The legendary philanthropist set up the world’s biggest volunteer ambulance network and helped save thousands of lives.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was a Pakistani philanthropist who built a nationwide network of humanitarian centers offering a wide range of life-saving services to the people of Pakistan.
Edhi began his humanitarian work in 1947, soon after partition, with just $500. Over the next decades, he helped to save the lives of at least 50,000 babies and created a fleet of 1,800 ambulances, 28 rescue boats, and two airplanes to help in emergencies.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was born in 1928 in a small village of Bantva near Joona Garh, Gujrat (India). The seeds of compassion for the suffering humanity were sown in his soul by his mother’s infirmity. When Edhi was at the tender age of eleven, his mother became paralyzed and later got mentally ill. Young Abdul Sattar devoted himself to looking after all her needs; cleaning, bathing, changing clothes, and feeding. This proved to be a losing battle against the disease, and her helplessness increased over the years. Her persistent woeful condition left a lasting impression on young Edhi. The course of his life took a different turn from other persons of his age. His studies were also seriously affected and he could not complete his high school level. For him, the world of suffering became his tutor and source of wisdom.
Edhi’s mother died when he was 19. His personal experience made him think of thousands and millions, suffering like his mother, around with nobody to look after them. He thought that he had a call to help these people. He had a vision of chains of welfare centers and hospitals that could be opened to alleviate the pain of those suffering from illness and neglect. He also thought of the inhuman treatment meted out to the mentally ill, the insane, and the disabled persons.
Even at this early age, he felt personally responsible for taking on the challenge of developing a system of services to reduce human miseries. The task was huge he had no resources. But it was something that he had to do even if he had to walk to the streets if he had to beg for this purpose.
Edhi and his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947. To earn his living, Abdul Sattar Edhi initially started as a peddler, and later became a commission agent selling cloth in the wholesale market in Karachi.
After a couple of years, he left this occupation and with the support of some members of his community decided to establish a free dispensary. He became involved in this charity work. However, soon his vision of a growing and developing system of multifarious services made him decide to establish a welfare trust of his own and named it “Edhi Trust”.
An appeal was made to the public for funds. The response was good, and Rs.200,000/- was raised. The range and scope of work of Edhi Trust expanded with remarkable speed under the driving spirit of the man behind it. A maternity home was established and an emergency ambulance service was started in the sprawling metropolis of Karachi with a population of over 10 million.
More donations were received as people’s confidence in the activities of the Trust grew. With time, masses gave him the title of the” Angel of Mercy.”
Abdul Sattar Edhi was married in 1965 to Bilquis, a nurse who worked at the Edhi dispensary. The couple has four children, two daughters, and two sons. Bilquis runs the free maternity home at the headquarter in Karachi and organizes the adoption of illegitimate and abandoned babies. The husband-wife team has come to share the common vision of single-minded devotion to the cause of alleviation of human sufferings and a sense of personal responsibility to respond to each call for help, regardless of race, creed, or status.
Edhi involves himself in every activity at Edhi Foundation from raising funds to bathing corpses. Round the clock, he keeps with him an ambulance which he drives himself and makes rounds of the city regularly. On finding a destitute or injured person anywhere on the way, he escorts him to the Relief Centre where immediate attention is given to the needy person. In spite of his busy work schedule with the Foundation, Edhi finds enough time to spare with the residents of the orphanages called “Edhi Homes”. He is very fond of playing and laughing with the children. A short strongly built man in his early seventies with a flowing beard and a ready smile, Edhi is popularly called “Nana” (Grandfather) by the residents of “Edhi Homes”.
Despite his enormous fame and the vast sums of money that passes through his hands, Edhi adheres to a very simple and modest lifestyle. He and his family live in a two room apartment adjacent to the premises of the Foundation’s headquarter. Neither Edhi nor Bilquis receives any salary. They live on the income from government securities that Edhi bought many years ago to take care of their personal needs for the rest of their lives, thereby freeing them to devote single mindedly to their missionary work.
He shuns publicity for the fear of becoming haughty. As their credibility and fame grew and the name of Edhi became a household word, people started approaching him for becoming a chief guest on special occasions.
In an interview given to a journalist in Lahore in 1991, Edhi said,” I want to request the people not to invite me to social gatherings and inaugural ceremonies. This only wastes my time which is wholly devoted to the well being of our people.”
Although Edhi has a traditional Islamic background, he has an open and progressive mind on several sensitive social issues. He strongly supports the notion of working women. Of the 2,000 paid workers of the Edhi Foundation around 500 are women. They work in various capacities in-charges of Edhi centers, heads of maternity homes and dispensaries, and office workers. Moreover, several women volunteers help Edhi Foundation in fundraising. Edhi encourages women to do all sorts of work without differentiation.
Abdul Sattar Edhi
2000 Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace, and Fraternity among Peoples
In recognition of his lifelong unselfish work for the very poorest and for peace; for his untiring efforts in finding those who need care and taking care of those that nobody else cares for.
Founder of the Edhi Foundation, Karachi, Pakistan, for over forty years Edhi (*1928–†2016) has been working tirelessly in favor of the poorest and destitute. He has created an extremely developed network of aid units, both fixed and mobile, which have allowed humanitarian actions to take place also in other countries. He is regarded as a sort of Mother Teresa of Pakistan, albeit Muslim. Among humanitarian prizes, this is the best endowed in the world.
Abdul Sattar Edhi is a descendant of the Edhi family belonging to the Memons, an Islamic group living at the time in India. His father, Abdul Shakoor Edhi, was a commission agent in Bombay and the family lived in Bantva, Gujarat, India. Encouraged by his mother, Abdul Sattar Edhi as a small boy would help in a dispensary in the neighborhood to deliver medicines all over the village and to spot handicapped and destitute persons in need of help. This took much time from his school work and he didn’t attend school at all for a couple of years.
When the British were pulling out of India and the country split up, the Memons of emigrated to Pakistan, and the family ended up in Karachi when Edhi was 15 years old.
In 1951 Abdul Sattar Edhi bought from his savings a small shop in Mithadar and installed his dispensary that catered to everyone. Outside the dispensary, he put up a banner saying “Those who give charity are blessed, those who do not are also blessed.” Donors would get a receipt and promise to get the money back if they changed their minds. He would sell medicines cheaper than the market and hire a physician on a fixed salary. In the mornings he took up work in a doctor’s clinic as well as training in pharmacy and accountancy, while the rest of the day he worked for the dispensary that was never shut and where he was confronted with all kinds of human problems.
Concerned about the state of women in Pakistani society he added to the dispensary a maternity unit under the supervision of a female doctor and started training courses for nurses. It was in connection with the “Hong Kong Flu” epidemic in 1957 that he first received official recognition for his work. Soon after he had his first financial breakthrough when a businessman donated 20.000 rupees to the dispensary. Edhi immediately bought an old van that could be used as an ambulance and that came into constant use. In 1958 he inherited a large sum of money from his father which he invested to receive a monthly profit. Edhi himself led a very simple life and had no home outside the dispensary. He always refused government support as he considered he would then be using money that rightly belonged to the people.
In 1964, after a short spell as a Member of Parliament, he returned fully to the dispensary, taking on his mammoth task to represent the public as an ordinary citizen in the street.
In 1965 during the Indo-Pakistan War Edhi’s group was rushing to affected areas all over the city of Karachi, rescuing the impaired and burying the dead. When the war was over he married a young girl, Bilquise, who thereafter fully shared his life. Within four years they got three children and adopted another. In 1974 Edhi registered the Abdul Sattar Edhi Trust and established the Edhi Foundation.
After a serious accident with his ambulance, he extended his activities all over the country. Small Edhi booths, supplied with medical provisions started spreading. Centers began to operate under a plan to establish Trauma Centres every 100 kilometers and Rural Awareness Centres every 20 kilometers along the highways. Ambulances across the country were instructed to stop anywhere, and pick up any mentally handicapped and destitute person.
Soon 240 Edhi Centres were operating through eight administrative units of the country. Mithadar was the nerve center and all cities and ambulances were linked to it by VHF and HF base stations enabling Edhi to exercise control across the country. By this time the ambulance van had been replaced by a fleet of 500 ambulances all over the country, reaching out to its furthermost corner, providing a service without discrimination.
Edhi realized the need for an air ambulance service and a Piper aircraft was purchased. The US ambassador presented the foundation with a helicopter through US AID. In the mid 1990s, the fleet had grown to 5 helicopters, 5 aircraft, and up to 800 ambulances. By 1988 the foundation had established the largest burial service for unclaimed bodies. With the assistance of the church or the local temple, non-muslims were provided services according to their own beliefs. By 1990 over ten million people had been served and the foundation was assisted by 2.000 full time volunteers. Nevertheless, only a small administrative staff was required for an estimated ten thousand persons residing in Edhi homes.
In 1986 Edhi was awarded the prestigious Magsaysay Award by the Philippines government, and later, the USSR Peace Prize for his services during the Armenian earthquake.