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The Life And Legacy Of Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s Beloved Humanitarian

This article originally appeared on Muftah, and the original can be found here. To receive Muftah’s alternative reporting and analysis on important global events, sign up for its Weekend Reads here.

When it comes to places like Pakistan, the only stories we often here, in the West, are about terrorism, crime, and poverty. Rarely do we hear about the amazing individuals living in these countries – people like Abdul Sattar Edhi who died on Friday, July 8, at the age of eighty-eight.

I was born in Pakistan, though have never lived there, and Edhi has long been a personal hero of mine. Sharing the story of his life and accomplishments is the least I can do to honor this extraordinary man.

Edhi proved you can do amazing things even in places where resources are lacking. He was an ascetic in a country where corrupt politicians regularly skim millions of dollars, a humanitarian in a nation riven with sectarian violence, and a provider of public services in a state where government has often failed to make the most basic of social goods, like adequate hospitals and ambulances, available.

Even before there was a Pakistan, Edhi was helping the needy and the poor. His journey of self-sacrifice began in colonial India, at the age of nineteen, when he became caretaker to his mother, who was ill at the time. The experience made Edhi think deeply about the many people who had no one to care for them when they fell ill or suffered a debilitating life event. Both then and now, in South Asia, there were few if any social services to help the disabled, the mentally and physically ill, the poor, and other vulnerable communities.

Edhi decided to dedicate himself to filling this gap, supporting and providing for communities neglected by government and society.

After moving to Pakistan with his family in 1947, following Partition, Edhi began peddling cloth at the wholesale market in Karachi. Working hard, with little to his name, he would spend as much money feeding the underprivileged, as he would on his own meals. For Edhi, the poor deserved to have at least as much as he did.

When influenza began spreading through Karachi in the late 1940s, Edhi did all he could to help. Penniless, he sat on the floor of a busy street and began asking passers by for money to help the sick. Slowly, he began to collect a penny here and there. After a few years, Edhi used these meager funds to buy a small room to help the ill and mentally disabled. He convinced young medical students to assist in his work, starting one of the first student-driven, medical clinics in the world.

In the years that followed, Edhi’s organization grew to become the largest, private welfare organization in Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation, which he founded in 1951, has since expanded from that small room into 350 centers all over Pakistan.

An interview with Abdul Sattar Edhi about his work

In achieving this, Edhi only accepted funds donated by Pakistanis, refusing all donations from foreign groups or organizations (even though they offered Edhi large sums). Edhi wanted to teach the young nation of Pakistan how to give and appreciate the value of charity. And he did teach Pakistanis to donate – all of his foundation’s work continues to be financed by donations from people living in or from one of the poorest countries in the world.

Over the course of more than a half-century, Edhi changed the way care is delivered to needy Pakistanis. Since its inception, the Edhi Foundation has rescued over 20,000 abandoned children – women can still leave children at one of its centers without judgment or questions asked. The foundation has helped care for over 50,000 orphans, often looked after by the over 40,000 nurses the foundation trains. Edhi has provided millions of dollars in free medicines to those too poor to afford medical care, and gives free burial services to the poor. Almost all ambulances in Pakistan, a country of over 140 million, are run by the Edhi Foundation, which has become the world’s largest ambulance service provider.

One of the most important issue for Edhi was providing care and treatment for women abused or abandoned by their families. He made it a priority to provide shelter to women who were the victims of domestic violence, a significant problem and taboo subject in Pakistan. To this day, women, often with children in tow, who have been kicked out of their homes for things as minor as cooking food improperly, can find a home at an Edhi Foundation center.

Edhi’s work did not stop at the borders of Pakistan, however. His foundation has run relief operations in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and, even, the United States. I volunteered in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Mississippi and remember seeing Edhi Foundation tents and Edhi relief personnel working to assist Americans, while they were themselves fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

In his daily life, Edhi embodied the values of self-sacrifice and giving that fuel his foundation. Early on, he gave up on most worldly pleasures. Edhi owned only two pairs of clothes at any given time, washing one while wearing the other. He lived in a simple room and owned no property. He never took a salary. He drove no car, except when he was driving one of the foundation’s ambulances.

In a country where so many claim to carry the mantle of Islam, Edhi exemplified what it truly meant to be a Muslim. He purposely wore his beard and prayer cap to demonstrate to Muslims that they can and should do good works. Once, when he was asked why his ambulances picked up Christians and Hindus, he replied, “Because my ambulance is more Muslim than you.”

Even though he was often stopped at airports in the United States and Israel – his workers would ask him not to travel to save the old man the trouble of being inconceived – he refused to stop making these trips. For Edhi, his own inconvenience was not a reason to stop helping people across the world.

When he was diagnosed with kidney disease a few years back, Edhi refused to be treated outside his adopted homeland, saying that if the hospitals and care his country provided were good enough for the poor and destitute, they were good enough for him.

Even with his last breath, Edhi was looking out for those who did not have anyone to look out for them. His dying wish was that his organs be donated to those who needed them. He was so old that only the corneas of his eyes could be used (they have already beentransplanted into the eyes of two blind persons).

We spend so much time lauding and promoting the work of demagogues and ignorant political preachers and so little time raising up honorable men like Edhi. If you find it within you, I invite you to take up Edhi’s call to action and help the sick and destitute, especially in these troubled times around the world.

Banner depicts Tony Blair's bloody hands, from Stop the War Demonstration, QEII Conference Centre, London. (Photo by lewishamdreamer on Flickr)
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Ehsan Zaffar

Ehsan Zaffar

Ehsan Zaffar writes about civil rights, security and community resilience. He is a member of the faculties of Washington College of Law at American University, John Marshall Law School, George Mason University, and George Washington University, teaching courses on homeland security policy, as well as privacy and surveillance law.