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September 30, 2014 | Dhul-Hijjah 6, 1435
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IslamiCity > Articles > From Humanitarian to a Nation
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Starting in 1951 with a tiny dispensary in Karachi's poor Mithadar neighborhood, Edhi has steadily built up a nationwide organization ..
Audio From Humanitarian to a Nation

From Humanitarian to a Nation
12/5/2004 - Social - Article Ref: SW0412-2541
Number of comments: 19
Opinion Summary: Agree:19  Disagree:0  Neutral:0
By: Richard Covington
Saudi Aramco World* -

Children playing at the Edhi School

In a room nearby, a teacher is conducting a class in Urdu, Arabic and counting for around a dozen children three to six years old, some of whom have Down's syndrome. Next door, a female doctor is showing 10 aspiring nurses how to take blood tests; it's part of a six-month course that will lead to their certification as nurse's aides.

"I tell destitute women who come to the centers that they can learn nursing here and later earn their own money as nurses and midwives," Edhi explains back downstairs in his office. So far, around 1500 women have received this training.

Edhi's own passion for healing dates back to his childhood. At age 11, he was obliged to care for his mother, who was paralyzed with a severe diabetic condition. "I bathed her, changed her and fed her," he recalls in his 1996 autobiography, A Mirror to the Blind. "Taking care of my mother made me ponder the misery of others who suffered; from that time on, I began to think of how I could help them, and to dream of building hospitals and a village for the handicapped."

Born in 1928 in Bantva, a small Indian town of 25,000 inhabitants in Gujarat state, he was "not what I would call an obedient child," he admits with a grin. A natural leader, when he was not prodding other kids to join him in stealing corn and fruit from wealthy farmers, he was organizing impromptu circuses and performing gymnastic feats for the neighbors. Although his father brokered textiles and other goods and provided the family with a middle-class income, both of Edhi's parents instilled in him the importance of simplicity and frugal living.

"Every day before school, my mother would give me two paisa and say, 'Spend one paisa on yourself and give the other away,'" Edhi remembers. "When I came home, she would ask me where I had given away my one paisa. It was her way of creating an awareness in me of the need for social welfare."

At the same time he began caring for his mother, he also developed a habit of saving, putting aside one rupee for every five he earned working at a fabric shop after school. This thriftiness served him well, prompting him to gradually acquire government securities. Even now, Edhi takes no salary, choosing instead to live parsimoniously on the interest from these securities.

In 1951, four years after the family moved to Karachi following the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, the 23-year-old Edhi used some of his savings to buy a tiny shop, less than three meters (10') on a side, inside what is now the clinic building. Together with a doctor who taught him the basics of health care, he set up a free dispensary, and he persuaded several friends to help him add free literacy classes. To be available at all times, he slept on a cement bench outside the dispensary.

In 1957, a virulent flu epidemic swept through Karachi. Edhi reacted with unselfish daring, using his own money to erect tented camps on the city's outskirts where people received free immunizations. After the epidemic was brought under control, grateful residents chipped in to buy the rest of the Mithadar dispensary building, enabling Edhi to create a free maternity center and nursing school.

Over the years that followed, Edhi realized that Karachi desperately needed an ambulance service. Impressed by his handling of the flu crisis, a local businessman made a large donation, part of which Edhi used to buy a beat-up van that he converted into a free ambulance and drove himself. "I prided myself on being the first to arrive at an accident," he recalls. Today, Edhi's ambulance service has grown to a fleet of more than 600 nationwide, all paid for with donations. Dispatched from call centers scattered around the country's cities and highways, Edhi ambulances are still usually the first to arrive at the scene, and they have helped cut the fatality toll from road accidents by half, he says.

In 1986, during a hijacking attempt at Karachi airport, Edhi marshaled 54 ambulances at the ready. When negotiations between the hijackers and the government broke down and Pakistani commandos stormed the plane, Edhi and other paramedics entered under fire to try to save wounded passengers and crew.


In 1993, during devastating floods in the Punjab, Edhi ambulances rescued 50,000 people. Using donated planes, volunteers also dropped food, water and supplies to isolated families. Edhi's air ambulance service now numbers three planes and a helicopter, all donated by the US Agency for International Development-"without conditions," Edhi is quick to point out.

"The 1993 flood was the biggest operation we'd ever done; it satisfied Mr. Edhi that we could handle major disasters," explains Anwer Kazmi, a longtime friend and aide, who translates Edhi's Urdu into English.

Girls students at the design studio in Bilquis Edhi Center in Karachi

A stickler for organizational efficiency, Edhi stands up from his desk and goes over to a wall arrayed with stacked drawers of cardboard boxes, each carefully labeled with a year, a location and a subject. "How do you like my computer?" he asks, smiling, as he pulls out a box containing the expense records of the 1993 flood operation. Like his training in health care, Edhi's expertise in administration is self-taught, his business savvy acquired over decades of running a foundation that now occupies some 7330 staff and volunteers. Back at his desk, he leafs through one of the oversize accounting ledgers that he fills with ruminations, anecdotes, recollections and plans.

"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and jot down ideas in these ledgers," he explains. "And in the morning, everyone groans about all the orders I hand down as I try to follow through on my inspirations."

Recently one of those nighttime brainstorms involved setting up emergency clinics on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan to treat victims of the 2001 war. Edhi's son Faisal, 26, who works for the foundation, vividly recalls an incident at one of these clinics that encapsulated his father's demanding nature.

At the new center in Jamun, Faisal explains, local staff members had purchased a dozen chairs for guests and journalists. When Edhi arrived for his own first visit, he blew up. "Why did you waste money on chairs?" he stormed. "Next, you'll be buying beds and other things for yourselves instead of spending the money on the people we intend to help." That night, Edhi himself slept with the ambulance drivers on the floor of the center.

As Faisal finishes his anecdote, Edhi rubs a hand across his balding head and nods in agreement. "People respect me because they see how simply we live and that all the donations go to the people who need help," he volunteers. Only 10 percent of the foundation's overall budget goes toward administrative overhead, including salaries, he adds.

Edhi and Bilquis still occupy a cramped, two-room apartment next to his office in the midst of the hubbub of the Mithadar clinic. He remains on call for emergencies 24 hours a day-just as he has for the past 52 years. "I am always available to all, rich or poor," he says. "Anyone can come into this office and talk to me."

Despite this open-door policy, growing up the children of such a father was not easy. Although Edhi's children were raised largely by Bilquis's mother in a house near the dispensary, they were exposed to pain and misery from an early age. At seven, Faisal recalls accompanying his father to recover the corpse of a murder victim. Edhi brought the body back to Mithadar, washed it and gave it a respectful burial. "I got very sick and couldn't sleep for a week," Faisal recalls.

By the time he was 10, however, Faisal had grown accustomed to riding with his father on ambulance calls to bring the dead and injured to morgues and hospitals. Now, Faisal is in charge of the ambulance service, whose costs he is trying to cut to make it self- sustaining. He's also creating a new dispensary and ambulance center for some 50,000 people uprooted from their Karachi homes by a highway project and forcibly moved to a treeless settlement west of the city where there is no running water, sewage or electricity.

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