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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* -

Women praying at the Edhi Center

Running the Edhi Foundation is very much a family concern. Edhi, Bilquis and their children meet every Sunday at the girls' home in Clifton to confer over problems at the centers and plan new projects.

"We discuss each girl individually," says Edhi's 36-year-old daughter, Kubra, who is as restrained as Faisal is extroverted. "Before the establishment of Edhi homes, young girls who ran away from their families fell into prostitution and other criminal activities. Now they have a place to take shelter."

Some girls flee to the center to obtain the education their families deny them, while others are sent by parents eager to have their daughters educated, but too poor to pay school fees.

"When girls first come, they generally pass the first few days with great difficulty, often getting depressed and tense," Kubra continues. "We involve them in work-taking care of children, mixing with other girls and women. Their lives become more normal after three or four days. If a girl continues to be depressed or has difficulty adjusting, we call a doctor to treat her."

"This is very difficult work, because of fundamentalism," Edhi interjects. "Our society does not want to give any facilities to females. When political opponents criticize us, we never fight them-we ignore them.

"Still, it's very hard to survive if you are working for all the people, not just your particular religious or ethnic group," he acknowledges. "With so much discrimination and growing religious divisions, my children will have a very, very tough time."

In 1992, tragedy drew the family closer than ever. A mentally unbalanced woman staying at the Clifton home scalded Kubra's four-year-old son, Bilal, with bathwater so hot that he died two months later. "Revenge will not bring Bilal back," Edhi advised Kubra at the time. "You must try to forgive the woman." Kubra decided to transfer her to another Edhi center, but not to punish her. That Kubra and the rest of the family continued their work with the mentally disturbed and destitute is powerful testimony to their commitment.

Early the next morning, Edhi sets out with Faisal and Kazmi to conduct a surprise inspection of Edhi Village, a home for runaway and abandoned boys with a separate asylum for mentally ill and physically handicapped men. Halfway into the 45-minute drive south of Karachi, Edhi stops the ambulance at a one-room cinderblock building with a red roof, one of 35 emergency first-aid outposts he's created along the 1100- kilometer (700-mi) highway from Karachi to Peshawar.

As he chats with the paramedic on call, a pair of policemen pull up to the center. Seeing Edhi, they greet him warmly and join in the conversation.

"Before we set up these emergency centers, the police were stretched too thin and many people died in accidents," says Faisal. "Now, they rely on us to respond to 75 percent of road accidents." Nationwide, the Edhi ambulance service receives more than 6000 calls a day.

At the entrance to Edhi Village, the driveway is lined with tamarisk trees covered with yellow blossoms, eucalyptus and palm trees, and beds of purple and white flowers. The courtyard is sprawling and grassy, surrounded by classrooms and dormitories. It contains a playground, a soccer field and volleyball and basketball courts, all of which are used for competitive games with visiting school teams. "Faisal organized the boys to do the landscaping," Edhi says proudly. "It's part of our self-help initiative."

When Edhi purchased the Village's 26-hectare (65-acre) parcel in 1985, it was barren land. Now there are kitchens, workshops, recreation rooms and housing for 250 children in one complex and 1500 mental patients in another.

In one of the classrooms, Edhi singles out an alert-looking 10-year-old pupil with a congenitally deformed hand. "When he was a newborn, this boy was abandoned in one of our cradles outside a center in Karachi," Edhi explains. "Bilquis named him Shazab and took care of him in Mithadar until he was old enough to come here. Now he's one of our smartest students." When Edhi asks him what he'd like to do when he graduates, Shazab breaks into a shy smile. "I want to be in charge of Edhi Village," he says.

Further down the open-air hallway are workshops with sewing machines and stacks of electrical equipment. In one of the rooms, a teacher is demonstrating how to repair a refrigerator motor. Edhi pauses to talk with a 13-year-old boy who explains that he's an Afghan refugee whose parents were killed in the 2001 war. Police picked him up begging on a Karachi street and brought him to an Edhi center. He was later transferred to Edhi Village.

"The boys install all the electrical wiring in the Village and receive enough training to become electricians," Edhi explains. "We also teach them how to sew so that they can get jobs as tailors or clothes makers when they leave."

"Sometimes, parents take their children back home and the kids run away again to come back," adds Kazmi. "The education they receive here is better than the education even middle-class students receive. Also, we provide them with clothes and plenty of food."

Bilquis Edhi Center has placed more than 16,000 adoptions and also oversees the development of hospitals and vocational services for women.

In the walled sanatorium for the mentally handicapped, physically disabled and mentally ill next door, the scene is more sobering. Several hundred residents lie on scattered mattresses or sit on the cement floor in one bare, cavernous ward. Elsewhere, groups of men mill about outside under straggly bougainvillea trees. Despite the spartan facilities, "the patients live under far better conditions than in other mental hospitals in Pakistan," maintains Ghulam Mustafa, the senior doctor of a staff of five doctors and eight nurses on rotation.

"We organize games and art activities, and the retarded patients do most of the work themselves, keeping the place neat and clean," he says. "The better-off patients take care of the ones who are more dependent."

Back in Karachi, Edhi stops by a men's psychiatric center to meet with Mohammad Ayaz, a soft- spoken, 40-year-old psychiatrist whom Edhi hired after witnessing his success in rehabilitating mentally ill inmates of the city's central jail. In the front reception room, former patients are busy answering telephone calls and dispatching ambulances.

"Many of our patients can be cured," Ayaz explains, "but their relatives reject them, leaving them here to languish unnecessarily in long-term care.

"Our biggest problem is that we don't have enough trained staff," he continues. "Twelve doctors in rotation have to look after a total of 3500 patients in Edhi Village and six residential centers in Karachi."

One of the men manning the phones stands up to introduce himself in American-accented English. A self-possessed character with a shock of swept-back black hair flecked with gray, 53-year-old Tariq Ayubi says he perfected his English in Miami, where he went to business school. Moving back to Karachi, he married, went into business and thrived. Gradually, however, he began drinking heavily, and he soon lost his job and his wife. Severely depressed and penniless, he sought refuge at the Edhi center. Volunteering for work here saved him, Ayubi says.

"The Edhi Foundation is the only social welfare organization in the country that works," he declares.

Afterwards, Edhi expertly maneuvers the ambulance through teeming streets to the women's sanatorium in north Karachi. As he ambles down the immaculate marble hallways, residents cluster around him, calling out "Abu-ji!" ("Daddy!"). "This adulation makes me nervous," he says. "I'm not some kind of saint."

Seeing one woman sitting on concrete steps distractedly waving flies away from an open sore on her foot, Edhi bends close, asking her gently how long it has been infected. "Two days," she replies, "but it's much worse this afternoon." He calls out for a nurse to attend to the sore. When no one comes, he stalks away impatiently. "Don't worry," he calls over his shoulder to the suffering woman. "I'll be back with a bandage before you know it."

Later on, after Edhi has disinfected and dressed the woman's wound, he sits on a stone bench and listens to other residents tell him heartrending stories of cruel husbands and family betrayal. Driving back to the Mithadar center, he vents his long-running frustration with the plight of women in Pakistan.

"Society goes against the teachings of the Qur'an in mistreating women and not giving them equality," he says with indignation. "Only 10 percent of Pakistani women know how to read and write. That's why we try so hard to give the girls who come to us a good education. Once they get an education, they can start to take control of their lives."

Back at Mithadar, a businessman in a crisp linen shirt and polished shoes is waiting for Edhi in his office. "Here's one who has come around," he says, gripping the man's shoulders in a friendly embrace. Edhi explains that the waiting businessman has launched a partnership with the foundation to assist the poor in starting fabric shops, food stalls and other small businesses. "He's helping them stand on their own rather than giving them handouts that only make them more dependent," says Edhi.

"That's the humanitarian revolution we need," he continues with a weary smile. "But still so few understand. Let's spread the word."


Author: Richard Covington is based in Paris and writes about arts, culture and the media in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for the International Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest and other publications. (

Photographer: Shahidul Alam is founder of Drik Picture Library (, the Bangladesh Photo Institute, Pathshala (the South Asian Institute of Photography) as well as the biennial Chobi Mela Festival of Photography in Asia. He lives in Dhaka.

For more information on Edhi Foundation go to ..

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