Profile : He Works Wonders in Pakistan : ‘I am just a simple man,’ Abdul Sattar Edhi says. ‘A simple man trying to bring a social revolution. . . .’


It is before dawn, and Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife are trying to brighten the darkness of one of the world’s poorest cities.

Rolling off his rope cot, Edhi walks into the next room to bathe the body of a small boy, found dead in the gutter and brought here by police. Later his wife, Bilquis, appears from another room to wash and wrap an old woman’s thin corpse in white shrouds and send it to a nearby mosque for funeral prayers.

Soon the 61-year-old Edhi is at his cluttered desk. An anguished father pleads for treatment for his sick daughter. Edhi forgives the fee with a wave of his hand. A judge phones to say he is sending over a runaway. Another caller has found an abandoned baby. Finally, a wild-eyed man runs in and pulls a wad of crumpled rupees from his pocket. Edhi saved his son’s life, he shouts.

“This is all I have,” the man cries, pushing the money at Edhi. “You are a saint!”


Edhi shakes his head and smiles. It’s not the first time he’s been called saintly in the three decades since he started the city’s first free ambulance service and drug dispensary after watching his mother fall sick and die while he scoured Karachi for medicines unavailable to the poor.

“I am just a simple man,” says Edhi with a grin. “A simple man trying to bring a social revolution in Pakistan.”

To a remarkable extent, Edhi is succeeding. Using private donations and thousands of volunteers, he has built the largest, best organized and most surprising private social service network in South Asia. It has eclipsed a pitifully inadequate public system while helping literally millions of people here in Pakistan’s largest city and beyond.

Based in a dingy three-story building on a busy back lane, the Edhi Foundation now commands a fleet of 550 ambulances, including two planes and a helicopter. There are blood banks, orphanages, family-planning clinics, a tuberculosis hospital, an eye hospital and a kidney dialysis center.

Edhi has shelters for battered women, runaway boys and abused animals. His agencies deliver babies, treat heroin addicts, feed the poor and bury the dead. He’s begun building a network of roadside first-aid centers, each with an ambulance, every 35 miles along Pakistan’s highways. When a ferry sank recently, he decided to create a sea-borne ambulance service as well.

Edhi has helped drought-starved farmers, flood-ravaged villages and warring ethnic clans. His ambulances are the first at fires, street riots and train wrecks. He refuses any subsidies from the government. “I just want to do something for my country,” he explains.

And that’s just at home. He raises money from Pakistanis in California, New York and in Europe and sends blankets to Afghan war refugees, food to Somalia’s starving, tents to earthquake victims in Armenia and aid to war and disaster victims in Bangladesh, Lebanon, India, Iran and elsewhere. His goal is to bank enough money now to make the foundation self-supporting after he dies.

“I’m no longer retail,” says Edhi, who has only a sixth-grade education. “I’m wholesale now.”

By all accounts, Edhi has changed little as his empire has expanded. He wears the same coarse blue-gray, pajama-like shirts 24 hours a day, often for weeks at a time. He still needs an Urdu translator so his staff can understand his thickly accented native Gujarat. He and his wife still sleep in the same simple room where they began their marriage, close by the tin-topped table where they wash the nameless dead brought in from the streets each night.

“I don’t know what the city would do without him,” says an admiring Western diplomat in Karachi. “I don’t know what the country would do without him. He’s the major social service system for the whole country.”

Edhi is a tall man with a rough-hewn face and a long white beard in the Muslim style. He is balding, but what hair is left is cut close. He has chestnut-red cheeks that crinkle when he laughs out loud, which is often. His eyes are piercing.

“He never asks people for anything,” says his aide, Anwar Kasmi. “The people believe in him. So they give to him. And he motivates them to help themselves.”

Edhi’s father was a wealthy grain dealer outside Bombay. But he credits his mother for the work he does today.

“It was my mother’s teaching,” he recalls as he drives an ambulance van to Korangi, a north Karachi suburb where he runs a home for 250 boys. “When I used to go to school, she would give me two paise and tell me to spend one and give the other to the poor.”

His mother, he quickly adds, gave him no religious instruction. Edhi says he is a Muslim--but adds that human rights is his real religion. And that has brought him trouble from Karachi’s conservative clerics. Several denounced him and forbade people to give Islamic charity to him.

“The mullahs don’t like me,” he says cheerfully. “Because I criticize anyone who doesn’t honor human rights. . . . Although the religions say protect human rights, in practical terms they don’t do it. They don’t teach people to serve humanity.”

He mocks politicians for the same reason. And while he is often compared to Mother Teresa, the Nobel laureate in Calcutta, he clearly doesn’t approve of her Catholic convent’s calling. “She is carrying out missionary work,” Edhi says sourly. “She came to Pakistan and wanted to meet me. But I was in Lahore and I was too damn busy.”

With that, Edhi turns to show his handiwork. The boys home in Korangi has a swimming pool, exercise equipment, aviary and even a rocky grotto with a small waterfall. The rooms are huge, and are fronted by a wide veranda. There are classes and vocational workshops.

“I try for them to be comfortable,” he explains. “Most of these boys were street children and thieves, brought here by the police. Now they don’t want to leave. They have food, clothes, a color TV, trips to the beach.”

The boys hug Edhi as he passes from class to class. In the kitchen, three boys stir big vats of mutton stew and boiling potatoes. Others study wiring in an electrical class. Outside, a thin youth minds a herd of goats. Edhi announces that the boy was one of Karachi’s best pickpockets before the police brought him here. “I quit that profession,” the boy says with a laugh.

For girls, Edhi uses two far more elegant bungalows that were donated in New Clifton, Karachi’s poshest suburb. The houses are palatial, with gleaming marble floors, huge crystal chandeliers and ornate mirrored archways and ceilings. Inside the first house are 185 infants and children. Many are handicapped.

Edhi’s 26-year-old daughter, Kubra, runs the home. She holds up Maria, a deformed infant with a tiny head, abandoned by her parents. “If not for Edhi, God would take her,” Kubra says, shaking her head.

Several dozen young women live in an adjoining home. All are orphans, are single mothers or have fled abusive families. Rani is 16, a runaway from a grandmother who beat her after her parents died. Now she lives in a plush carpeted room with a carved wooden bed, huge chests and mirrors, a tape cassette player and posters of the Alps.

“I think now I am living in paradise,” she says simply. Unlike most Pakistani girls, Rani can read and write. Her goal, she says, is to have Edhi and his wife pick a boy for her to marry. “Whatever they say, I will obey them because now they are my parents,” she says.

Back at his office, Edhi dreams aloud in his gravelly voice. He speaks of the pain of poverty and disease. Why can’t Pakistan have health insurance? And burn-treatment centers? And decent schools and social care?

“Pakistan is in the Dark Ages,” he says heatedly. “In Western countries, you have access to basic health, education and social security. That’s all I want for Pakistan. I just want to bring people from the darkness.”


* Name: Abdul Sattar Edhi

* Title: Head of Abdul Sattar Edhi Foundation.

* Age: 61

* Personal: Born in Batwa, India. Sixth-grade education. Migrated to Pakistan in 1947. Winner of 1986 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. Married to Bilquis Edhi. Four children.

* Quote: ‘The mullahs don’t like me. Because I criticize anyone who doesn’t honor human rights. . . . Although the religions say protect human rights, in practical terms they don’t do it.”