KARACHI: The Edhi Foundation, headed by renowned social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi, funds hundreds of centres nationwide for orphans, senior citizens, drug abusers, the mentally disabled, abused women, even injured animals through donations. Though its bookkeeping may not be perfect, it is loved by the public, Los Angeles Times correspondent Mark Magnier reported from Karachi.
He owns a single set of clothing and often sleeps in a storage room – even though millions of dollars pass through his hands annually. At 83, creature comforts don’t matter much to Abdul Sattar Edhi. He is far too busy caring for the sick, feeding the hungry and burying the dead.
Known to some as Pakistan’s Mother Teresa, Edhi is a humanitarian light in a violent and troubled land. With the vast majority struggling in a daily moribund economy, natural disasters, poverty, political instability, corruption, militant attacks, and political enforcers are facts of life.
“In this environment, a shrinking violet won’t make much headway,” he says. “You’ve got to be tough. Gruff and confident.” Edhi refers to himself as beggar, and wears his worn black tunic as a badge of honour. His charity does not discriminate based on religion, race or gender. For him, religion is human rights. As for the rich, even as he welcomes their donations, he chides them for their priorities and their motives.
He spoke of an industrialist who sought him out at a reception a few months ago and asked him what he could do for humanity. “I told him, ‘Pay your taxes and stop wasting money on luxuries and sipping tea’,” he told LAT. “That was it. He ran right away.”
Edhi Foundation operates hospitals, mobile dispensaries, free kitchens, helicopters, airplanes and hundreds of ‘little white’ ambulances resembling oversized bread boxes. The Foundation has been reproved for its less-than-exact approach to accounting, yet the public keeps contributing, a reflection, supporters say, of how much they trust him. But that also creates something of a Catch-22. As he fills the vacuum, the state has even less incentive to step up.
“If the government did anything, we wouldn’t need to rely on people like Edhi,” quipped Mohammad Arif, who sells lace and buttons in Karachi. In words of Hussein Manzoor, who sold fruit until his cart was recently stolen, Edhi is a “godsend.”
Manzoor visited a free dispensary operated by Edhi in Karachi for treatment for an allergy that developed after the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005. Twelve of his relatives died, but he survived and moved to Karachi. Without his cart, Manzoor is struggling to support three children, but he is grateful to be alive. “He has chosen to work among the poorest of poor,” said Mazhar Zaidi, a documentary filmmaker. “Others put a water tap in villages and go home. They don’t live there.”
Edhi often sleeps in the cluttered storeroom at his office, relegated there by his wife, Bilquis, a nurse who is also a key charity figure. For decades, Edhi’s popularity among Pakistan’s 170 million people allowed his ambulances to brave riots, gunfights and ethnic battles. Thieves, political goons and even the Taliban offered contributions and free passage. In July, however, in a worrisome sign underscoring Pakistan’s deterioration, his ambulances were shot at and a rescue worker was wounded during rioting in Karachi.
Ambulance dispatchers in the city field 6,000 calls a day and route patrolling vehicles by radio, boasting a 10-minute response time in Pakistan’s biggest city. Reflecting the breadth of the services Edhi provides, ambulance drivers wait outside a downtown Karachi control centre beside a steel cage filled with goats – four-legged donations-in-waiting which benefactors can buy for the poor. There also is a steel basinet where mothers can leave unwanted babies, night or day. “We are not seeing so many recently,” said dispatch supervisor Aftab Husain. “More babies are showing up in garbage cans again. We’re not sure why, since everyone knows Edhi.”
Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2011.