would say, “When my ambulance takes a wounded person who is in pain to the hospital... I find peace in knowing I helped an injured person”. (Bhattacherjee The Hindu)
Edhi was known as the “Father Teresa” of Pakistan. The millions (including Indpaedia) who believe that he was unfairly overlooked for the Nobel Prize find solace in the fact that so was Mahatma Gandhi. However, Edhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize many times.
Hasan Zaidi AFP/ The Dawn wrote:
My mother told me about two Edhi drivers who had been fired by Edhi sahib in front of her that day, for eating with the poor they were delivering food to in a settlement.
“You are paid a salary,” he had told them, “you should eat from that money, this food is not meant for you.”
Refused kidney treatment abroad
Mr Edhi was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2013.
In June 2016 he turned down an offer from former president Asif Ali Zardari to get treatment abroad, insisting on being seen in a government hospital in Pakistan.
A few weeks later, in July 2016, he died of renal failure at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, Karachi.
Edhi’s approach to poverty
Hasan Zaidi AFP/ The Dawn wrote:
He had seen so much misery, so much ugliness and so much apathy in his work and around him that nothing fazed him.
Not for him the romanticisation of poverty of Mother Teresa, not for him the resignation of the religiously minded, of trusting things to God’s will. He had practical answers for everything and he was very clear in his thoughts — a clarity born out of decades of working with the most disenfranchised, the most neglected in society.
In fact, if anything made him bitter it was how some mullahs had perverted the spirit of religion with literal interpretations. He would rail many times about how the clergy only created problems for other people, never helped those in need. Sometimes, he’d suddenly remember how his statements could affect his work and drop his voice to tell me not to repeat what he’d said publicly. For the most part, I haven’t ever.
I found it ironic that for someone commonly referred to as a ‘maulana’ (religious scholar), he had no time for the rituals of religion. At times he was an agnostic, at times a fiery socialist, and yet, he embodied in himself all the best parts of his Muslim faith as well.
Prudent about finances
And yet, a story my brother told me encapsulated perfectly why people universally loved and trusted him.
While covering an earthquake in Balochistan for the BBC, my brother came across Edhi sahib who was providing tents and health services to the displaced people there, fundraising and arranging logistics for ambulances and other supplies.
“When I was leaving, I gave him whatever money I had on me, around 2000 rupees, and told him I’d seen sports stores in the area, and inquired if he could buy footballs for the displaced children in the camps to play with.”
Many weeks later, my brother ran into Edhi sahib again, this time covering a conference in Islamabad. Not only did Edhi remember him, he called out to him by name.
“Oye Ali, idhar aao!” he yelled.
“When I went over to him,” recalls my brother, “he said to me ‘I mentioned to Bilquis about the money you gave me and she said the stuff would be cheaper in Karachi and that we should buy it from there and send it back here, and that’s what we did. Just thought you should know.’”
This was a man handling millions in donations and interacting with thousands of people on a daily basis, it is no wonder then that he has left us all gobsmacked. That’s what true greatness can do.
Source of information on Karachi
Hasan Zaidi AFP/ The Dawn wrote:
When I entered the field of journalism, Edhi was the go-to source for information about any disaster. Karachi was in turmoil, an army operation was on, people were dying left and right. Sometimes a building had collapsed.
It was the easiest thing in the world to contact the Edhi Centre because they were always accessible, always willing to corroborate or correct official figures.
Most journalists had the Edhi Centre on speed-dial. Everyone trusted Edhi’s figures because it was Edhi and his workers who were removing the debris, Edhi ambulances that were ferrying the injured or picking up the dead, and often burying them.
Not publicity hungry
Hasan Zaidi AFP/ The Dawn wrote:
My first substantive interaction with Edhi sahib was over three days in 1997 when I convinced him to allow me to shoot sequences of him for a video I was working on. He was initially reluctant – and most certainly nothing like the photo-hounds that some engaged in social work are.
I wanted to film him, he wanted me to film his workers and his centres. Eventually we reached a compromise, I’d shoot both.
It was a hectic shoot because Edhi had no interest in adhering to our schedules. He’d go about his daily routine and if we wanted we could tag along. The maximum allowance I had was to capture him on a walkabout through the streets of Meethadar where his office was located.
On the streets here, people spontaneously raised their hands to their foreheads to say salaam to him or came to hug him. It barely registered for him.
In between our shooting, during down-times while the filming crew recuperated or had lunch, I’d sit and talk to him. What I discovered during those frank and very candid discussions was a completely matter-of-fact man.
Hasan Zaidi AFP/ The Dawn wrote:
I became aware of the man at quite a young age. My mother first interviewed Edhi sahib and his steadfast partner Bilquis Edhi for a magazine she was bringing out in the early 1980s.
She still recalls his childlike enthusiasm when he found out my mother was interested in palmistry. She wanted to see what kind of lines someone like him, who’d devoted his entire life to caring for others, had. I remember her bringing home his hand-prints, made with the ink of ordinary office stamp pads. She still has them somewhere.
The next time I heard about them (because Bilquis was inseparable from Abdus Sattar) was when my mother went to them to facilitate an adoption for close friends.
Sameer Arshad The Times of India Jul 10 2016 wrote: Edhi gave dignity to unwanted kids along with other outcasts like drug addicts and mentally ill. The abandoned kids are fed, clothed as well as educated at Edhi homes to make them respectable citizens.This humanitarianism is complemented by Edhi's fruga lity. He never built a home for himself even as Edhi presided over a charitable empire with Rs 100 crore budget.
He lived with just two sets of clothes, a karakul cap in a windowless room with just a bed, a wash basin and a stove. Edhi's asceticism attracted donations from even the poorest as he continued his practice of sitting outside a posh Karachi locality to collect money for his work that earned him several Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
Salman Masood, The New York Times July 8, 2016 added: Mr. Edhi maintained an austere lifestyle. He dressed simply and lived with his family in a sparsely furnished apartment adjacent to his foundation’s headquarters, always spurning attention from the news media.
Even in Pakistan a cheap sofa covered with brown plastic is not most people’s idea of throw-restraint-to-the-wind luxury.
But Abdul Sattar Edhi, a legendary charity worker known for his asceticism, is still getting used to the two-seater that recently replaced the hard bench he sat on for decades in the corner of his office.
“I didn’t ask for it, it was given to me by my daughter,” he says. “I like simplicity, but I didn’t get angry with her.”
The dowdy piece of furniture does nothing to undermine the uncompromising frugality of the office of a man proud to own just two sets of salwar kameez, an everyday outfit in Pakistan.
The tiny room is accessed directly off an alley in a Karachi slum and has space for only a few desks for the handful of people who manage a sprawling, countrywide charity empire of more than 1,200 ambulances, hundreds of medical centres, graveyards and an adoption service for abandoned children.
Mr. Edhi was born in Gujarat, India, in 1928 and moved to Pakistan in 1947 after the country gained independence from the British Empire. Mr. Edhi initially sold cloth in Karachi’s wholesale market, but he soon gave up the trade to start a free medical dispensary. (Salman Masood, The New York Times July 8, 2016)
Kallol Bhattacherjee The Hindu added: But for the Partition of 1947, Abdul Sattar Edhi would not have become the “Mother Teresa of Pakistan.” “We came from a trading family from Gujarat in India and I had no training in social work. I listened to my heart and felt compelled to do something about the sight of the bodies floating in Karachi harbour,” Edhi had told this reporter in 2010.
Edhi was not formally educated but he himself became an institution for generations of followers. Chief among them is Bilquis, his wife, who takes care of the orphanages. Edhi cared little about publicity. So much so that he used to forget that celebrated Pakistani author Tehmina Durrani had written his biography. But his tradition of humanitarian work will continue to live as he leaves behind hundreds of trained volunteers to carry forward the message of his life.
Sameer Arshad The Times of India Jul 10 2016 added: Edhi's selfless service has earned him a place in the pantheon of most revered. Like Jinnah and his contemporary Mahatma Gandhi, Edhi had his roots in Gujarat's Kathiawar Peninsula. Edhi was born barely 60km from Gandhi's place of birth -Porbandar -at Bantva in 1928. He was schooled in Gujarati in Bantva before partition uprooted his family.
Thousands of Gujaratis like Edhi arrived in Pakistan penniless but have contributed disproportionately to its economy and culture of philanthropy. Among them is Muhammad Ramzan Chhipa, whose Chhipa Welfare runs automatic bread baking plants and a kitchen to feed over 30,000 people.
Gujaratis are even betterknown for their business acumen. They account for less than 1% of Pakistan's population but are the mainstay of the country's GDP . Gujarati trading communities like Memons, Khojas and Bohras own multi-national firms, five-star hotels, banks and multiplexes, besides dominating Pakistan's biggest stock exchange.
The Edhi foundation
Edhi left behind Pakistan's biggest and one of the world's largest welfare organisations . Edhi ran his charity empire of 1,500 ambulances, shelters for the elderly, orpha nages, maternity wards and morgues entirely on public do nations that continued to grow in a measure of trust that very few in Pakistan enjoy (Sameer Arshad The Times of India Jul 10 2016)
Salman Masood, The New York Times July 8, 2016 adds: Mr. Edhi was known throughout Pakistan for his Edhi Foundation, which he single-handedly set up,... starting with meager resources and then expanding through private donations. Today, it operates nursing homes, orphanages, soup kitchens and family planning centers — all free of charge — as well as Pakistan’s largest ambulance service. With his lush white beard, Mr. Edhi was known in the orphanages as Nana, or grandfather.
In a country where government-run services have been glaringly ill equipped to deal with humanitarian crises, Mr. Edhi’s social welfare system has become a trusted household name.
The ambulance service, with at least 1,500 vehicles, has become grimly familiar in Pakistan, whether ferrying people maimed in terrorist attacks or carrying those injured in natural disasters.
Established in 1957 when Edhi took it upon himself to set up a tent hospital to look after the victims of a flu outbreak, [the Foundation] went on to become Pakistan’s most impressive social enterprise.
Its minivan ambulances are a common sight across Pakistan, particularly in the aftermath of all-too-frequent terrorist bombings.
Anyone can walk in off the street and pay their respects to one of the country’s most recognisable personalities, the frail old man with a long beard and cap who many Pakistanis argue should have received a Nobel prize years ago for his work.
Emergency callers can end up speaking to Edhi himself if he happens to pick up the phone. He rarely strays far, given that his bed occupies an even more humble back room behind his office.
How the Foundation was born
Abdul Sattar Edhi was traumatised to see his mother struggle with mental illness and paralysis without much care when he arrived in Pakistan as a penniless refugee in 1947.
His agony mirrored millions of poor whom the infant state was unable to take care of.Instead of despairing, Edhi took it upon himself to look after destitute PAK left to fend for themselves in the absence of a welfare system.He begged on Karachi streets to collect funds to buy a rickety ambulance for the first charitable clinic he started in 1951. (Sameer Arshad The Times of India Jul 10 2016)
The seeds of his devotion to social work were sown in his teenage years, when his mother became paralyzed and mentally ill. Mr. Edhi tended to her every need until she died when he was 19. He never completed his high school education. (Salman Masood, The New York Times July 8, 2016)
Edhi’s story of social work begins thus. Like thousands of other displaced Muslims of India, he had left for the newly created Pakistan. His family chose Karachi to settle down.
But in the early months after Partition, the promised land of Pakistan threw some tough challenges. As Karachi absorbed the shock of receiving so many new residents, life in the city was often less than promising. During those months, Edhi would often spot the anonymous bodies, left bobbing in the water of the Arabian Sea by relatives who had to carry on living.
A decent burial
“I would jump into the sea, retrieve the dead. Drape them in clean clothes and provide them a decent burial,” he had said during a meeting in his house, which also served as the headquarters of the Edhi Foundation in Karachi. Thus began the Edhi Graveyard Service, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world that ensures dignified burial to the dead in Pakistan’s big cities.
The network of orphanages spreads across Pakistan
Bhattacherjee The Hindu wrote:
Edhi was a multitasking genius. The vast network of Edhi’s orphanages spread across Pakistan has a tradition of keeping a crib outside. “Often in the morning we find that a child has been left in our crib. We immediately adopt the child and do not go around looking for the parents. We give him or her a new name and a new life,” he had said.
Not all children in Edhi’s care are infants. Some are like the differently abled Indian girl Geeta who was brought to his orphanage in Lahore by the police. Geeta was returned to India earlier this year.
Edhi’s style of functioning bore signs of his dedication. The cramped ground floor office had a few sofas where he would sit receiving visitors from morning till late at night. Next to him on a table, piles of old bound volumes contained names and addresses of all the contributors who supported the work of the Edhi Foundation since he began in 1951 with the Memon Voluntary Corps which became the Abdul Sattar Edhi Trust in 1974.
No to government funds
Bhattacherjee, The Hindu wrote:
Edhi’s office welcomed people’s donation for the many causes he supported and he always declined government support. “So many times the government of Pakistan wanted to help me. But I said no, thank you.”
Legendary ambulance service
Edhi’s ambulance service always reached first to help the injured in ethnic riots of Karachi, or assist victims of floods in Sindh, or Peshawar’s Taliban attacks. He often received threats from Taliban as the Islamic fundamentalists declared him an infidel for his love for people of all faiths. Despite all threats, Edhi remained without fear and bodyguards.
A temple, and care, for Geeta
That his humanitarian work transcended all divides made him by far Pakistan's most-loved national hero. Edhi built a temple for deaf and mute Indian woman Geeta after he reali sed she was a Hindu. Geeta, who returned to India in 2015, has been among those Edhi has cared for over the years. Geeta was handed over to the Edhi Fo undation when she was found alone at the Lahore Railway Station after she landed there mysteriously after boarding a cross-border train. Edhi and his wife treated Geeta like their daughter during her 12-year stay in Pakistan. (Sameer Arshad The Times of India Jul 10 2016)
Edhi, known as a ‘servant of humanity’ and who also ran the world’s largest private ambulance network, was suffering from severe kidney problems according to his son Faisal.
Though a revered figure, Mr. Edhi was once the target of an armed robbery, in 2014. Thieves entered his headquarters, an office building in the Mithadar neighborhood of Karachi, and held him at gunpoint, taking more than $1 million and more than 10 pounds of gold jewelry that had been donated to his foundation.
The robbery left Mr. Edhi bitter. “I had never imagined that this could happen to me,” he was quoted as saying then.
And yet not everyone likes and respects this saintly figure, who reckons he is about 90 years old.
In October  eight men barged into the Edhi headquarters and smashed their way into a bank of strongboxes just a few feet away from where Edhi himself was dozing in his hospital-style bed.
One of the robbers kept a gun trained on a social worker, even though the frail man was no threat, as they proceeded to steal valuables held as a service for people unable or unwilling to use a bank account.
The more than £400,000 of cash was swiftly replaced by donations that poured in from a horrified public, although Edhi turned down a large gift from a man he dismissed as a “capitalist” and “big robber”.
The theft was a shocking moment for an organisation that is facing growing competition from Pakistan’s militant, religious right.
In January Hafiz Saeed, a cleric wanted by India for his alleged masterminding of the 2011 terrorist attack on Mumbai, announced his Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF) was establishing a bridgehead in Karachi for the first time with a fleet of 15 ambulances.
FIF is the charity wing of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent body of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, regarded by some experts as one of south Asia’s most dangerous terrorist groups.
Unlike Edhi, Saeed uses the platform of his fast-growing charitable works to call for jihad against India and to create a parallel state that makes a point of being first on the scene when disasters strike.
Edhi says he is not worried, pointing out he has a 60-year head start on Saeed: “If he wants to become Edhi in two years, how is that possible?”
But he is hurt at his treatment by some of the country’s mullahs, who are jealous of his fundraising power and suspicious of his lack of sectarian or ethnic bias in attending to the people who turn to him for help.
“They call him an infidel saying that he does not say his prayers,” says his wife Bilquis, who, with her children, helps run the foundation. “What we are doing should be done by the government and should be appreciated, but instead we are blamed.”
The foundation has lost much of the annual charity it once scooped up during Eid al-Adha, when families would donate the skins of animals sacrificed on the day, which could then be sold for cash.
As well as hardline Islamist groups, the foundation has lost out to the strong-arm tactics of what Edhi calls an “ethnic organisation”, a reference to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the dominant political party in the ethnically divided port city.
“There is more hostility towards us from the religious and political groups,” his wife complains. “Our strong cupboards used to be full – nobody would steal from us.”
But Edhi says he is unfussed by aggressive political parties or the mullahs’ claim that he is an atheist who will not be allowed into heaven.
“I will not go to paradise where these type of people go,” he smiles. “I will go to heaven where the poor and miserable people live.” (Salman Masood, The New York Times July 8, 2016) added: Mr. Edhi said he believed in humanity and was wary of people who used religion for their vested interests. He was criticized by the country’s religious right for not offering Islamic prayers.
He also worried that social progress had not matched the world’s material and technological advances.
“People have become educated,” Mr. Edhi said, “but have yet to become human.”
Bilquis Edhi — A bond of devotion
His wife, Bilquis, a nurse by training whom he married in 1965, worked closely with him in the foundation. The couple received no salary for their work and lived off government securities. Mr. Edhi’s wife, two sons and two daughters survive him.
Hasan Zaidi AFP/ The Dawn wrote:
Through Bilquis I learned a different side of him. For her he was the obstinate, sometimes uncaring husband who was more obsessed with his office than home.
She was interested in watching films but he never went with her. She could be bitter too, recalling once how when their own grandson had tragically died in a fire accident, he’d left to go pick up bodies from somewhere else.
And yet, she’d never once wavered from the work they had undertaken together, or from her loyalty to him. Together they presented as human a couple as you could imagine to find.
Over the years, I had plenty of other occasions to see both Edhi sahib and Bilquis Edhi, some for reasons that shall remain unrecounted here; each time it was like visiting grandparents.
Edhi sahib was always restless, as if he were just about to go someplace where he was needed to do something — he didn’t like the idea of sitting and chatting.
There was always something more important to do. Understandable, given the huge empire of services he’d constructed.
A postscript from the crypt
TV journo reports from grave, draws flak
With the news of Abdul Sattar Edhi's passing away on Friday, a Pakistani TV news channel found itself at the receiving end of social media ire. A reporter from Express News reported from inside the grave dug up for the burial. As many Pakistanis and Indians expressed online anguish at the treatment of the story, the channel's executive director of news Fahd Husain apologised for the clip violating “all social and journalistic ethics“. “The most disgraceful thing is #ExpressNews' reporting. They could have spared his grave! #DownWithTRPs #Edhi“ tweeted @ahsannag. A tweet from @shaheershahid said: “Hey @ExpressNewsPK. Are these your reporting standards that your reporter has to disgrace Edhi's grave by reporting from inside it?“
BBC: Simplicity, honesty and hard work
Hasan Zaidi AFP/ The Dawn Edhi: A life less ordinary Hasan Zaidi is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. He runs the independent media consultancy and production house Tamarind Media and is also the festival director of the KaraFilm Festival. He tweets @hyzaidi:
Jon Boone, The Guardian, reporting from Karachi: 'They call him an infidel': Pakistan's humble founder of a charity empire
Kallol Bhattacherjee The Hindu (With inputs from AFP) Charity unlimited: Pakistan’s Abdul Sattar Edhi dies at 88
Max Bearak, The Washington Post July 8, 2016 Abdul Sattar Edhi: He was a hero to Pakistan’s poor and needy
Salman Masood, The New York Times July 8, 2016): Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s ‘Father Teresa,’ Dies at 88
Sameer Arshad The Times of India Jul 10 2016: PAK SCAN - Gujarat-born face of compassion in Pak passes away
Sami Shah/ The Dawn: Edhi — The exception to Pakistan's faults Sami Shah is a comedian and writer