Rabeea Shezad interviewed Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of Edhi Foundation. Edhi Foundation is the most trusted name in Pakistan when it comes to relief work within distressed areas in Pakistan and the rest of the world.
Edhi Foundation is a non-profit organisation that has been in the business of providing social services like medical care, emergency services, air ambulances, burial services, mental habitats, old homes, child welfare services, abused women safe houses and training facilities for the disadvantaged. Edhi Foundation was founded by Abdul Sattar Edhi, who established the first clinic in 1951.
Edhi Foundation’s activities include a 24-hour emergency service across the country through 250 Edhi centres which provide free shrouding and burial of unclaimed dead bodies, shelter for the destitute, orphans and handicapped persons, free hospitals and dispensaries, rehabilitation of drug addicts, free wheelchairs, crutches and other services for the handicapped, family planning counseling and maternity services, national and international relief efforts for the victims.
Currently the Edhi Foundation is home to over 6,000 destitutes, runaways and mentally ill, and it provides transportation to over 1,000,000 persons annually to hospitals, in addition to other wide ranging services.
RS: Please tell us a bit about your life and what stages you had to go through? Also tell us about your education; how you decided to devote your life working for the needy, how you came to establish the Edhi centre and what problems did you face initially?
ASE: I came to Pakistan six days after it’s independence, and I was almost 20 years of age. I was present at few of Quaid-e-Azam’s speeches to the public, I even recognised Mahatma Gandhi. Whatever I am or whatever I am doing today is all due to the Grace of God, when He chooses one of His men to work for him, He creates possibilities for him and makes his path easier. My mother and father both gave me utmost guidance and taught me everything I know. I arrived in Karachi on the sixth day of independence, at that time I had no money and I lived with my parents in a small room that they had rented in a building at Jodia Bazaar. Life moved on, later we put up a tent here, at the exact same location where the Edhi Centre is today; we called a few doctors from the Civil Hospital and established 11 mobile dispensaries on the footpaths in Karachi.
RS: How difficult was it obtaining the money to establish these dispensaries?
ASE: We did not have to pay the doctors because we did not have any money. We bought the medicines and other supplies on loan, this continued till I appealed for donations to generate Rs 45,000 at the time when even one rupee was worth a 100. I carried it all out by myself, no one used to ask me for any receipts. Even today I am not registered, I am running this organisation on my own, I have only registered the Foundation in the court but that’s about it. That’s how I generated the money, Rs 9,000 got spent, patients were taken are of and cured of their diseases in 8-9 days and after all that was done, I was left with Rs 36,000. That was the beginning of my work, initially I used to sleep on a small pillow, and then later I bought a ‘charpai’ for myself, which I used to sleep on.
RS: I would like to ask you that, when you came to Pakistan you say you were almost 20 years old, but your father was in the trading business, is that right?
ASE: Yes, he was in the Stock Exchange and in the cloth market.
RS: Did you never think of working with him, did he ask you to join him?
ASE: I was never interested in all that. When I starting observing the environment I was living in, where injustice, bribery and robbery etc were common, I felt a strong urge to do something about it.
RS: Can you please name one person that inspired you to do this, or who motivated you to choose this path?
ASE: I have had no education, I only know a bit of Gujrati. We used to get articles in Gujrati from India. That’s where I read the history of Abujar Ghaffari, at the time of the Prophet (PBUH). He was against people who used to earn profit from interest, but then he was banished. Then I read about Yazeed, an unjust emperor and the one responsible for the murder of numerous Muslims. Then I read a lot of other things in those articles that motivated me to do this. I was inspired to do good for the people who had suffered injustice. I have never been a very religious person; I am neither against religion nor for it. I believe that humanity is the biggest religion. That is what I have learned, and it is on the basis of that very religion that I have been working in Pakistan for over 60 years now. I never affiliated myself with anyone or any other organisation, I have always worked alone, even if it meant that I had to beg for money to start this. Later I established the ladies’ dispensary, which was free of charge, and then I opened up a small maternity home where young girls used to come for training and I used to hire the best ones according to their work skills.
Bilquis joined me as well and she used to take care and look after the kids who used to come here. She worked a lot for those kids, she cried when she used to see those children and I used to tell her that there was no use in crying, she could help them by looking after them. She gave me her full support, she asked me to speak to her mother who was a widow, I asked her permission and when I was granted that, I married Bilquis. She has been my companion for the past 40-45 years of my life and her support can be explained by a saying that goes, ‘It takes two hands to clap’. If a man finds a supportive wife, his life becomes successful, and God granted me with an amazing wife, she was always there to encourage and support me.
RS: You have seen so many cases, particularly emergency cases in your life. When you look back, which one would you say was the most horrifying or severe emergency case or situation that touched your heart the most, and where handling that situation was one of the biggest challenges that you have faced?
ASE: It has to be the War of 1965, when several areas of Karachi were bombed. We have seen the aftermath of these bombings, my wife and I. We collected body parts of women and children who got killed in these explosions; we put them together and prepared 45 funerals here at the Edhi Home. My wife took charge of bathing the women and I did the rest. My heart became so hard after that, that I made humanity my religion and devoted my life to it. I have strong faith in what I do and I continued doing it. I bought an old ambulance, which I used to drive myself, I used to sleep on the footpath outside and I attended to various emergencies absolutely free of charge and that’s how I made a place in the hearts of people around me.
RS: Now you have a vast network of ambulances, and you have a huge center where you provide all sorts of facilities to the needy people. When you read about different people and organisations, was there a model of any organisation that you got an inspiration from, and later followed their steps?
ASE: I mostly read articles on communism. After reading those articles, a feeling of hatred kept rising in my heart for a particular class of people who were the main causes of poverty in the world, they were the ones creating problems and hurdles and no one was doing anything to stop this from happening. I have been in Pakistan for the past 60 years, no one is ready to talk about the problems here, I was young and uneducated and I didn’t have the resources to make a change or revolutionise the system, but I had a passion to help those in need and help them get their rights. Even today, I am still helping them as much as I possibly can, and in every possible way. I talk to them, guide them, and that’s how I spend my day. People who hate hatred are the ones closer to my heart. At a doctors’ conference recently, I said that the medical profession is a very humanitarian profession. I opened up a hospital and everyone is supporting me, all the doctors and public equally. I am running 17 hospitals in Pakistan today, my religion is serving humanity and I believe that all the religions of the world have their basis in humanity, and humanity itself has it’s basis in religion, that’s how its all interconnected.
RS: Your network is not only present in Pakistan, but it is actually spread out all over the world working for needy people. I understand why you have a passion to help the Muslims of the world but you have been working equally for the non-Muslims as well. You attend to their emergencies also; can you tell us why you chose to do that?
ASE: They are all humans and as I mentioned earlier, humanity is the biggest religion. You have to care for all being created by God, which also include animals and birds. My mission is to help out any person in need, whether it is Muslim or non-Muslim through my network, and I travel to all parts of the world to do that. Our network is spread out in 27 countries of the world, our centers are completely active in 11 of those countries, the rest are functioning as representatives.
RS: Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring thoughts with us, and best of luck with your foundation.
ASE: Thank you *