Photo: Shahidul Alam
There were rumors last week that Edhi sahab was in ICU. I reached out to his office and to others in Karachi to find out more. Jibran Nasir got back to me quickly, as he happened to be with Edhi’s grandson the day I contacted him. He said that Edhi was in the hospital for routine dialysis and that he’s doing fine. I hope inshAllah he remains well. I know our prayers are with him.
Edhi is arguably the most widely admired person in Pakistan. Some call him a saint, others call him maulana (Islamic scholar); but the children he cares for – the thousands of abandoned, orphaned, destitute children in Edhi centers around the country — simply call him ‘Abbuji’ (respected father).
Abdul Sattar Edhi has been taking care of Pakistan’s desperate young and old for over 60 years. He and his wife Bilquis have 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 without a national health service and with inadequate facilities for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, Pakistanis depend on Edhi, an octogenarian with a long beard and a primary education, to fill the void.
During Pakistan’s current heat wave, or during any crisis, Edhi ambulances are the first to arrive at the scene of an emergency, and the last to leave. According to reports, more than 650 bodies were brought to the Edhi morgue ten days ago; it has a capacity for 200. A sign outside says that the morgue is filled to capacity; bodies lie outside. Mass funerals and burials are being held in Edhi graveyards.
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 writes in his autobiography “Mirror to the Blind”.
Today, Edhi has more than 2,000 ambulances; it’s considered the largest volunteer ambulance fleet in the world.
I traveled to Pakistan after almost 15 years 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 orders chai, and we talk 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 made and distributed to 13 Edhi centers; 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,” says 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 the next day and I was able to interview him then. That day, we went in an Edhi ambulance to visit some of the centers with Dr. Aftab, one of the doctors working with Edhi. Our first stop was Edhi Village, a 65-acre campus just outside Karachi that includes a center for runaway and abandoned boys. On the wall outside are photographs of more than 50 boys, so parents can see if their sons have run away to the center; photos are also placed in newspapers and shown on TV, to try and reunite as many children with their families. There are 200 boys at the center. A woman at the front office tells me about their typical day: they get up at 5 am for prayers, attend school from 9 am to 1 pm, have lunch and do chores, then play sports and games. Edhi visits the kids every Sunday, and brings them toys and treats; the previous Sunday he had brought plastic sunglasses and colorful watches, and several of the boys were wearing them. We walked into a few classrooms. Each time, the boys, dressed in dark gray shalwar kameez like the kind that Edhi wears, stand up and say assalamalaikum. In one of the classrooms, a young boy shakes my hand with a big smile. I ask him how old he is; he doesn’t know. He recites the ABCs, and tells me he loves school, cricket, chocolate and ice cream – I suspect perhaps not in that order.
Bilquis is like a mother to these kids; she makes sure that they get fresh vegetables and meat for dinner twice a week. She ensures that their first roza (fast during Ramadan) is celebrated with garlands and mitahi (sweets), as it would be if they were with their families. They celebrate Eid, Milad un Nabi, and August 14th with new clothes, games and outings. There are closets stacked with clothes, bedding, and stuffed animals; women in the kitchen sit on the floor peeling pounds and pounds of onions and potatoes; tables covered in plastic overflow with toy cars, balls and plastic guitars. At this complex, there is also an AIDS and TB ward, a home for the mentally and physically challenged, and a dispensary. There are 300 Edhi centers throughout the country.
Edhi attributes 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. This is likely how he imbibed the lessons that have 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.
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 puts it. 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 writes in his autobiography.
And this is how Edhi has lived for the past 60 years. He sleeps in a room adjacent to his office, on a traditional bed covered by a thin mattress; in one corner there is a pile of medicines, fllashlights, and sun glasses. He gets up every morning before 6 a.m and has roti and chai (bread and tea) for breakfast. The rest of the day he’s on call, available to anyone in need at any time.
“The greatest thing Islam teaches is insanyat (humanity),” Edhi tells me. “At the basis of all religions is humanity.”
Stay well, Edhi sahab. Our prayers are with you.
To donate to the Edhi Foundation, please visit: http://edhi.org
My article about “These Birds Walk”, a beautiful film that provides a glimpse into the lives of boys in Edhi Village: http://theislamicmonthly.com/these-birds-walk/
* A huge thank you to Shahidul Alam, the world renowned photographer from Bangladesh who introduced me to Edhi and who took photos for my story, including the one above which he uncovered a few days ago; it is one I will always cherish.