Abdul Sattar Edhi: Pakistan’s Angel of Mercy

Abdul Sattar Edhi: Pakistan’s Angel of Mercy

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Mohammed Azhar Ali KhanMohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi was a household name in his own country and was admired the world over by those who had learned of his work.

My heart sank when I learned that Edhi, known as Pakistan’s Mother Teresa and an Angel of Mercy, passed away on July 8. He was 88. His simplicity, love for all people and life-long dedication to them made him one in 190 million (Pakistan’s population). He built one of the world’s largest charities though he himself was and remained poor.

I visited him in Karachi during a trip to Pakistan to learn what drove him in his life mission. His passion was simply to do what he could for others. He owned only a couple of items of clothing. His room had a bed, a bathroom sink and a stove. His office was next door. From nothing he built one of the world’s largest and most respected charities. He told me that serving humanity was his religious duty.

He, his wife Bilquis whom he married in 1965 and their four children lived simple, austere lives. The couple’s passion was to serve others day and night. On his deathbed, he donated his eyes so that when he passed away somebody would benefit from his eyesight.

Edhi was born in Gujarat, India, but moved to Karachi when India was partitioned in 1947. His mother had suffered a stroke and did not receive adequate medical treatment. So when he saw poor people in his neighborhood without medical help, he begged medical students to treat them. Soon he built his first free medical dispensary.

He also saw mutilated corpses lying abandoned. He and his wife Bilquis, a former nurse, washed such bodies and buried them properly. Another of his passions was to save babies abandoned by their parents because of poverty or shame. He appealed to people to give him such children instead of abandoning or killing them.

In 1951, he set up the Edhi Foundation and its activities grew as people donated money. Today it runs free hospitals, mobile dispensaries, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers for addicts, orphanages, graveyards, shelters for old people and kitchens. It has saved 20,000 abandoned infants who had been left to die, trained over 40,000 nurses and tended to 50,000 orphans through 330 centers. It operates 600 vehicles for rescue and as mobile dispensaries.

The Foundation has set up offices in several countries, including Canada (Scarborough), to receive donations. The Foundation also helps the needy in foreign countries. The Edhi Foundation helps people irrespective or race, religion or nationality. Edhi has been threatened by extremists who criticize his helping non-Muslims. At one point he stayed overseas because of such threats but he has refused to give in.

The Edhi Foundation looked after a hearing and speech impaired Indian girl Geeta who had entered Pakistan by train by mistake. It sheltered her for a decade until the Indian government got her back. Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi offered to donate ten million Indian rupees to the foundation.
Edhi declined saying he only accepted donations from individuals.

Edhi also rejected Pakistani President Asif Zardari’s offer to send him overseas for medical treatment at the state’s expense. Edhi said he preferred to be treated like other people in a hospital in his own country.

Edhi received a state funeral attended by the president, defense chiefs and people of all walks of life. He had also received the country’s highest awards, and so had his wife. But it is the people of Pakistan who loved Edhi as they loved no other Pakistani for his simplicity and lifelong service to humanity.

Edhi also had difficulties. He received death threats and spent some time living abroad. He was detained and questioned for hours at Canadian and American airports. He was arrested by Israelis in Lebanon. But these difficulties were minor for the man who was determined only to serve the people whoever and wherever they might be. His work would not have succeeded if it were not for countless Pakistanis and others who donated generously to help the Foundation provide relief in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Sadly, there is no evidence that the ruling military, political and bureaucratic leaders of Pakistan, who have praised and honored Edhi, share his passion for simplicity, love of the common people, concern for social justice and disdain for ill-gotten luxuries and corruption. And so it is left to Bilquis Edhi, their four children and other philanthropists and social workers to do what they can to help at least some of the needy.



— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.