The social worker and humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi (1928–2016) has been called the Father Teresa of Pakistan, by analogy with the Indian humanitarian Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He dedicated his life to serving the poor in his adopted city of Karachi and beyond.
Abdul Sattar Edhi's humanitarian work grew from a single volunteer-staffed ambulance to a foundation that became the largest provider of welfare services in Pakistan, with some 2,000 employees. In addition to funding ambulance services that, with a volunteer staff of 8,000, rank among the largest such operations in the world, the Edhi Foundation provides medical care to the poor, trains nurses, operates orphanages, and organizes disaster relief, helping victims in the U.S. Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The winner of many international awards for his humanitarian activities, Edhi lived a spartan life, residing with his family in a small apartment adjacent to his foundation's headquarters. By the time of his death in 2016, his foundation had touched the lives of many residents of Pakistan.
Edhi (also transliterated as Edhy) was born in the village of Bantva in the Gujarat region, then part of British-controlled India. Edhi's family belonged to the Memon ethnic group, which had its own language, followed Islam, and was associated with trade and commercial activities. Because they never recorded his birth, his birthdate was celebrated on February 28 and his birth year was estimated as 1928. As he approached his teen years, his mother became stricken with paralysis, and he devoted himself to feeding, bathing, and dressing her. As a result, he never finished high school; instead, according to the Edhi Foundation website, “the world of suffering became his tutor and source of wisdom.”
Edhi's mother died when he was 19. At this time, India and Pakistan were in the throes of a violent partition and the Edhi family joined many Memons in relocating to Karachi. For a time, he sold matches and pencils on the street, but a job at a Memon-operated medical office allowed his life to take a new direction. “When I saw the poor and felt their pain it changed my entire life,” he said, according to the Edhi Foundation website. “I forgot all my relations, my belongings, everything, to serve humanity.” Edhi left the medical office, however, because it catered exclusively to Memons. Searching for his next step, he traveled through Iran, Turkey, and Europe. His shoes were stolen as he slept on a bench in a Rome railway station, but a woman gave him a pair of dress shoes that, although too big for him, enabled him to continue his trip. In London, Edhi was offered work but rejected it in favor of returning to his homeland and advocating for its betterment.
In 1957, an outbreak of the so-called Asian flu epidemic hit Pakistan hard, and Edhi responded by mounting a campaign to expand the scope of his foundation's operations. According to Yasir Kayani in Karachi's The Nation newspaper, he bought several tents on credit and placed a tin box in front of each one with the message “Pay what you can. Don't if you cannot.” If people could not donate cash, he asked them for the skins of goats they had sacrificed during religious festivals and sold these to raise money. The campaign was a success: with 30,000 rupees collected in the boxes, Edhi paid back his creditors and established a nursing school and maternity clinic.
The maternity clinic quickly became the most visible of Edhi's endeavors. Given Pakistan's strong antipathy toward women who gave birth out of wedlock, many newborns of unwed mothers were abandoned on trash heaps shortly after birth. In front of some of his foundation's offices, Edhi erected shaded cradles with signs saying “Don't Kill.” By the turn of the 21st century, Edhi Foundation staffers used electronic media to search for the parents of abandoned infants and, where practicable, reunite parent and child. A 2017 estimate by the International Business Times put the number of abandoned babies saved by Edhi at 20,000; his foundation also provided housing for an additional 50,000 orphans.
A partner in Edhi's humanitarian endeavors was his wife, Bilquis, whom he met while tending to the injured and dead during the short but destructive Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. They married in 1966, when Bilquis was 17, but their relationship had its difficult times. When they prepared to travel overland to Saudi Arabia for the Islamic Hajj, for example, Edhi forbade her from bringing warm clothes, insisting that the space in the van was needed for medical supplies. Fortunately, he relented and agreed to let her purchase an overcoat from a Russian soldier as temperatures plunged in Pakistan's highlands. The couple managed to raise two sons and two daughters while living in their two-room apartment. As Edhi grew older, his wife and children assumed increasingly significant leadership roles within the Edhi Foundation.
By 2000, the Edhi Foundation was a major presence in Pakistani life. The organization maintained stations, spaced 50 kilometers apart, along major highways that provided first aid to those injured in accidents as well as ambulance services and burial arrangements for the dead. A nationwide network of Edhi Homes offered room and board to the destitute and provided basic schooling and vocational classes to help people help regain control of their lives. The Edhi Foundation also provided services to the mentally handicapped, offering treatment aimed at enabling them to live independently.
Despite his many good works, Edhi faced opposition from Pakistan's sizeable Islamic fundamentalist population. Among the objections raised was the fact that his ambulance services were available to Pakistan's Christian and Hindu minorities. To Islamists who protested this practice, Edhi responded that “the ambulance is more Muslim than you,” according to a writer for the International Business Times. To a religious leader who asserted that a child born out of wedlock should be stoned to death outside a mosque, he rejoined (as quoted by Peter Oborne in the London Sunday Telegraph), “Who can declare an infant guilty when there is no concept of punishing the innocent?” He was widely quoted, by the International Business Times and elsewhere, as explaining, “My religion is humanitarianism, which is the basis of every religion in the world.”
Despite Muslim critiques, Edhi was honored with several awards, both in his native Pakistan and abroad. Among these are the Gandhi Peace Award, UNESCO's Madanjeet Singh Prize, the Seoul Peace Award, the Lenin Peace Prize, a Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, and the Hamdan Award for Volunteers in Humanitarian Medical Service. He usually declined to attend the lavish festivities mounted in connection with these awards. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on several occasions, once at the suggestion of Pakistani Nobel laureate and activist Malala Yousafzai.
Edhi, Abdul Sattar, An Autobiography: A Mirror to the Blind, translated by Tehmina Durrani, National Bureau of Publications (Islamabad, Pakistan), 1996.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 22, 2016, “Welfare Activist Known as the ‘Father Teresa of Pakistan,’” p. 25.
International Business Times, February 28, 2017, “Google Doodle Honors Pakistani Humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi.”
International New York Times, July 11, 2016, Salman Masood, “Abdul Sattar Edhi, a Giant of Charity, Dies at 88.”
Nation (Karachi Pakistan), September 9, 2016, Yasir Kayani, “The Man Who Lived for Others!”
Northlines (Kashmir, India), October 28, 1915, “All about Abdul Sattar Edhi.”
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), April 10, 2011, Peter Oborne, “The Day I Met a Living Saint,” p. 20.
Times (London, England), July 20, 2016, “Abdul Sattar Edhi: Pakistani Social Worker and Activist Known as ‘Father Teresa,’” p. 43.
Times of India, July 11, 2016, Yudhvir Rana, “Saviour of Indians Stuck in Pak, Abdul Edhi Passes Away at 88.”
Balzan Prize, http://www.balzan.org/en/prizewinners/abdul-sattar-edhi/biography-edhi (January 12, 2018), “Abdul Sattar Edhi.”
Edhi Foundation, http://edhi.com (January 12, 2018), “Founder Profile.”□