As a young idealistic migrant from India, he thought Pakistan would be a social welfare heaven. But, when he faced the truth, he knew he had a lot to do.
Always clad in his blue overalls, sporting happily a Jinnah cap (named after Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan), Edhi lived a simple life anyone could not even imagine.
His selfless work for humanity irrespective of religion, cast or nationality earned him awe and respect from people across the world.
Edhi was born in 1928 in a small village of Bantva near Junagarh in state of Gujarat (India), when the British Empire was at its peak in the western India.
His family migrated to Pakistan in 1947 when the partition of the then India and the creation of Pakistan triggered deadly communal riots. Millions were killed in the name of religion.
In Pakistan, he was shocked to see it an exact opposite of what he thought of the new country. It was then when he set out on his life’s greatest mission.
Edhi, full of optimism and hope, opened his one-room clinic in Karachi in 1951.
He begged for money to buy an ambulance while standing at the corner of a street in Karachi’s Old Town and to everyone’s surprise he raised a good sum and bought a battered old van. In it, he had to go on various life-saving missions.
Gradually, he started setting up centres across Pakistan and expanded them into orphanages, homes for the mentally ill, rehabilitation centres and hostels and homes for abandoned women and children.
Edhi fed the poor and the untouchables and buried the dead with his own hands. His compassion had no boundaries, beyond one’s expectations.
Patience of a Saint
Till he left this materialistic world, his only two sets of clothes always made him content. He felt immense pride to sleep in a windowless room of white tiles, very next to the office of his charitable foundation in Karachi’s Meethadar, furnished with just a bed, a sink and a hotplate.
Edhi was a self-declared beggar and a saint for the needy souls.
When he was just 20, he started volunteering for a charity organisation run by the Memon community to which his family belonged.
He worked effortlessly until he discovered that the charity was only confined to the community. He argued with his employers and encouraged them to expand their humanitarian work beyond the community because others needed their help too. It was a vain attempt.
So he started a small medical store, sleeping on the cement bench outside his shop even at night so that even latecomers could be served.
Grave for the Dead
Edhi searched for unclaimed and unidentified bodies wherever he could. He picked them up, bathed them and bury them with his own hands.
He has set a graveyard for the unidentified dead because he always thought that they deserve a proper burial.
During the 50s, the newly-born Pakistan was struggling and so was Edhi. He was going through a tough and rough phase of his life.
The world was convinced that he was living an aimless life. Edhi remained committed to his small charity world with full energy and keenness.
People watched him roaming around the remote regions of the province of Sindh in his newly bought, old ambulance.
His ritual was, collect bodies, take them to the nearest police station, wait for their death certificates and if the bodies were not claimed by anyone, bury them himself.
Edhi’s autobiography, published in 1996, revealed that he recovered these stinking cadavers “from rivers, from inside wells, from roadsides, accident sites and hospitals… When families forsook them,
and authorities threw them away, I picked them up… Then I bathed and cared for each and every victim of circumstance.”
During all this, he eventually found Bilquis, who remained alongside with him through the roughs and crusts of life.
Edhi’s Other Half
She has always been his brighter and better side. Born in 1947, Bilquis Bano Edhi was a professional nurse when she met Edhi. Later she dedicated her life to Edhi’s cause.
Recipient of the ‘Mother Teresa Memorial International Award 2015’ in India for social justice, Bilquis is famous as ‘The Mother of Pakistan’.
Edhi found a partner for life. Edhi and Bilquis became companions in their misfortunes and struggles. They got married in April 1966 when Edhi proposed her.
Bilquis joined Edhi Nurses Training Centre with a wish to become a nurse when she was in 8th grade.
She never left him alone once she entered his life and committed to the Edhi Foundation later on.
Edhi’s had a broken old ambulance and a small dispensary when he married Bilquis, but the newlywed couple was happy with limited resources.
Their children, Faisal, Kubra, Zeenat and Almas, had been the couple’s only wealth they earned during their years together. After Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis, they have to take the responsibility of looking after the Edhi Foundation and carry on their service for humanity.
One project that has been close to Bilquis Edhi’s heart for which she is always proud of is the controversial Jhoolas (baby cradles) service.
When Edhi used to tour the streets in his ambulance, he was made shaken with grief by the number of infant corpses he found, many believed abandoned.
Soon the foundation placed a cradle in front of its centres with a written request: “Do not kill babies, leave them in the cradle” and, the cradles started receiving babies cry and smiles. So far, their number said to be in thousands.
Bilquis saw several cradle babies mostly girls later graduating from top universities.
In Pakistan, newborns dumped in trash piles have grim chances of survival and that too without any death records. They are unknown, abandoned and unwanted. But, at the Edhi Foundation, there is a hand that rocks their cradle with affection.
Yes, it still is a bitter reality that unwanted infants are dumped in rotten heaps of waste every day in our cities, but no one knows their exact numbers.
The majority of the Edhi Centres have baby cradles installed where unwanted infants can be left safely.
The idea behind the unique service was to encourage people not to leave their newborns to die in trash piles and to leave them in baby cradles to live.
Abandoned babies are given shelter at Edhi homes. Amid increasing pressure and undue criticism from multiple quarters on initiating the baby cradles service, Edhi received bad reviews initially but the idea caught on little by little.
It has helped saving children’s life. People now hand over the babies themselves to workers at the Edhi Centres instead of leaving them abandoned. Deserving and suitable families, not having children of their own, later adopt them after a thorough adoption process.
Bilquis Edhi, herself checks the credentials of the adopting pairs and conducts proper regular follow-ups. All documentation of this service remained private so that the child is saved from facing any kind of issues afterwards.
From the cradle to the grave…the Edhi Foundation has provided multiple social welfare services within Pakistan and across the world without any discrimination.
Edhi homes and orphanage, ambulance, Edhi morgue, hospital, rehabilitation centre, missing person service, in-house marriage bureau, and Edhi Rickshaws ‘ROZGAR’ are few of the services Edhi Foundation offers.
There is no better social welfare foundation in Pakistan than Edhi Foundation, also famed as a credible name across the world. Until today, it has been running successfully without political, communal, and commercial biases.
There is no concept of rest at the foundation because they believe serving humanity is the most important job.
Edhi Foundation has also received recognition on several national and international platforms for delivering extraordinary services for humanity in multidimensional fields.
Abdul Sattar Edhi saved thousands of abandoned newborns, helped disabled and handicapped people, given shelter to an unlimited number of women and elderly people who were rejected by families or were tortured and supported ailing patients through free medical services.
Whenever something unfortunate happens in Pakistan, Edhi Foundation workers are always the first ones to render their services no matter how far their destination is.
That old battered ambulance Edhi bought has now transformed into an extensive ambulance service (land, air, and marine). Edhi ambulance service helps during accidents, national and international disasters, drought, fire and floods; sending aid services for the needy and refugees worldwide.
Edhi Foundation also saves lives of drowned people and recover bodies from underwater (oceans, rivers, and during floods).
It also offers free of cost rehabilitation centres for drug addicts, help in tracing missing people and arranging marriages (in-house) for girls and boys.
Edhi Foundation makes sure that people particularly young girls and boys get technical education to become a self-sufficient earning hand of their societies. Here they also get religious education, consultancy on family planning and maternity services.
Not only Pakistan but the world recognised Edhi and his organisation as incomparable. There is a long list of the national and international awards that have appreciated Edhi’s selfless work.
The government of Pakistan awarded him Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1989 for promoting the cause of social welfare service. The Edhi Foundation also registered its name in the Guinness Book of World Records (2000) for the largest voluntary ambulance organisation of the world.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2013 and the following years, he remained frail but kept his social welfare works run with the same passion. Today, he is no longer with us, but his legacy would be cherished for the years to come.