Think of the words “Philanthropy” and “Social work”, and the first agents of change to come to mind are NGOs, smiling photo ops and foreign aid. Yet it was these very things that Abdul Sattar Edhi shunned in the pursuit of his humanitarian service to mankind.
Edhi lamented the money wasted in paper pushing and air conditioning high rise offices of NGOs, shied away from glitzy events and publicity, and there was nothing foreign about the people who came forward in hordes to donate every time he stood on the roads to beg for the less fortunate.
Edhi’s work was his life. When he first asked his wife, then 16-year-old Bilquis, to marry him, her friends laughed and taunted her. According to them, while all of them would go on honeymoons, Edhi would and could only ever take her to graveyards. Bilquis went ahead and married him; not because she didn’t believe these words to be true, but because she knew they were. Together the two built a beautiful life based not on luxuries and vacations, but stale bread and service, with Bilquis piling up the kids for picnics in the ambulance when Edhi had to leave for work at a moment’s notice. His personal life wasn’t the stuff of romance novels, but it was love at its purest.
When Edhi’s wife and kids asked for new clothes or shoes, he would tell them to look at and help those who were poor and doing without. Edhi’s beloved four-year-old grandson, Bilal, was burnt to death by a mentally unstable woman residing in his shelter. This was a huge blow to Edhi, but with his heart of solid gold, he forgave her even as he mourned him.
Presently, there are more than 350 Edhi centres across the country and in the USA, Canada, Japan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Middle East. These employ more than 7,000 workers, including doctors, nurses, drivers and volunteers, while helping change and save the lives of thousands more.
Though the results are immense, the beginnings were humble. When young Edhi came to live in Karachi soon following Partition, he started out earning a meager living by selling match sticks. Edhi’s humanitarian work took off in 1951 from a very modest dispensary in Mithadar. The world’s largest volunteer Ambulance Service fleet of 1, 800 ambulances too came about as a result of a humble man’s efforts and an old but refurbished vehicle he called the “Poor Man’s Van.” The “poor” part is a misnomer though, because he refused to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, creed or wealth. Even years later, when asked why he continued to pick up Christians and Hindus in his ambulance, the answer he offered was simply, because “the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”
He lifted abandoned babies out of piles of garbage. He buried those who had no one to call their own. He took in and raised the mentally ill. In a land where human lives have little value, he treated and housed sick animals. Even in death, he continues to give and his organs are to be donated. Today, he is no more. But he will always live on in our hearts.