Edhi, Abdul Sattar

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BIOGRAPHY of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilqis Bano Edhi

The line forms early outside the Abdul Sattar Edhi Trust in Karachi, Pakistan. All day people wait patiently to donate money, food, textiles and clothing; some bring live sheep and goats to be sacrificed and used to feed the destitute. These daily contributions in money and kind average US$2,000, reaching a high of US$5,000 during the peak season of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, when the number of donors increases and many must return and stand in line a second day to have their gifts accepted. Recently numerous cheques have been received from abroad. This voluntary outpouring of charitable giving reflects accurately the extent and reputation of the work performed over the past 35 years by ABDUL SATTAR EDHI and his wife BILQUIS EDHI.

ABDUL SATTAR EDHI was born in 1928 in Bantva, a village on the Kathiawar Peninsula, in Gujarat, Western India. He and his brother and two sisters grew up as members of the small Kutchi Memon Muslim community, a sect, many of whom are businessmen who trade through out South and Southeast Asia. When EDHI was a child his father, Haji Abdul Shakoor, was a broker in Bombay, dealing in grains and dried fruits; he spent only a few months of the year in Bantva. Haji Shakoor was deeply respected and often called upon to arbitrate business disputes. Not particularly devout, even though he had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, he raised his son to respect the traditional rites of Islam, and especially to observe its tenets regarding charity and the wellbeing of the community. Moreover, he cautioned young EDHI to give only to individuals, never to institutions, in order to ensure that help really reached those who needed it.

EDHI attended the village Gujarati-language school, and remembers being more interested in social history than in any other subject. Although both of his parents wanted him to have a good education, his school years were disrupted by the need to learn the brokerage business and by the partition of the subcontinent. His family moved from India to the new state of Pakistan in 1947, but suffered none of the horrors of flight or displacement common at that time. The Bantva Muslim community moved more or less intact to the Boulton Market area of Karachi, and as businessmenunlike farmers whose only wealth was landחthey were able to take their assets with them.

EDHI, who had become a textile broker at the tender age of 16, devoted several years to establishing himself in business in his new homeland. He continued his formal education on an intermittent basis but did not take his matriculation examination until 1968. During his early years in Karachi EDHI also helped edit the weekly Gujarati-language newspaper Volunteer, and a monthly entitled Message.

Two years after their arrival in Karachi EDHI’s mother, Hoor Bai, who had suffered poor health during most of his childhood, was partially paralyzed by a stroke; later she became mentally ill. Her sad condition and frequent pain made him very aware of suffering in general, and of that of the poor and indigent in particular. Since Pakistan was a new country and Karachi was crowded with thousands of refugees there was little care available; the city had only one public hospital and medicine was scarce.

In an attempt to provide medical care for their own people, a group of Bantva businessmen in 1950 raised funds and set up the Bantva Memon Dispensary in Boulton Market. The free dispensarythe only one in Karachiחwas initially open only in the evening when a doctor, who volunteered his services, was in attendance. EDHI, as a member of the committee and the guiding force behind the project, was asked to assume major responsibility for its operation.

Even at a young age EDHI had been determined to go into social service but knew that he must first be financially secure so that he and his family would not become charity cases themselves. He proved to be so successful as a textile broker and a wise investor that in three years his investments insured him a regular income. He was able, therefore, to give up business and devote himself fully to the dispensary.

From its inception EDHI wanted to broaden the outreach of the dispensary, making it available to anyone who needed medication, not just those from the village of Bantva. The other members of the committee disagreed with him; they wanted to maintain it as a service to their own community. The committee also disagreed with EDHIs management methods. Intolerant of inaction and indecision, EDHI frequently refused to wait for the full committee to make a decision; his position was that immediate needs required immediate action. Since EDHI was the one involved in the daily operations of the dispensary the committee finally agreed to turn the facility over to him. In his hands the Bantva Memon Dispensary became the Quami (national) Medical Brotherhood Dispensary. Donations from the wider Memon community increased dramatically and EDHI was able to expand the scope and activities of the dispensary itself.

The location remained the same, but the hours of service increased from early evening hours to all day. Shortly thereafter (1954) EDHI opened an orphanage and a maternity home for unwed mothers, and put appeals in the newspaper requesting that illegitimate babies be left on his doorstep rather than strangled or buried alive as was often the case.

Two years later, with money from donations, EDHI bought an old Hillman pick-up truck, learned to drive and converted it into an ambulance which was on call 24 hours a day. The police had occasionally brought vagrants to the dispensary, and he had become aware of the number of ill and abandoned people on the streets of the city. With his ambulance and his growing number of volunteers, EDHI went in search of the ill who had no transportation to the dispensary, the abandoned children, the elderly, and those lying by the roadside too sick or injured to move themselves. He also began bringing back the bodies of those who had died alone or whose remains had been discarded without burial.

One of the most sacred rites of Islam is proper burial. EDHI assumed the task of washing the dead, enshrouding the bodies, carrying them to the cemetery and burying them at his own expense if necessary.

As the activities of the “dispensary” thus increased, the need for space became acute. A second floor was built and became the home for abandoned babies. Almost immediately a 10-bed maternity hospital was added. In 1955 the second floor was enlarged to create a center for the elderly homeless. And in 1961 a second building in Boulton Market was purchased and converted into a hospital, with three wards and 60 beds. The basic structure of EDHIҒs life-work was now in place. His service to humanity was becoming recognized, and with recognition came both increased donations and more volunteers. The Quami Medical Brotherhood Dispensary became the Abdul Sattar Edhi Dispensary, and eventually the Abdul Sattar Edhi Trust, one of three basic organizations. The other two, which have been added recently, are the Abdul Sattar Edhi Foundation and the Edhi Ambulance Foundation. EDHI used his own name to identify the organizations because his name was becoming a national byword.

From the beginning the institutions themselves have enjoyed a high degree of respect. They are known as clean, well-organized places, where even young unmarried women can work without worrying about their reputations.

One of these young volunteers was BILQUIS USMAN. She, too, was born in Bantva (1946), and her family and EDHIs were acquainted. In 1947 her family, like most of the village, moved to Karachi. Usman, her father, who had a bicycle repair shop, died when she was only ten. Her mother Rabia Bai became a teacher in a private school and after eight years changed occupations to become a midwife- both highly respected professions for women. BILQUIS had a warm, happy childhood, in spite of her father’s death and her responsibility for her two younger brothers while her mother worked; she had many relatives close at hand. Her only real disappointment was that after attending the local Urdu-language school, Ronaq-e-Islam, she failed in her matriculation examinations and could not continue her education.

Since it was not incumbent upon her immediately to earn a living, and she had accompanied her mother on her midwifery rounds, BILQUIS volunteered at the Edhi Trust where she could help in birthing and was trained in first-aid. She worked as a volunteer for three years before, as she says, she “coaxed EDHI into marrying her.” On the contrary, EDHI responds, she was the first woman he had asked to merry trim who didn’t object to his bushy, long beard.

Their marriage, which took place in 1968, has been a very happy and fruitful one in spite of their 19-year age difference. The couple has four childrenҗKubra, a daughter born in 1969 and recently married to a cousin; Kuttab, a son born in 1971; Almas, a second daughter born in 1973, and son Faisal born in 1976. The three youngest children are still in school. BILQUIs’ mother has been living with the EDHIs since their marriage and has looked after the children, freeing BILQUIS to give her full time to her husband’s work.

To date none of the children have shown their parents’ concern for social work, even though their father is very keen they do so. BILQUIS, however, insists that if the children want to attend the university and follow other careers they should be allowed to: “if they become decent human beings it is enough; I don’t see many . . . in this world.”

Though BILQUIS may deplore the lack of decency and concern for one’s fellow man that she sees in her daily work, she nevertheless comments: “Our work is our life, take it away and we won’t be able to live.” And EDHI, dressed in his worn, rough cotton garb, agrees and adds: “People believe that I am mad. I agree with them for unless one doesn’t become mad and eliminate his sense of self, he can’t do this sort of work that puts him on call 24 hours of the day.

Charming and gentle in speech and manner, BILQUIS exudes an air of warmth and kindliness. Those who know her say “her compassion still flows as deep as ever, touching hundreds of lives and bringing a little caring into their tortured existences.”

As ABDUL SAITAR EDHIs reputation grew, there were inevitable, grumblings from government health authorities, private hospitals, and those who were merely jealous of his success. In order to safeguard the independence of his work EDHI, in 1971, had set up the Medina Trust. trust gave him the freedom to operate as he wished; he was answerable o no one. The title was changed in 1972 to the Abdul Sattar Edhi Trust, reflecting the increased public awareness of his name. He had discovered that if he appealed for help in his own name rather than in the impersonal name of the Medina Trustҗdonations came in much more quickly.

Also in 1971 EDHI purchased a third building in the Boulton Market complex. The ground floor is now used primarily for the storage of donated equipment that is lent without chargecanes, crutches, wheelchairs, bedpans, folding beds, oxygen tanksחand such expendable items as clothing, blankets and cloth. Since EDHI had been a textile broker and was known and respected in the trade, the mills have been generous in their contributions. The second and third floors of the building were used as quarters for the “discarded people” and given the felicitous name of Apna Ghar ( our house). In 1972 and 1973 two more buildings were acquired in Boulton Market. They were given by a private donor to further EDHIs work. One building was eventually sold in order to renovate and expand the first.

An example of EDHIҒs complete dedication to helping in any and all emergencies was his work with the refugees from East Pakistan during he Bangladeshi “war of liberation.” Beginning in March 1971 thousands of non-Bengali Muslims fled from East to West Pakistan. Many were women, children and the elderly, and many were without relatives or money. EDHI established a camp for the refugees and provided housing, food, clothing and medicines. A great effort was made to find jobs for those able to work.

When a far greater influx arrived in November they, too, were cared for. And aid did not cease with the end of the war in December, but was still continuing in 1975 for those who had yet to find permanent housing and jobs.

For all of his projects EDHI puts his faith completely in the providence of God. “If Allah wishes [me to do this work] he will surely give success to me and fulfill my schemes,” he stated in his report on his 25 Years of Service [1949-1974]. But ever human, at the bottom of his brochure he added: “Forgive Me. My mood is sometimes off and I am speaking harshly due to pressure of round-the-clock service, sleeplessness and shortage of funds. I beg forgiveness from all persons for this my fault. ” Among Pakistanis he is popularly known as Maulana, or revered one, although he disclaims the appellation himself.

On December 29, 1974 an earthquake struck in the Swat and Hazara districts of northeastern Pakistan, causing great devastation. EDHI heard the report on the radio at 8 p.m. The next morning he was on a plane for Pindi, the closest airport, with a stock of medicines, and cash to buy food and other items that might be needed. By bus, jeep and helicopter he proceeded at his own expense to reach the quake area. During the eight days he was in the region he traveled to villages in the rugged mountains that had not yet been reached by government aid personnel. On his return to Karachi he collected 250 blankets, 13,700 pieces of woolen clothing (it was bitter winter weather) and other items.

BILQUIS accompanied him on his return trip with the clothing and food he had collected. She planned to serve as a nurse, but the men of the area refused her aid, insisting “women must remain in their homes. ” She was forced to return to Karachi the following day.

Speaking of that time of devastation EDHI reminds people: “those who are prosperous today may become destitute tomorrow. . . when we are enjoying our good time we should help someone, so that somebody may help us in our difficult times.” His argument is very persuasive, as the ever increasing gifts of money and in kind indicate. His donations come mainly from the middle class.

EDHI has preserved his financial independence over the years. He consistently refuses government money, and purchased land from the city of Karachialthough at a nominal priceחrather than accepting it as a gift. He wants to be beholden to no one. And he wants no one to give to him who is not completely satisfied with his work. In his brochures he always inserts an offer to refund the amount of the donation if someone is dissatisfied. EDHI keeps no accounts and does not give donors a tax exemption certificate. At the same time he warns people not to give funds to anyone who approaches them in his name: he has never authorized anyone to ask for money. In sticking to these conditions he has not only carried out his father’s precept of giving help only to individuals, but has added his own condition of accepting help only from individuals, and only from individuals who willingly seek him out.

EDHI has a schedule of suggested donations in money and kind that relate to major Muslim feast or holy days. For example, he lists the amount necessary to pay for the sacrifice of a goat for Fid-ul-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan, or for a cow for Eid-ul-Azha, the festival of sacrifice.

EDHI is aware that his policy of giving freely to those in need can create problems of dependency. For this reason he has encouraged BILQUIS to emphasize the concept of self-help in her work with women and girls.

BILQUIS had assumed responsibility for the operation of the Nursing Home (maternity hospital) when she married EDHI. As the number of women needing its services rapidly increased, she was faced with a serious problem: many of the homeless women were refusing to leave after they had given birth, thereby taking up much needed space. They were also becoming totally dependent on the institution. Consequently BILQUIS began making the women pay for their room and board by tending to the abandoned infants and elderly in the hospital’s care. Different livelihood programs were introduced to train the women for independence sewing, midwifery, first-aid, and domestic service and efforts were made to find firms, such as pharmaceutical companies, which would hire the women as packagers. A nurses’ training program was also developed. Every attempt was made to convince the women that they could take responsibility for their own lives and must prepare for the future. The Nursing Home now has 100 beds and an average of 300 deliveries a month.

EDHI, himself, is deeply committed to improving the condition of women and helping them become self-sufficient. He believes that men, provided they are able-bodied, can always work hard and survive. But women, he recognizes, are not as fortunate, particularly in places like Karachi where poverty and crowded conditions (the population increased from 400,000 to 1,800,000 between 1947 and 1986) have eroded family values and forced untrained women to survive as best they can. He is convinced, however, that once women are trained they will be ideal workers because, he believes, “they are not as corrupt as men.’

On four hectares of land in the Mithadar suburb of Karachi the EDHIs recently broke ground for a House for Shelterless Girls, and an Institute where the young women will be taughtalong with simple skillsחto become qualified nurses, midwives and teachers. EDHI is quoted as saying: “If a revolution [in women’s rights] is to be brought about, it will have to be staged by women and I have formulated a specific scheme for this purpose. After graduating from the Institute and getting some experience as teachers, we will send them to selected rural areas. Their mission will be to awaken the women there and through education, release them from the bondage of ancient, stifling traditions.”

Besides the increase in the number of women needing shelter or care, there has also been an increase in the number of elderly and mentally incompetent persons who have been turned out or abandoned by family and relatives. Apna Ghar has been expanded in size and number of locations as a shelter for these people, and here too, as much as possible, residents are encouraged to be self-sufficient and repay their care by working in the buildings or on the grounds. Given their physical and mental condition, however, EDHI acknowledges their help is limited.

In 1978 Apna Ghar moved to a much larger facility in the Sohrab Goth suburb and the old building was remodeled to provide a large outpatient department. In the original Boulton Market location there are now five buildings, one of which houses both the Abdul Sattar Edhi Trust and the Abdul Sattar Edhi Foundation.

From one dispensary open 5 hours a day, there are now three dispensaries and maternity homes at three sites offering 24-hour service to 150,000 patients each month. The Center for the Shelterless run by BILQUIS has cared for over 1,000 abandoned children, finding adoptive parents for many of them. (She has been successful in placing a number of children with professional families and one child, she confides, is “in the Abu Dhabi palace!”)

From the original Hillman pick-up, there are now 80 fully equipped ambulances, with ambulance service centers in Multan (outside of Karachi), and 100 miles apart along the National Highway between Karachi and Peshawar. EDHI hopes to establish an ambulance center every 25 miles along the highway since many people lose their lives after accidents because they are not hospitalized in time.

A drug rehabilitation center in Sohrab Goth is EDHIs most recent concern; the need for such a center has intensified because of the stream of cheap drugs flowing through Pakistan from Afghanistan in consequence of the Afghan war. EDHI has been disappointed, however, by h s lack of success with drug addicts. One of the reasons, he says, is the attitude of the addicts’ relatives. They hinder treatment with too much sympathy and take the patients home too soon. EDHI does not believe in a medical cure for drug addiction; he considers that will power, rather than medication, is the answer. Therefore he treats addicts like all other inmates, giving them the same food and the same freedom of movement within Apna Ghar.

Over the years many people have sought out EDHI in an attempt to find missing relatives among the people who have been brought in from the streets. Consequently EDHI has added photography to his talents. In 1982 he bought four instant cameras and has ever since been photographing the faces of the dead that are brought him for burial (he has provided shrouds and burial for some 18,000 bodies), and of the mental cases among the destitute. He places their photographsҗand photocopies of their identity cards if they have themon a bulletin board outside the hospital at his headquarters in Karachi. The photos remain in place for three months.

EDHIגs love for people extends to animals. He has started a shelter for sick animals at Apna Ghar and encourages the patients to care for them. He plans to build an animal hospital on his newest plot of land beside the National Highway. Some of the mental patients who will be lodged there will be given charge of the animals. EDHI has also begun a service in Karachi to test the eyesight of school children and provide them with glasses.

While EDHI became known for offering care to any who came to him, his name has increasingly become identified with an immediate response to natural and man-made disasters. Edhi ambulances, accompanied by Edhi volunteers appear promptly at the site of such catastrophes. EDHI made news in 1976 when an industrial building in the center of Karachi collapsed, killing 105 persons. Prime Minister Bhutto arrived at the site to see what should be done to remove the dead and rescue the living, and was informed that MAULANA EDHI had the situation well in hand. Shortly thereafter Bhutto offered EDHI Rp.500,000 for foundation use, but EDHI declined it saying, “if I take money from you the government], I am answerable to you.”

EDHI, however, responds quickly to requests made by the government. Recently he was asked for his help in rescuing 25 young medical students isolated on a river island by the exceedingly strong currents. With his volunteers EDHI worked through the night. Aged 57, he nevertheless tied a rope around his waist and personally swam out to the island, helping take off the young men, one by one.

EDHI responds equally fast to foreign disasters. At the suggestion of Prime Minister Zia he traveled to Bangladesh in 1976 to give advice on aid measures after a devastating cyclone hit that country. On his own initiative he traveled to Ethiopia in 1985. After viewing the situation there he arranged for large sums of money to be sent to institute relief measures in that drought and war devastated country. He has also visited Sri Lanka and Beirut, taking with him supplies and expertise in the logistics of coping with emergencies. As a result of this work he is receiving increased donations from abroad. Ideally, EDHI believes, all international relief measures should be carried out through private philanthropic bodies since governments have political ambitions and are tempted to use relief measures for such ends.

EDHI handles all the financial aspects of the Edhi Trust and Edhi foundations. No money can be drawn without his signature or that of BILQUIS. His total budget for operating expenses in 1985 was rupees 14,000,000 (roughly US$820,000) and his budget for construction of new facilities was Rs.21,500,000; administrative expenses, including staff salaries, are between five and seven percent. His anticipated expenditure for capital outlay in 1987 is US$5,000,000. At present, the trust has over Rs.400,000 set aside for the expansion of Apna Ghar and for construction of another house on six hectares recently purchased from the government at Karachi at the nominal price of Rs. 21 per square meter. The new facility will house the mentally retarded and the crippled childrenin separate wings. When possible EDHI feels it important to separate those suffering from different disabilities. Extensions of Edhi Trust facilities are planned for Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad.

Because of the general respect in which he is held, EDHI in 1982 was nominated by Zia to the national parliamentחMajlis-e-Shoorawhere he served, reluctantly, for three years. He refused to be away from his work for more than three days at a time, and when attending the Majlis, confined himself to the problems of charitable institutions and the poor. He was listened to when he spoke, but he is not sanguine about the impact of his remarks.

A few years ago the Edhi Foundation was set up to divide the responsibilities of the Edhi Trust, but the spheres of responsibility have not yet been clearly delineated. The probable division will be between those facilities and programs for males and those for women and children. The advantage of a foundation is its ability to generate income and invest funds for future needs; a trust on the other hand must spend what it receives. For example, in the case of the Edhi Ambulance Foundation EDHI is able to rent out ambulances which are not in use and bank the money earned, thus lessening the need for future funding. New donations can be directed to new outreach programs. In other words, a well-managed foundation can outlast its founder; a trust may die with its originator. EDHI is preparing for the future. The US$20,000 Magsaysay Award will be invested in the Edhi Foundation.

There are two ironies in EDHIגs success. Although enjoined by his father to give charity only to individuals, EDHI himself heads the largest charitable institution in Pakistan, one which in fact pioneered soliciting donations through pamphlets and advertisementsalthough always requiring contributions be made in person or by check. And second, he has become too successful and well-known. He is besieged by foreign and domestic visitors and journalists who want to be shown what the EDHIs have accomplished; EDHI would rather work.

EDHI is a liberal thinker who is putting into effect many programs new to Pakistan, but he is careful never to take any steps contrary to the precepts of Islam. In all his work he is fully supported by BILQUIS. The couple lives simply, and both believe there is no nobler profession than service to humanity. Their peace of mind, they say, comes from being in harmony with themselves and with God.

September 1986

Abdul Sattar Edhi Trust. Solicitation Brochures and Pamphlets Karachi 1974-1986.

Ali, Nazija Syet. “Angels of Mercy,“She. Karachi. N.d.

Ansari, Azmat. “Maulana with a Mercy Mission,” Morning News Magazine. Karachi. August 8, 1986.

______. “Social Worker with Missionary Zeal,“Dawn Overseas Weekly. Karachi. N.d.

Dawn. Karachi. May 15, 21; July 7, 20, 1985.

Jhumra, M. Bashir A. “גMaulana Edhi: Karachi’s Soft-Spoken Saint,” The Rotarian. September 1980.

“Foundation for Stranded Person. Suggested by Sattar Edhi,” The Leader. Karachi June 29, 1986.

Wates, Oliver. “Karachi’s ‘Angel of Mercy.”’ Hongkong Standard. February 18, 1987.

Interviews with Abdul Sattar Edbi and Bilquis Edbi, and with persons acquainted with them and their work.