The light from Pakistan that shines most brilliantly is that of the late Dr. Abdul Sattar Edhi and his Edhi Foundation. The philanthropy of Edhi and the charity he established is still underappreciated, but recently, a significant step has been taken to foster international recognition of the great philanthropist.
On February 28, 2017, Edhi’s birthday, Google issued an illustration commemorating him. It is an illustration of Edhi as well as a mother and child outside a clinic, one of Edhi’s ambulances, an open book, and Edhi’s pet dog that appeared on the tech giant’s homepage, which most internet users around the world regularly visit.
Abdul Sattar Edhi’s actual date of birth is unknown. He himself said it was sometime between 1926 and 1928. After his death, media reports suggested that he was born on January 1, 1928, but more recent reports assert that February 28 of that year is the most likely date of Edhi’s birth. Hence February 28 is now formally celebrated as his birthday.
It does not matter when this great man’s life started. What matters is how he lived and the legacy he bequeathed to the world. It may even be better to commemorate a day in which something important in the history of the Edhi Foundation occurred, such as its formation. The Edhi Foundation is the most prominent charitable organizations in South Asia and is all the more remarkable by virtue of the destitute and deprived circumstances in which it formed and grew. Most large-scale charities are founded and run by people who possess at least some means. But Edhi himself lived in poverty when he started his charitable work and he built it up entirely by himself. It was literally a case of the needy being helped by one of their own. How Abdul Sattar Edhi managed to provide so much for others when he had so little himself is a truly incredible achievement in modern times.
The fact that he did not know his own birthday, which is a privilege that most of us cherish, is testament to how humble his beginnings were. It is known that Edhi was born in Gujarat in India when the latter was ruled by the British. Edhi’s mother instilled in him a charitable mindset as she would always give him one paisa to buy food for himself and at the same time, another paisa to give to a beggar. At the age of eleven, Edhi’s life took a turn for the worse when his mother was paralyzed due to a stroke. Edhi had to take care of her all through his teens. She died when he was 19. This period is what set him on the course he took throughout his life.
Partition was the next important formative event in Edhi’s life. When the departing British rulers divided their colony of India into the state of India and the state of Pakistan in 1947, Edhi moved to Pakistan. Along the way, he witnessed one of the extreme episodes of human violence and suffering in history. Having survived this, Edhi settled in Karachi, where he expected that the new Islamic state would provide social services for its citizens. Edhi was soon disappointed as he observed the desperate poverty that existed in Karachi and how little the ruling elites did to alleviate it.
Edhi established a living for himself by selling cloth but it was not long before he decided to start helping those around him who were in desperate need of help. Edhi bought a small room which he used as a dispensary, giving out free medical assistance to those who needed it the most. To make the dispensary work, Edhi went onto the streets and started begging for donations. Donations were given and his dispensary grew. In 1951, he established the Edhi Foundation to offer 24-hour medical assistance free of charge.
In 1957, Karachi suffered from a worldwide influenza pandemic. Edhi had to do something about the spread of the disease. His call for donations was heeded and he was able to provide a remarkable assistance through Edhi Foundation that protected and treated people day and night. The Foundation had now established itself as a respectable charity and Edhi started to expand the scope of his work outside Karachi. A businessman who was impressed by his work gave Edhi a large donation that allowed him to buy an old van that he drove around Karachi as an ambulance.
Since then, the Edhi Foundation, which only accepted private donations, grew from strength to strength. It was not long before it became a major humanitarian organization in Pakistan. Edhi established all kinds of social services. His organization runs orphanages, hospitals, maternity wards, women’s shelters, clinics for the disabled, and wards for the mentally ill. The Edhi Foundation responds to all kinds of calamities which occur in Pakistan, from traffic accidents to earthquakes. Its most famous feature is the large fleet of ambulances it built over the years.
In 1997, the Edhi Foundation entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest volunteer ambulance service. Edhi’s outreach extended outside of Pakistan. He sent aid to places as far and wide as Ethiopia and the United States of America. Edhi served people from the cradle to the grave, putting up baskets outside his office for people to anonymously put their unwanted babies in and collecting dead bodies and giving them all the proper funerary rites. Edhi served humans regardless of their ethnicity or their religious faith. This angered many Muslims who asked why Edhi helped bury non-Muslims. Edhi is said to have replied, “Because my ambulance is more Muslim than you.”
Edhi dutifully carried out his work in the face of tremendous obstacles. From lack of means to the opposition that Edhi faced from religious fundamentalists, which in recent years grew serious when extremists started threatening him, Edhi faced a challenging environment. There were warnings that the Taliban would kidnap him, which made the state give Edhi police protection against his will. Much of the work the Edhi Foundation did was in dangerous and unstable areas, such as war-torn areas of Pakistan’s northwest and crime-ridden neighborhoods of Karachi. Yet, Edhi and his helpers did their work without hesitation.
Though Edhi eventually accumulated millions of dollars, he and his family, (his wife Bilquis and his four children) lived in the most humble of conditions. They resided in an apartment adjacent to Edhi’s office and had only a few belongings. Edhi used his donations only for his work. Edhi also maintained great humility while receiving many awards, including honorary doctorates from the Institute of Business Administration Karachi and the University of Bedfordshire in UK.
Edhi lived a long life devoted solely to helping others. In 2013, he came down with kidney disease and it was announced that he needed a kidney donation. Such a donation never came about. He passed away on 8 July, 2016. His death was widely mourned in Pakistan. The government gave him a funeral that was far too extravagant given Edhi’s tastes. The top dignitaries and politicians of Pakistan attended and in Pakistan’s volatile security environment, it meant the access of common people to the funeral was limited. Even though Edhi is dead, the Edhi Foundation, which continues to be run by his family, lives on and provides care for millions of people across Pakistan and the world.
Edhi was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, which can only be given to living people, but never got one. Google’s commemoration of him is a step towards increasing Edhi Foundation’s standing in the world, but it is only one step. The Edhi Foundation richly deserves more support and donation from all over the world so that it can help not only Pakistan more but also the world at large.
Edhi exhibited many remarkable qualities that enabled him to do what he did. He was entirely selfless. He was extraordinarily hard-working. Most of all, he was brilliant. He ran the Edhi Foundation most efficiently because of the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and intelligence that he exhibited from the very beginning. Edhi was basically forged in hardship and that enabled him to become what may be the greatest humanitarian of our times. He is the ultimate role model for humanitarianism.
*Shahzeb Khan is a director and co-founder at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management PLDM. He is an environment activist. His work has been commended by the former President of the United States Barack Obama. Shahzeb is a published poet, a documentary maker, a columnist, and the writer and illustrator of “the Tiny King and the Evil Sorcerer.” the book is created to inculcate environment conscientiousness in young readers. Shahzeb Khan’s upcoming book is titled “Pakistan’s Multi-hazard Risk Analysis.” Khan blogs at www.jshahzebkhan.wordpress.com