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Pakistan Remembers Humanitarian Icon Abdul Sattar Edhi

  • Ayesha Tanzeem

He was called many names: Pakistan's Mother Teresa, a legendary humanitarian, an angel of mercy for whom even the Nobel Peace Prize was not a fitting tribute, according to Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel laureate; but he was also called an infidel, a sinner who encouraged immorality.

Abdul Sattar Edhi himself neither coveted the accolades nor responded to insults.

"If I take revenge, then God won't do it," Edhi jokingly told Bilquis Bano, his wife of 50 years, whenever she became angry at the allegations against him.

She was more than a spouse; she was a friend and the partner who helped him set up his charity empire. She was also the one who secretly sewed an extra pair of clothes in the same color when one of his only two pairs became too old and ragged.

FILE - Pakistan's humanitarian leader Abdul Sattar Edhi collects donations at a roadside in Peshawar, Pakistan, Aug. 2, 2010.

FILE - Pakistan's humanitarian leader Abdul Sattar Edhi collects donations at a roadside in Peshawar, Pakistan, Aug. 2, 2010.

"If he ever found clothes of the same color in garbage, he would hide them in the cupboard. If he found an old cap, he would save it," she said, describing how little her husband spent on himself.

He needed eyeglasses to read, but would never buy a pair or get his vision tested. Instead, he would try on glasses that came with the bodies his ambulances picked up almost daily, and eventually found a pair he liked.

"I can see with these," he had said.

Edhi might not have spent on himself, but he spent massively on the hundreds of thousands he helped over the years. His foundation, which he started almost six decades ago with no resources, today has an annual budget of $15 to $20 million, all of which comes from donations.

In a country where corruption is considered endemic, his name was synonymous with trust.

Help 24/7

The Edhi foundation's 335 centers around the country stay open 24/7 to handle emergencies and offer help to anyone who calls or knocks on their doors.

FILE - Volunteers of the Edhi Foundation escort the body of Pakistan's renowned social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi in an ambulance in Karachi, Pakistan, July 8, 2016.

FILE - Volunteers of the Edhi Foundation escort the body of Pakistan's renowned social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi in an ambulance in Karachi, Pakistan, July 8, 2016.

Another 17 Edhi shelters are home to thousands of mentally disabled people, abused women, orphans, and children abandoned by poor parents.

One of those children, 13-year-old Samreen, described how she came to an Edhi home in Islamabad with her younger brother more than six years ago.

"Our father married a second time and the new mom said, 'If they stay I will leave.' So our father left us in the bazaar. The police brought us here," she explained.

Since then, she has been living in the home, receiving an education, and looking forward to becoming an engineer when she grows up.

Others in the same place have no dreams, or at least no memory of them. Such is the case for the man brought to an Edhi shelter several months ago, who had amnesia after a bad traffic accident. When police handed him over, he was close to death, according to Shakeel Ahmed, the man in charge of the shelter. The Edhi home staff nursed him back to life and has been taking care of him since.

The most visible signs of Edhi's foundation around the country are its ambulances, racing across the busy streets, sirens blazing.

For many years, Edhi drove an ambulance himself. Today, his foundation has one of the largest fleets in the world — more than 1,500 ambulances. They pick up the bodies of the dead, take the injured to the hospital, and are usually the first ones to reach the site of a disaster, including the many bomb attacks Pakistan has suffered during the past decade.

Critics abound

Despite his numerous services to humanity, Edhi still managed to bring on the ire of the country's religious right. His crime, in their eyes, was service to all, without distinction of race, religion or gender, and without judgment.

FILE - Women light candles during a candlelight vigil in honor of philanthropst Abdul Sattar Edhi in Quetta, Pakistan, July 9, 2016.

FILE - Women light candles during a candlelight vigil in honor of philanthropst Abdul Sattar Edhi in Quetta, Pakistan, July 9, 2016.

What most irked some of the religious clergy was his decision to put baby swings outside his centers with signs that read, "Don't kill them, put them in the swing; the foundation will take care of them."

The swings were supposed to allow people to leave their unwanted children in a safe place. Previously, bodies of newborn babies were found in the trash. Afterward, the number of discarded baby bodies dropped significantly.

Once a baby is left in the swing, the Edhi center puts it up for adoption.

Some clerics accused Edhi of promoting immorality by allowing women to leave behind children who were born out of wedlock.

"He is using your money to bring up bastards," said one cleric, complaining the Edhi foundation is using people's money to provide medical treatment to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Equal treatment for all

That was Edhi, his staff said, someone who treated all humans equally.

"He believed in saving humanity, in saving anything alive," said Shakeel Ahmed, a member of Edhi’s staff. "Even if he saw a stray dog limping, he would bring it to one of his centers and tell us to bandage its leg."

When neighborhood boys went to Edhi’s wife and told her about a new fatwa against her husband by some cleric, she told them, "Give my regards to the maulvi saheb [imam] and tell him, don't worry ... we won't go to your heaven. We will go where the woeful go."

FILE - People attend the funeral for philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi at the National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan, July 9, 2016.

FILE - People attend the funeral for philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi at the National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan, July 9, 2016.

Edhi's public service sometimes got in the way of his family life. He never built a house for his family; his wife and children used to live with her mother, while he lived in a windowless room in his office.

"Whenever he came home, within five minutes he would get a phone call that there was an emergency and he had to leave," his wife said.

His children would sometimes take their lunch boxes to go eat with him in his office. Today, they look after his work along with his widow, who is determined to continue his tradition of charity and humanity.

"He has left a healthy tree for us that gives all kinds of fruits," she said. "It will continue giving."

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