Giving to those less fortunate than us is easy when we have millions—When we have estates in other cities, writing out cheques for a few thousand dollars is child’s play. It matters when someone gives when they themselves have nothing. That’s heroic.
That is where the story of Abdul Sattar Edhi begins.
On the streets of Pakistan, at the age of 19, he stood begging for donations to help the homeless, orphans and poor.
“I saw people lying on the pavement. 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.”
This 19-year-old boy went on to create the country’s ‘largest welfare organization’ and the worlds ‘largest volunteer ambulance service’. Edhi dedicated his life to help the destitute of his country; from picking up people off the streets in his ambulance and giving them shelter, to taking care of orphans left stranded outside his centre. This Edhi Foundation that began in 1957, now offers cradle-to-grave services. From homeless shelters, medical centres, orphanages, mental hospitals, burial services, maternity wards, education, famous ambulance service and its 24-hour national emergency services – all this and more, completely free of charge.
The services Edhi provided are highly commendable, but what makes him truly heroic is the way in which he carried out his work and life. He refused to be an idle conventional founder, instead preferred engaging and assisting the needy in a proactive manner. He was a man of actions and not just words. He trained and hired impoverished women and men looking for employment to handle the management of the centre, while he himself through utmost sincerity spent his days driving his old ambulance, picking up homeless, runaway children and sometimes even unidentified bodies after a shooting or terrorist attack.
Edhi did not see his work merely as a charity institution with a temporary, individualistic goal, he saw his centre as a blue-print for future society; a ‘path for change’ where the vulnerable members of society are cared for and helped. Edhi’s son highlighted this when remembering a conversation he had with his father.
“Our goal is a welfare state” had said Edhi to his son once.
His son had replied, “How can you as a single man establish a welfare state?”
To which Edhi responded, “It will happen, one day the people will rise.”
Whenever he spoke of this dream, he never limited it to Pakistan. He hoped, rather believed in the day when the common people of all oppressed countries would rise to create a more equal and just society.
This strong faith that Edhi withheld in the common people was always reflected in his work and can be seen in many instances in his life. He never accepted donations from political parties or foreign corporations and instead preferred to rely on the power of the common man.
Many people aim to disparage Edhi as a quiet man who passively ran his Edhi Foundation. But Edhi did not hesitate to call out injustice, as he understood that his desire to progress humanity required him to call out those who acted against it. In 1982, he travelled to Rawalpindi to attend the national assembly, where he delivered a passionate denunciation of political corruption, telling an audience of MPs, including the then Pakistani PM himself: “The people have been neglected long enough. One day they shall rise like mad men and pull down these walls that keep their future captive. Mark my words and heed them before you find yourselves the prey instead of the predator.”
Naturally, such a force of life who helped people regardless of race, religion, gender or status, who stood his moral ground in the face of injustice and corruption received local and global accolades for his work. Some being the ‘Gandhi Peace Award’, ‘Lenin Peace Award’, ‘London Peace Award’ and ‘Pakistan Civic Award’. There was also a movement of people calling for him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, however to the disappointment of many he was not given this award. In an interview with the Express Tribune Newspaper, Edhi said: “I don’t care about it. The Nobel Prize doesn’t mean anything to me. I want these people, I want humanity.”
The humble and genuine nature of Edhi was further highlighted whenever he refused to attend ceremonies/dinners to receive awards, as he believed it took away his time to help the people in his care. Or the fact that he never took a cent as salary from the Edhi Foundation. When Edhi left this world in 2016 at the age of 88, the only material possessions he left behind were his 2 sets of clothes, his 2 bedroom apartment and his beloved ambulance.
The man who the homeless called ‘Angel’, and the world called ‘The Richest Poor Man’ is and should always be remembered as a beacon of hope and a force for change. His life and work teach us the importance of helping those less fortunate than us, by doing more than just giving monetary assistance. Rather, we should be challenging ourselves to target the reason as to why people in our societies are still unable to afford a roof to sleep under, and then work towards assisting them through permanent and structural change.
His own actions teach us to stand defiantly against injustice, help people without discriminating and to be humble by staying true to the people and the cause we work for. But most importantly Edhi has taught us the power of human beings to create change, and the capacity within us to defy the tribulations of society. We can make homelessness, poverty and injustice something of the past through revolutionary ideas and actions such as that of Abdul Sattar Edhi.
This is an end we not only can achieve, but an end we need to achieve because as Khalil Gibran amply said, ‘Safeguarding the rights of others is the most noble and beautiful end of a human being’.
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