Remembering Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan's 'Richest Poor Man', And His Extraordinary Legacy

10/07/2016 11:00 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
A painter makes a mural of Pakistan's greatest humanitarian worker Abdul Sattar Edhi to pay tribute to him, in Karachi, Pakistan, Tuesday, June 28, 2016. Pakistan's greatest humanitarian worker Edhi, who is suffering from acute kidney disease, is very ill these days and visits hospital several times a week for dialysis. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

Millions of Pakistanis are mourning the death of Abdul Sattar Edhi, their "richest poor man," who died after a long illness on Friday in the southern city of Karachi. They are joined by people from around the world who stand in awe of his charity work, and the relief he brought to the injured, to the poor, to abandoned women and orphans, without ever taking a penny from anyone in need.

Even the Nobel Peace Prize (for which he was nominated several times) could not be tribute enough for Edhi's services to humanity, education activist Malala Yousafzai said at his passing. Earlier this year, Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate, launched a campaign for Edhi to get the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

"If we wish to pay tribute to Edhi, it is our responsibility to leave a legacy of service to humanity, and if we want to pay tribute to him, it is our responsibility to follow his footsteps," she said.

For almost six decades, Edhi dedicated himself to the cause of helping others human beings. To this end, he ran the largest ambulance service in Pakistan, set up orphanages and places for abandoned women to live, while providing food and health services - all free of charge. His services were a godsend in a country where the government often fails to provide basic amenities.

Edhi's ambulances are often the first to reach ground zero in a natural disaster, making the difference between life and death, and his ambulance service has become a lifeline with the rise of terror attacks in Pakistan.

In many ways, the 88-year-old man with the flowing white beard had become the moral compass for a country, which has come to be defined by violence and religious intolerance, and where heroes are hard to come by. When people asked him why he allowed Hindus and Christians in his ambulances, Edhi famously replied, ‘Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you."

Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.

In a country where strong personalities are slain for speaking out against the religious right, Edhi had no compunctions about criticizing radical Islamic and its preachers, and he didn't give two hoots about those who dubbed him an infidel and branded his work as "un-Islamic." “I will not go to paradise where these type of people go,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “I will go to heaven where the poor and miserable people live.”

Quite rightly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said at his passing, "If anyone deserves to be wrapped in the flag of the nation he served, it is him....This loss is irreparable for the people of Pakistan." On Saturday, Edhi became the first Pakistani citizen to receive a state funeral since it was held for military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in August 1988. But he would have hated the fact that tens of thousands of people, who came to pay their respects from Karachi and beyond, were made to stand at distance, behind a barbed wire, in order to accommodate the throng of dignitaries at his funeral.

If anyone deserves to be wrapped in the flag of the nation he served, it is him....This loss is irreparable for the people of Pakistan.

Edhi, who was born Gujarat in 1928, moved to Karachi after the Partition. He tried selling clothes for a while, but it wasn't long before he abandoned trade and set up a medical dispensary in Karachi's poor Mithadar neighborhood. "Those who give charity are blessed, those who do not are also blessed," read the sign outside his dispensary.

In 1957, when the Hong Kong flu swept Pakistan, Edhi rented tents and put them up all all over the city, and outside each tent, he placed a money-box with sign: "Pay what you can. Don’t if you cannot." "I saw people lying on the pavement," he told National Public Radio in 2009. "The flu had spread in Karachi, and there was no one to treat them. So I set up benches and got medical students to volunteer. I was penniless and begged for donations on the street. And people gave. I bought this 8-by-8 room to start my work."

In 1965, he married Bilquise Bano, a trained nurse, and together they set up The Edhi Foundation, which is today the largest philanthropic organisation in Pakistan. The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters. From Pakistan, the charitable works of their foundation spread around the world, including in Afghanistan, Canada, India, Nepal and the United States.

Edhi, always seen in a simple kurta-pajama and a topi, never benefited from any of the services he provided to the people, which grew on the strength of private donations, and he lived with his family in a modest house close to the headquarters of the Edhi Foundation in Karachi. His windowless room was furnished with just a bed, a sink and a hotplate.

It was the Edhi Foundation, which took care of Geeta, the Indian girl with speaking and hearing disabilities, who was stranded in Pakistan for over a decade before she finally came home, last year. She grew up in the heart of Karachi as a Hindu, praying to Gods and Goddesses of her choosing, under his protection. “Edhi Saheb loved me like a father and used to take very good care of me,” Geeta said at his passing.

To thank the Edhi family for Geeta's safe return, Prime Minister Narendra Modi donated Rs.1 crore to their foundation in October, last year. “What the Edhi family has done is too priceless to be measured....” he said.

Why should we waste our deaths....

On Saturday, Edhi was buried in the Edhi Village, which is home to hundreds of destitute women, orphans and the elderly, a place which he had reportedly chosen in nineties as his final resting place.

In death, he performed his final act of generosity by choosing to donate his eyes. "Why should we waste our deaths....Our graves will benefit the mentally disturbed, we shall stand guardian over them forever," he wrote in his autobiography 'A Mirror to The Blind."

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