I first heard of him about a month ago as my mother habitually read aloud her afternoon Urdu book. That day it was 'Kitabey Zindagi' (Book of Life) by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. My mother asked me if I knew who this man was, oblivious to the fact that I was not listening to her. "Which Edhi?" I replied irritatingly. My mother asked aloud again, "Abdul Sattar Edhi?"
Having never heard of him and to escape my mother's queries I immediately searched him online and was left startled thereafter. I read about him and was left amazed that such a man still exists today, and that too from a country most of us would least expect.
Abdul Sattar Edhi, affectionately called the 'Father Teresa of Pakistan', is a pioneer of the largest welfare system of Pakistan dedicated to providing services to the elderly, orphans, unwanted babies, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and the sick. He is the founder and chairperson of Edhi Foundation, which is one of the most respected philanthropic organizations of Pakistan. It provides various welfare services, some of which include homes for the destitute, baby cradles in which unwanted or illegitimate children may be left, prisoners' aid, public kitchens, graveyard services and animal shelters. It is difficult to imagine that a man who started with just one ambulance, a second hand van bought in the 1950's, today runs the world's largest volunteer ambulance service in the world, as recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. The Edhi Foundation is also the proud owner of twenty eight rescue boats, two airplanes and one helicopter.
Abdul Sattar Edhi, also known as Maulana Edhi, was born on January 1st 1928 in British India and moved to Pakistan with his family in 1947 after the partition. He spent most part of his childhood taking care of his paralysed and mentally ill mother who died when he was 19. It was his mother's teachings and sad demise that ultimately urged him to devote his life to alleviate the sufferings of those whose illnesses went untreated and were left in isolation and misery. Edhi says that his mother always urged him to spend half his pocket money on someone poor and punished him if he didn't. He says, "The first night she spent in the grave, I dedicated my life to the service of mankind".
This eighty-something, thin, fragile, white-bearded man wearing a Jinnah cap has faced many obstacles as a humanitarian, mainly due to the way he looks. Earlier, his passport was seized and he was detained at airports in Canada and USA for long hours. Commenting over such incidents, he said: "The only explanation I can think of is my beard and dress".
A devout Muslim, he says that no religion is higher than humanity and that serving humanity is the real jihad. Indeed, few must be aware that the body of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was killed by the al -Qaeda terrorists in 2002, was personally collected by Edhi and handed over to the US government. He is also one of the honorary board members of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, founded in memory of the slain journalist to promote cross cultural understanding.
Perhaps if more Muslims like Abdul Sattar Edhi are given attention by the mainstream media, the Muslim world will be able to do away with the stereotypes and fears associated with it that are getting increasingly nonsensical. Also, if more Maulvis (religious preachers) concentrated on good actions rather than mere holy preaching, things would shape out more positively.
Conferred with many prestigious national and international awards, the humanitarian services of Abdul Sattar Edhi go beyond Pakistan. He crosses all possible boundaries and does not discriminate on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, region and politics.
Edhi, along with his wife Bilquis, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service (often considered Asia's Nobel Prize) in 1986, which was his first international recognition. Few years later, the Government of Pakistan conferred Nishane-e-Imtiaz (Order of Excellence) upon him. He has also won a Peace Prize from USSR, Hamdan Award for Volunteers in Humanitarian Medical Services from the UAE and the International Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood from Italy. Few of his other recognitions are the Gandhi Peace Award from India, Peace Award from London, and Peace Award from South Korea. The list is still longer. It is hard to believe that this man, who does not have any formal education, even addressed the leaders of the most powerful countries at a G8 summit about poverty and human rights violations.
The humanitarian activities of the Edhi Foundation tell us a unique story of a man who dreamt of revolutionizing the existing welfare system in third world countries. In the documentary Mein Houn Pakistan (I Am Pakistan), his wife Bilquis says, "Mr Edhi had no money in his pockets but he used to dream big. People used to call him Sheikh Chilli (a famous Indian character known for day dreaming) but he used to say that he will create a huge network of ambulances in the country". Today, Edhi Foundation has not just made a mark for itself in Pakistan but in various countries around the world.
The Foundation provided aid to Afghan refugees from 1978 to 1988. It provided relief to the civil war victims in Lebanon in 1983. It reached out to the earthquake victims of Armenia (then USSR) in 1989 and North-western Iran in 1990. The Edhi Foundation also donated a whopping amount of $100,000 to Hurricane Katrina as well as $200,000 to the Bangladesh cyclone relief efforts respectively. The Foundation, which started in a small room purchased by Edhi after working as a street vendor, now boasts 335 centres across Pakistan. It also has offices in Nepal, Afghanistan, Japan, Bangladesh, USA, UK, Canada and Australia.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was also nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize which was ironically awarded to the EU "for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe". However, it did not really matter to a man who never sought fame and recognition and still lives in a small two bedroom apartment while owning not more than a few pairs of clothes…
Tehmina Durrani, a friend of Maulana Edhi as well as his biographer, said: "I recognised him as a role model for the world. A man who spoke of the hundred years ahead, instead of the next two. A man who conceptualised, created and sustained a welfare network that covered the length and breadth of a nation where every other institution was failing. A man who, without education, affluence and power, labours ceaselessly to eventually convert a third-world country into a welfare state".
In the documentary, Edhi says, "I am a faqir (monk). People think I am a mystic". For me, Abdul Sattar Edhi is neither of these. He is the greatest teacher alive in this era of poverty, violence and hypocrisy. One who has taught us that true revolution does not need a million people walking and shouting on a street but a man's deep and heartfelt commitment towards a cause.