Photo: Shahidul Alam
Abdul Sattar Edhi, arguably the world’s greatest and least known humanitarian, passed away last Friday; he was 88 years old. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (“We surely belong to Allah and to Him we shall return”). Some people called Edhi a saint, others called him maulana (Islamic scholar); but the children he cared for – the thousands of abandoned, orphaned, destitute children in Edhi centers around Pakistan — simply called him ‘Abbuji’ (respected father). The loss feels so heavy, the shoes seem impossible to fill. But Edhi’s inspiration provides each of us with a challenge — to live more kindly, to do more to lift each other up, to care more deeply, for each being, regardless.
Edhi took care of Pakistan’s desperate young and old for over 60 years. He and his wife Bilquis built a nationwide health and welfare organization consisting of ambulances, clinics, orphanages, homes for the physically handicapped, shelters for runaway children, blood banks, mortuaries, adoption agencies, animal shelters, drug addiction programs, and much more. In a country that lacks adequate facilities for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, Pakistanis depended on Edhi to fill the void.
In 1951, Edhi, then 23, used some of his savings to buy an 8-foot square run down shop in the poor neighborhood of Mithadar in Karachi. He set up a dispensary open to everyone, rich or poor, Muslim or not. He slept on a cement bench outside so he could be available at all times. A sign outside read, “Those who give charity are blessed, those who do not are also blessed.” His goal was to change people’s attitudes toward the poor and marginalized; “to get rid of man’s disgust towards human suffering,” as he put it in his autobiography “Mirror to the Blind”. He realized that he had to start with himself and show people through his own example. “From this day onwards, there is no difference in what I am, and what the people see. There will be no expenses on my person and therefore, no contradiction. My home will be open, my life will be the life of the people,” he wrote.
Edhi attributed his sense of compassion to his mother. Each day before school, his mother would give him two paisas and tell him to spend one on himself and the other on someone in need. When he returned home, the first thing she would ask is how he had spent the money; and scold him if he hadn’t found anyone to help. His mother became paralyzed with diabetes; Edhi took care of her, feeding and bathing her emaciated body. In caring for his mother, he likely imbibed the lessons that guided his life’s work: to value life no matter how frail; to give people dignity in life and in death; to care for those whom society has disregarded. The night his mother died, Edhi committed his life to serving humanity.
Edhi’s first ambulance was a dented blue car bought in 1957 from donations by a local businessman, on which he painted “Poor Man’s Van”. He drove it himself night and day, taking the injured to the hospital and unclaimed bodies for washing and burial. “I brought back bloated, drowned bodies from the sea. Black bodies that crumbled with one touch. I picked them up from rivers, from inside wells, from roadsides, accident sites and hospitals. I picked them up from manholes and gutters, from under bridges, from railway bogies, from tracks, water sheds and drains. I brought them home, to my work force, spreading the stench in the air forever. Then I bathed and cared for each and every victim of circumstance, just like I had done for my mother,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Today, there are more than 2,000 ambulances; it’s considered the largest volunteer ambulance fleet in the world.
I first traveled to Pakistan to interview Edhi in March 2009. When I arrived in Karachi, I called Anwer Kazmi, Edhi’s right hand man for 40 years, to ask the address of the center; he said just tell the driver “Edhi” and he’ll know where to bring you. Everyone in Pakistan knows Edhi. I was dropped off at a dilapidated, small, corner, white-washed ground floor office buzzing with activity. Several ambulances were parked outside. I immediately noticed the cradle in front, with the words “Do Not Kill”. There is a cradle outside each of the Edhi centers where people can drop off babies that they cannot take care of. Hundreds of babies, mostly girls, are left in these cradles each year; they’re cared for in Edhi orphanages.
A few men were standing behind a wooden counter fielding phone calls; others sat behind donated desks signing off on bills, ordering medicines, or taking donations. Anwer Kazmi was at the center desk, feet on his chair, arms crossed and tucked across his chest, chewing beetlenut, and talking to a reporter. He ordered chai, and we talked about the monumental work that the Edhi Foundation does every day — 800 people are fed at the free soup kitchen in Karachi; 8,500 rotis are cooked daily; 25,000 people are fed at the various centers; 6,000 calls are received for the ambulance service each day. “This is the work of one man,” said Kazmi. “He motivated the people by his commitment, by his vision.”
Edhi was in Islamabad the day I arrived; it was the day of the ‘long march’ of the lawyers’ movement from Lahore to Islamabad; he went to ask for calm, but feared there might be commotion. He returned to Karachi the next day and I was able to interview him then.
“The greatest thing Islam teaches is insanyat (humanity),” Edhi told me. “At the basis of all religions is humanity.”
Edhi lived simply; he slept on a traditional bed covered by a thin mattress, in a room behind his office. He slept only a few hours, ate roti and chai, and spent most of his day on call, available to anyone in need at any time. His manner was straightforward, at times even brusque, as he had no patience for unimportant things; and anything that kept him from caring for someone, tending to someone’s problem or ailment, was unimportant.
To really know Edhi, you had to visit his centers and meet the people he cared for. I spent a day riding in an Edhi ambulance to several centers, meeting the young boy who had run away because he was being beaten and who found refuge and an education; the man with HIV/AIDS who found treatment and a safe haven; the widow abandoned by her family who found shelter and learned a skill; the elderly woman neglected by her children who found solace and dignity. Edhi is captured in each of these stories, and thousands of others like them.
These past few days I’ve been going through photos and notes from my trips and reading Edhi’s book that he signed for me. I miss him deeply, along with millions who cherished him too; I miss what he means for humanity. I feel for the thousands of people for whom he was the one person who cared, the one person who did something to make their life a little easier. One life, each life. There are many who can speak about Edhi much better than I can. But there is one thing I know for sure. He was not Mother Teresa, he was not Father Teresa. He was Edhi. And there will never be another like him.