Abdul Sattar Edhi: the hero of the downtrodden

Abdul Sattar Edhi, a legendary charity worker known for his asceticism, has created a charitable empire out of nothing, masterminding Pakistan's largest welfare organization. Today, Abdul Sattar Edhi is revered by many as a national hero. No Pakistani since Jinnah has commanded such reverence. Not many Pakistanis inspire the kind of unmitigated respect and affection among their compatriots than does Abdul Sattar Edhi. The sentiment cuts across divisions of creed, class and ethnicity — because over the course of his charity work, this octogenarian has proved time and again that all that has ever mattered to him is the common humanity, the thread that binds all humans together as one single race. He passed away on 8th July 2016, creating a vacuum that would be not easy to fill.

Edhi was born in 1928 in Gujarat of the British India. But he and his family were forced to flee for their lives in 1947 when the division of India and creation of Pakistan inspired terrible communal tensions: millions were killed in mob violence and ethnic cleansing. This was the moment Edhi, finding himself penniless on the streets of Karachi, set out on his life's mission. When he was in his twenties, he set up a small medical centre of his own, sleeping on the cement bench outside his shop so that even those who came late at night could be served.

Sixty years ago, he stood on a street corner in Karachi and begged for money for an ambulance, raising enough to buy a battered old van. In it, he set out on countless life-saving missions.  He would hurtle round the province of Sindh in his poor man's ambulance, collecting dead bodies, taking them to the police station, waiting for the death certificate and, if the bodies were not claimed, burying them himself. In 1957 Edhi took it upon himself to set up a tent hospital to look after the victims of a flu outbreak, and this went on to become Pakistan’s most impressive social enterprise. Gradually, Edhi set up centers all over Pakistan. He diversified into orphanages, homes for the mentally ill, drug rehabilitation centres and hostels for abandoned women. He fed the poor and buried the dead. His compassion was boundless. Family and domestic issues are also part of the Edhi's concerns. Baby cradles are set up at Edhi centres so that unwanted babies can be left in safety.

 Edhi's autobiography, published in 1996, records that he recovered stinking cadavers "from rivers, from inside wells, from road sides, accident sites and hospitals… When families forsook them, and authorities threw them away, I picked them up… Then I bathed and cared for each and every victim of circumstance.” Over the time, Abdul Sattar Edhi became the founder of the Edhi International Foundation, a private organization that funds relief efforts in Pakistan and abroad. The Edhi Foundation is now Pakistan’s largest welfare organization - it runs schools, hospitals and ambulance services across the country, often plugging gaps in services which the state simply fails to provide. The Foundation also facilitates emergency medical assistance.

Through several decades of Pakistan’s tumultuous history, Abdul Sattar Edhi had been the one constant: providing relief to traumatized survivors of catastrophes both natural and manmade, picking up the wounded, tenderly bathing bodies too mutilated for even family members to handle. His charitable work, under the umbrella of the large Edhi Foundation, had also taken him on disaster relief missions elsewhere in the world.

Abdul Sattar Edhi gained international recognition for his humanitarian work. In 2000, the Italian government awarded Edhi its Balzan Peace Award. Edhi also addressed the leaders of the world's richest countries at the Group of 8 Summit, speaking about poverty and human rights abuses. The Edhi International Foundation has been called the largest and best organized social welfare system in Pakistan and in the Third World. Through his organization, Abdul Sattar Edhi gave the world a vision for implementing humanitarian aid.

The story of Edhi coincided with the history of the Pakistan state. He articulated Jinnah's vision of a country which, while based on Islam, nevertheless offered a welcome for people of all faiths and sects. The 84-year-old exemplary man lived in the austerity that had been his hallmark all his life. He used to wear blue overalls and a Jinnah cap, so named because it was the head gear of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Content with just two sets of clothes, he slept in a windowless room of white tiles adjoining the office of his charitable foundation. Sparsely equipped: it had just one bed, a sink and a hotplate. His tiny room could be accessed directly off an alley in a Karachi slum and had space for only a few desks for the handful of people who manage a sprawling, countrywide charity empire of more than 1,200 ambulances, hundreds of medical centres, graveyards and an adoption service for abandoned children. Its minivan ambulances are a common sight across Pakistan, particularly in the aftermath of all-too-frequent terrorist bombings.

Edhi wass a man of principle and he never allowed his Foundation and himself to fall in compromising situation vis-à-vis others. Edhi stayed away from any political inclination: all tendencies, be they Rightists, Leftists, Centrists, Liberals, Conservatives, Islamists or Extremists - all have high respect for him. Whenever his organization was in need of fund, he would never knock the door of anybody to solicit donation. He would rather stand on the footpath with his charity bowl in which by-passers would voluntarily put their money at their own free will. Those who believed in Edhi’s mission would walk in to his office and make donation in millions of rupees. Edhi had consistently resisted to several requests from foreign NGOs who wanted to affiliate with Edhi Foundation so as to use it as a model or brand. Edhi proudly relied on his Pakistani resources. Thousands of orphans and destitute who have been brought up in Edhi centres over the last six decades constitute a formidable army of volunteers and social workers for the Edhi Foundation. They affectionately called their benefactor by the name of “Abbu” (Father). One whisper was sufficient to mobilise thousands of men and women across Pakistan for the noble cause of Edhi.

The legendary and one of the most respected personality of the country had faced kidney issues earlier and doctors declared he would have to go through dialysis for the rest of his life. Although, the procedure of dialysis had been delivered in order to make him stay healthy, his condition got deteriorated since the beginning of this year.  In June of this year, the former president Asif Zardari offered to have him flown abroad for treatment. The philanthropist declined the offer, indicating that he preferred to receive treatment in his own country, among his own people. He expired his last breath in his homeland, to which he proudly used to refer “I am Pakistan”.

Abdul Sattar Edhi gave up everything to devote his life to helping Pakistan's poorest. From standing on the foot paths to beg for the poor, to establishing Pakistan's biggest network of shelter homes and ambulance service, he was a living example of a selfless journey dedicated to the service of mankind. His philanthropic services, including shelters for the needy, the orphans, the mentally disabled, the unwanted babies and the abandoned or disowned fathers and mothers as well as his vast countrywide ambulance network, cater to those whom the state has historically neglected. Bringing a measure of comfort to these disenfranchised people had been the purpose of his life. For the common Pakistani, Edhi has long been a national treasure, that rarest of individuals who shunned a comfortable existence and instead dedicated himself to creating something akin to a welfare-net for the nation’s poor. Many would have wished that the epic achievement of Edhi ought to have crowned him with a Nobel Prize. But that did not matter to him as he already reigned supreme in the hearts of millions. He was the hero of the downtrodden. Even after his death, his last generosity was fulfilled by his family by donating his eyes to two blind as per pledges given in his will. For his unparalleled services for the well-being of the lesser privileged, Abdul Sattar Edhi was bestowed with a state funeral and was given a guard of honour and a 19-gun salute by the Pakistan Army before his body was laid to rest in Edhi village.


Century Welfare Association

Let Our Deeds Speak For Us.

Founded January 1969