Taking no Sides, a Lesson from the Edhi Foundation
Politics are complex and become more so when you begin adding the differences in cultural perspectives, religious affiliations, ideologies and the demographics of location. We have become accustomed as a people, to comparing the politics in different regions to our own, deciding for foreign entities the most favorable way to govern their countries, whether or not we know the first thing about them or their problems. Somehow, we seem to believe it’s our responsibility to install the democratic vote and persuade developing countries to adopt the commercial ventures of Western enterprise.
For too many countries, our intervention has seemed more like an invasion into life styles that had once been peaceful, into value systems that have suddenly disappeared in value, into evolving social system that have been interrupted in its progress than like a call for liberation. Instead of stability, they are thrown into restlessness and confusion. Among the countries torn apart with inner turmoil and riddled with border disputes, is Pakistan.
Pakistan rarely makes the headlines. General knowledge is that its northern presence separates India from Afghanistan. Its population is primarily Muslim and it has been known to shelter the Taliban. It’s not particularly feared. Even though it is engaged in both internal and external border conflicts, it hasn’t posed a direct threat to Western countries. In fact, it’s considered an ally, even though it is bombed by US drones on a daily basis.
Less understood are certain features of Pakistan’s history. With the “Independence of India Act” of 1947, the British Empire split the northern area of India into modern day Pakistan, leaving two independent countries; the largely Hindu population of India, and Muslim dominant Pakistan. Over two million people migrated between the two borders with the separation and over one hundred thousand died during the inter-religious upheavals between the two countries. A Time for Kindness
It’s within the heat of turmoil, as the two newly independent countries struggled to establish their governments, their leaders, and proceeded to engage in a mutual ethnic cleansing that rivaled the horrors of Nazi Germany, that our story begins. It’s not a story that tries to make sense out of the violent upheaval or take sides with any particular warring faction, just one that illustrates courage, faith and kindness against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was born in 1928, in what is now known as Gujarat, west India. His exposure to human suffering came early. His mother was in poor health. By the time Edhi was eleven, she was feeling the ravaging effects of diabetes, as well as a paralysis that left her completely handicapped. The young boy devoted his waking hours caring for her, but her condition did not improve. Despite her debilitating health, she had a strong determination to teach her son compassion for the less fortunate. According to the stories concerning Edhi’s early childhood, each day she gave the boy two paisas, one for himself and one for someone less fortunate. In a country torn apart by religious and political turmoil, resulting in millions of refugees, it wasn’t hard for him to find someone less fortunate.
However, what had begun as a simple practical decision to create two separate countries with two separate religious bases became an inexorable machinery uprooting and weeding out all those who did not comply to the majority of that region. By the time he was nineteen, the young Muslim was also forced to flee the country and settle in Pakistan.
The conditions in Pakistan were by no means better than those he had left behind. Infants were abandoned by the road sides and corpses were left out in the open, their decomposition unheeded and apparently unnoticed. Jobs in the city of Karachi, where his family settled, were scarce. Abdul Sattar Edhi spent his first few years earning a livelihood as a street vendor, selling pencils and match boxes. The desire to be of service to others, however, had not left him.
Although he had received no formal education, Edhi was highly intelligent and perceptive. He realized a crucial need for more medical assistance to the district, and began saving money to open a charitable clinic. His medical education was entirely voluntary, and perhaps augmented by the skills he had learned in nursing his mother. He became friends with a medical doctor, learned to assist him in his practice, and spent his nights on the concrete floor outside the clinic, making himself available to anyone who needed his help at any time.
In 1951, he opened a tiny dispensary in one of Karachi’s poorer districts, Mithador. His main priority was to help the poor and the needy. When in 1957, a major flu epidemic broke out in the city of Karachi, it was Abdul Sattar Edhi who took control over the crisis. Setting up tents on the outskirts of the town, he began distributing free immunizations. Public support for his efforts was enormous. As funds began pouring in, his charitable practice grew from one tiny corner of a complex, to owning the entire building. Here he established the Edhi Foundation, which continues to serve people in need and is completely supported by public donations.
One of Edhi’s first achievements was an ambulance service. It was not an ambulance detail in the ordinary sense of the word. His service didn’t just transport patients in need of emergency medical care, it bravely arrived in times of conflict, picking up the dead and wounded during enemy fire. It was also used for picking up runaway or destitute children and giving them safe housing. It is now a fleet of four hundred and it is considered one of the largest and best organized ambulance services in the world.
He needed the whole building and more for the size of his dream. He set up a free maternity center and a nursing school. When he began expanding the number of clinics, he included mental health facilities and homes for the physically handicapped.
What he has accomplished in the sixty plus years since he first hit the streets selling match boxes has been amazing. The Edhi foundation is now the largest charitable institution in Pakistan. It runs over 300 clinics, 2000 ambulances throughout the country, eight hospitals in Karachi alone, mobile clinics and a cancer hospital. His foundation contains a legal aid department and free services and doctor visits for inmates. He is responsible for the building of orphanages, adoption centers, blood banks, maternity centers and shelters for children and battered women.
How he has done this is astounding. His giant network of care services is completely public funded. He receives no government grants, no gifts from political or religious organizations. He insists that the foundation remain completely independent, assessing the needs of the individual based solely on the immediate distress. Edhi not only concerns himself with the protection of women, but their potential to generate independent income. He recognizes their abilities as capable workers, providing education and training in a number of professional positions, as well as providing shelter and counseling for abuse victims.
Portrait of the Man
“I had accepted at the onset that charity was distorted and completely unrelated to its original concept. Reverting to the ideal was like diverting an ocean of wild waters. Another major obstacle in the promotion of welfare was exposed… the disgust of man toward mankind. There was only one expression, one reaction from everyone… cringing. We could not reduce suffering unless we rise above our own senses… cringing was the first and greatest obstacle that blocked our way, the most brutal, but the most understandable”.
-Abdul Sattar Edhi
You would not know he was a great man if you simply passed him in the street. In fact, if you belonged to a paranoid Christian community, you might suspect him of being in league with terrorists. In 2006, he was detained in Toronto for sixteen hours. He was met by officials at the John F. Kennedy airport in 2008, where he was interrogated for eight hours, during which time his documents and passport were seized. In 2009, he was refused entry into Gaza by the Egyptian authorities. When asked what he believed the reason might be for his frequent border detentions, he answered it could be his beard and clothes.
Abdul Sattar Edhi keeps only two sets of clothing. He dresses in traditional Muslim attire. His long beard has turned gray over the years. He travels and lives humbly, refusing a salary and spending only what it takes to survive. Your key to his greatness might only come if you sat down for a meal with him, or drew him into conversation. He is considered the greatest humanitarian that nobody knows; except in the areas where his principles have had a direct effect on the social well-being of the community.
The community has not been limited to Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation provided aid to New Orleans following the hurricane of 2005, and has run relief operations in Africa, the Mid East, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus region; a mountainous area located between Europe and Asia. He was awarded the prestigious Magasay award by the Philippines in 1986, the Balzan peace award by Italy in 2000 and a peace prize by Russia for services during the 1988 Armenian earthquake disaster. He was recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 by the Pakistan Government.
A moving documentary titled, “This Bird Walks” carries you through one of the aspects of Edhi’s social services; the life of the ambulance driver and the shelter for run-away and lost children. It focuses primarily on one young boy who struggles with his own evolving maturity, seeks to answer moral questions and discover where he truly belongs. It takes a candid view of the boy’s interactions and his deeply spiritual nature.
It also follows the rounds of the ambulance driver as he divides his time between picking up the dead and reuniting children with their families. The ambulance creeps through crowded thorough-fares, alive with bicycles, pedestrians and street side stalls to tiny apartments huddled close together, to sometimes joyful reunions with families, to reproofs and recriminations. It travels through dark, empty streets, the wastes of living flapping by the sides of the road, ruins of concrete buildings crumbling into the dust. It reveals a Pakistan that is despairing yet hopeful, a culture ruled by gentleness under the rumbling layers of discontent.
Under the highly critical eye of global affairs, we have a tendency to focus on the government of a country instead of the society. We judge its spiritual growth by our own religious standards. We measure morality based on our own perceptions. We view the differences in ethnicity, cultural identification and life styles as obstacles in understanding the individual. As human beings, we’re all wired to the same basic human needs. Beyond food, water, and shelter, there is the broken fabric of good health to be mended. There are also broken hearts waiting for someone to pick up the pieces. We need the strength of others to overcome our fears, communications to drive away loneliness, consolation for our grief. Suffering is Universal. It recognizes no borders, no age, no social status, no gender.
Pakistan is a beautiful country, with some of the highest mountains in the world, forests, lakes, rivers, sweeping plateau’s and deserts. It has a rich diversity of indigenous plant and wildlife. It’s abundant in natural resources. It also has a population in excess of 160 million people and the eighth largest standing army in the world in terms of full-time service.
It is the second largest Muslim country, after Indonesia, and the only Muslim county to be declared a nuclear power. After years of internal and external conflict, Pakistan struggles with terrorism, poverty, illiteracy and corruption. It continues to clash with India, yet its message is progressive.
While fiercely stating its independence, its policies have been of pursuing mutual beneficial interests, the sovereign equality of states and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. It has been a leader in scientific breakthroughs with significant contributions to the medical field and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for its discovery of Electroweak Interaction. Although it’s a nuclear power, only three percent of its energy comes from nuclear power plants. Its most dominant energy resources are hydroelectric and thermal energy.
It has an active space research program and is one of only a small handful of countries with an active research center in Antarctica. In recent years, the tourist industry has viewed Pakistan favorably, voting it one of the least racist country in the world. It has an extremely rich and ancient history, with civilizations dating back to three thousand years BCE. It joined the rise of the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great, and a succession of several other cultural changes before the incorporation of the last great empire, the Mughals, who ruled from 1526 -1857. The Mulghal empire left behind a legacy of highly developed Persian literature and culture.
While the Western world gazes nervously at the conflicts that rise through the Mideast, Asia and Africa, wondering what its role should be and how to resolve differences, perhaps it should take some lessons from the Edhi Foundation. Don’t worry about the manner in which a country shall govern itself or the religion it chooses to follow. Just care about the integral needs of the people; shelter them from violence, feed them when they’re hungry, give them hope that somebody is concerned for their well-being. It’s the voices of people like Abdul Sattar Edhi that should be heard; voices that say, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe. What matters is, are you in pain? Do you need assistance? It’s voices like this that will create a bridge of understanding between all countries and political divisions.
Karla Fetrow: The Edhi Foundation presents an enlightened view of charity; one without boundaries, religious or political agendas, only the promotion of the common welfare for all.