Abdul Sattar Edhi—man or superman?


A view from around the world



Abdul Sattar Edhi, generally known as the angel of mercy was a mortal being, with human weaknesses but he was an extraordinary person, who had won the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Edhi created a charitable empire out of nothing. He masterminded Pakistan’s largest welfare organisation almost single-handedly, entirely with private donations. In 2013, The Huffington Post declared him to be “the world’s greatest living humanitarian.”

On 8 July 2016, Abdul Sattar Edhi met his maker. He lived a life of simplicity, thriving on two sets of shalwar kameez, one pair of shoes purchased over twenty years ago, sometimes slept on a bench, sometimes on the hard floor or a rough bed, yet the funeral he received was the greatest proffered to any Pakistani apart from the memorial service of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Founder of the nation.

One wonders what was the charisma that enabled this simple person to build a sprawling, countrywide charity empire of the world’s largest ambulance service, comprising 1500 ambulances operating twenty four hours, hundreds of medical centers, graveyards and an adoption service for abandoned children.

There are numerous instances of Edhi’s benevolence quoted by numerous people. An Air Commodore of Pakistan Air Force states that his father suffered a stroke at a very odd time and he called an Edhi Ambulance. In a panic situation he rushed his father to a hospital. Once his father was taken care of, he came out to settle the ambulance account. He asked the driver for the booklet to write down the amount that he was going to donate. He needed to fill in the name of the driver and without looking up he asked the driver his name. Pat came the reply ‘ Abdul Sattar Edhi. ‘

The Air Commodore says that he got the shock of his life. Edhi was already advanced in age so the Air Commodore asked him as to why didn’t he send one of the regular employees. To which Edhi sahib said that no driver was immediately available so he drove himself to meet the emergency.

Another friend related that he saw a daily wages’ labourer, who had not received any task for a few days, looking desolate. He called the labourer over and asked him when he had his last meal. The labourer responded that he had not eaten for two days. The narrator gave him a hundred rupees. The labourer thanked him profusely, rushed to a bun-kebab vendor and bought the local burger for Rupees fourteen and took the remaining change to a nearby Edhi centre and donated it to the humanitarian organisation. Such was the appeal of Abdul Sattar Edhi that even a common labourer, who had starved for two days, did not hesitate to bequeath the amount he had received as alms, which could have fed him another three meals.

Born in the Indian province of Gujarat in 1928, Edhi and his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947. When he was eleven, his mother became paralyzed from a stroke and died when Edhi was 19. His personal experiences and care for his mother during her illness caused him to develop a system of services for old, mentally ill and challenged people. His mother would give him 1 paisa for his meals and another to give to a beggar. He initially started as a peddler, and later became a commission agent selling cloth in the wholesale market in Karachi. After a few years, he established a free dispensary with help from his community. He formally started his mass scale humanitarian work in 1951, when there was a flu epidemic in Karachi. He saw people lying on the pavement helplessly with no one to care for the sick. Edhi started a tent-hospital. He set up benches and got medical students to volunteer. He was penniless and begged for donations on the street. And people gave. He bought an 8-by-8 feet room to start his charity work.

Edhi resolved to dedicate his life to aiding the poor, and over the next sixty years, he single handedly changed the face of welfare in Pakistan. Establishing the Edhi Foundation, he also founded a welfare trust, named the Edhi Trust with an initial sum of five thousand Rupees which was later renamed as Bilqis Edhi Trust. Regarded as a guardian for the poor, Edhi began receiving numerous donations, which allowed him to expand his services. Since its inception, the Edhi Foundation has rescued over 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitated over 50,000 orphans and has trained over 40,000 nurses. It also runs more than 330 welfare centers in rural and urban Pakistan which operate as food kitchens, rehabilitation homes, shelters for abandoned women and children and clinics for the mentally handicapped.

Whenever terror or a natural catastrophe struck anywhere, Edhi was the first to reach the site, picking up dead bodies, burying them with honour, tending to the wounded, feeding the hungry and claiming the abandoned.

Edhi had his fair share of woes. In the early 1980s he was arrested by Israeli troops while entering Lebanon to aid the war struck Lebanese. In 2006, he was detained in Toronto, Canada, for 16 hours. In January 2008, US immigration officials interrogated Edhi at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York for over eight hours, and seized his passport and other documents. When asked about the frequent detention Edhi said “The only explanation I can think of is my beard and my dress.”

The US media showered accolades on Edhi after his demise. Giving details about his career and hard work in the service of humanity, The New York Times, America’s leading newspaper, said Edhi’s name became “synonymous with charitable causes and who achieved an almost saintly status in Pakistan.”

The Wall Street Journal said, “A famously ascetic figure, always clad in simple clothes, Edhi said he had no desire for worldly belongings and cared only about serving humanity,” noting that his final wish was to be buried in the clothes he wore when he died and for any of his usable organs to be donated.

“Starting with a small medical aid service in 1951, Edhi grew his organisation into one of Pakistan’s largest and most respected philanthropic services,” the daily newspaper said.

“The Edhi Foundation today runs a nationwide network of ambulances, orphanages, women’s shelters, and medical and food aid centers. It receives millions of dollars in donations from Pakistan and around the world. Edhi personally worked in the field, helping victims of natural disasters and terrorism, until his health no longer allowed it.”

‘New York NOW’, a respected television channel, said, “Widely admired for his stubborn integrity – he only accepted private donations, refusing government offers of support – and commitment to helping Pakistan’s destitute and forgotten, Edhi was often referred to as ‘Pakistan’s Mother Teresa’. He saw charity as a central tenet of Islam and lived humbly with his wife, Bilqis, in the same building as his organisation’s offices.

“But unlike Mother Teresa, Edhi had to operate in the face of death threats and other obstacles. In past years, his ambulances were attacked, as were volunteers who worked for his organisation. Islamists occupied one of his Karachi facilities, and the baby cradles he and Bilqis set up to accept unwanted babies were criticised as encouraging out-of-wedlock births.” But, it said, Edhi defied the threats and continued his work which was of purely humanitarian nature.

It’s a pity that our political leaders fail to learn from the simplicity, philanthropy and humanitarian aspects of Edhi’s character. Great humanitarians like Abdul Sattar Edhi are born once in a century. May his soul rest in peace and the trend of humanitarian work he established, continue to flourish.