“The rich pay Zakat on their wealth but I pay Zakat on my health as well.” This was one of Muhammad Abbas Ali’s favourite sayings. A philanthropist and a retired major of the Pakistan army, he meant every word he said.
In 1987, when he was 66 years old, he walked 2,500 km across the burning heat of the Arabian Peninsula in order to perform Hajj and to collect funds for a charitable hospital in Karachi. At 77 he sky dived from a height of 10’500 ft to raise funds for the ‘Support a Child, Save the Nation’ project, aimed at eradicating child labour in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. When he was almost 82, he walked 100 km in Canada from Whitby to Mississauga … all to procure funds for a Seniors’ Home. No wonder then that he earned the sobriquet of the “Volunteer Charity Walker from Pakistan.”
It was at the ripe old age of 72, when most people are well into their retirement that Mr Abbas and his wife Sarwar Jahan Begum embarked on what would become the crowning achievement of his life. This was the Muslim Welfare Centre (MWC) in Ontario, Canada. Starting out with a tiny room and an interest free loan of (CAD) $14,000 he and his wife first set up a halal food bank for the destitute.
“It was a miracle of Allah, it was a golden opportunity to fulfill our ardent desire to serve humanity. We jumped in the fray with the banner ‘Service to Humanity is Service to Allah’. We started providing the needy with groceries irrespective of their religion, nationality, caste, or creed. Within a couple of years, we were not only able to clear the loan but when we looked at our bank balance, it had soared to $80,000,” wrote Major Abbas, remembering the early days of his organisation and the generosity of the community.
Their tireless efforts aided by volunteers and donations, the MWC began to take on more and more causes. In 1996, they established the Muslim Welfare Home, a shelter for needy women and children, which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a full-time staff on duty. So far, over 3500 single women and mothers with children, irrespective of their backgrounds, have benefited from this shelter. The MWC has also launched a free medical clinic in Toronto for those who do not have health coverage.
Today the MWC is operating four Halal Food Banks in Ontario and Montreal, serving over 6500 needy families on a monthly basis. In addition, the MWC is operating Halal Meals on Wheels, distributing about 350 lunch packs to the homeless people in the Toronto downtown area every Saturday; warm clothes and blankets are also distributed during the winter to help the homeless survive the sub-zero temperatures.
But throughout all this, Mr Abbas never forget the land of his birth: Pakistan.
In 1999, MWC opened a branch office in Pakistan and introduced its welfare project, ‘Support a Child, Save the Nation’. At present, MWC is operating two schools in poor localities of Karachi and is providing primary to secondary education to over 650 children. They also run two medical clinics in poor localities in Karachi, staffed by qualified doctors. Medical examination and medicines are free at both locations.
The MWC has also initiated a water exploration project in the Thar Desert of Pakistan as well. They are digging wells and installing tube wells in the desert communities to provide water to the local population.
It was during the overseeing of these projects that Major Abbas left this world. In 2009, while visiting Pakistan to monitor the water exploration and Support A Child projects, Major Abbas passed away after suffering from a massive heart attack. He was 87 years old. Now residing in Pakistan, his wife, Sarwar Jahan Begum, Co-Founder and President of MWC, continues to be the driving force behind this charitable organisation.
Recently, MWC sent $160,000 worth of food boxes, medicines and cash in relief efforts to the flood victims. More than 3000 food boxes were sent via PIA from Canada. Another 3.5 tons of food, baby milk and toiletries reached Pakistan for the flood victims.
During his life, Major Abbas received more than 20 awards from various organizations, including UNICEF, the Canadian Association of Pakistani Media, and the Consulate General of Pakistan. Posthumously, he has been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Canada. Just last year, McLevin Park in the Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough was renamed ‘Major Muhammad Abbas Ali Park’ in recognition of his services.
His wife remembers him fondly, saying “Major Abbas was not only the founder of MWC, he was a true leader, filled with tremendous determination, dedication and patience. He was a source of inspiration, and a great mentor, who left behind a strong team of equally dedicated and capable staff, volunteers and directors.”
Pakistan needs more citizens like Major Abbas and Sarwar Jahan Begum — people whose steely will and selfless devotion enables them to help the impoverished humanity of our world despite the frailty of their years.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2011.