Abdul Sattar Edhi has passed away but the selfless spirit with which he served the poor and the disadvantaged lives on as a guiding light for others to follow.
A familiar figure in a simple kurta-shalwar and sporting a Jinnah cap, he was one Pakistani who commanded genuine respect and reverence all over the country and beyond for his endless compassion.
A well-known British writer and academic Peter Osborne, who spent some time working at one of Edhi ambulance centres, would later write this about him: “until meeting the Pakistani social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi, I had never met a saint.” A saint he was because he never discriminated between the needy on the basis of faith, ethnicity, gender or any social consideration.
In fact, a migrant from the Indian state of Gujarat during the turbulent time of the Partition, he parted ways with his own community leaders for restricting their charity effort to their own group.
Appalled by the pain he saw around him following the horrific violence that accompanied the Partition, he would devote the rest of his life to humanitarian work.
Edhi Sahib, as he was affectionately called, has brilliantly demonstrated that one does not have to be very wealthy in order to help the suffering humanity.
Using his own meagre resources, he started off with a small free dispensary in 1951, later acquiring a second-hand ambulance. The level of his dedication to his chosen path soon got noticed and donations started pouring in helping him to expand operations first in the city of his residence, Karachi, and then all over the country.
He would even go out to offer his services in other countries like the victims of an earthquake calamity in Armenia for which the erstwhile Soviet Union honoured him with the 1988 Peace Prize.
Over time, Edhi Centres would become one of the world’s largest public welfare networks, running dozens of free hospitals, dispensaries, a fleet of 4,000 ambulances, nursing homes, shelters for the elderly, orphanages and food distribution centres for the hungry.
In a country where abandoned children born out of wedlock can be killed, cradles were placed outside Eidhi Homes under a sign that read: “Do not commit another sin. Leave your baby in our care.” There people have been leaving unwanted babies knowing that they would be looked after. Thousands of such children have found foster parents through proper legal process.
Many in this country contribute to humanitarian causes. But what distinguished this kind-hearted soul from others was that he physically participated in the field work.
He would do things others hesitated to handle. In an example typical of him, some recall an incident where workers would not enter a stinking manhole blocking the sewerage flow. Edhi Sahib took off his shirt and tied up his shalwar to jump into the gutter and take out a corpse.
Edhi Centres routinely pick up unclaimed bodies from suicide bombings, roadsides, hospitals, and wherever to bathe and gently put them in shrouds, burying them if no one comes to take them home. The same treatment was given in a few cases of persons dying from HIV/AIDS as even relatives refused to touch the bodies.
No wonder the people came to trust him so much that whenever Edhi Sahib stood on roadsides to collect donations for poor patients needing expensive treatment abroad, they responded with overwhelming support. Edhi Sahib, of course, did not care for worldly rewards for his services.
Although a couple of times the government nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, he would tell his well-wishers “my job is to serve humanity; the work inspires and satisfies me.” Now that he is gone, the Edhi Foundation he built into a strong institution is expected to continue serving those in need.