Abdul Sattar Edhi has been described as one of the best people to walk the earth. He helped more people than almost any other human being is history. But you’ve probably never heard of him.
He was born in 1928 in the village of Bantva, Gujarat, India under British rule. In 1939, his mother suffered a stroke and was paralysed by it. At just 11 years old, he would care for her for eight years until her death.
His lifelong passion for philanthropic causes originated from his mother’s example. She would send him to school with a single paisa coin to pay for his lunch and another to give to a passing beggar.
At 19 years old, Edhi had learned about caring and compassion at his mom’s bedside. Those eight years would have a great influence on the rest of his life and the mission he decides to commit himself to: caring for the sick, elderly and destitute.
The year his mom died in 1947 was also the year the British ended their colonial rule of India. Edhi, like many Indian Muslims, moved to newly independent Pakistan, initially selling cloth at a wholesale market. In Pakistan at that time, there was no safety net for the poor. Edhi dreamed of helping the impoverished people he encountered every day and who were unable to pay for healthcare. He was especially moved by a mother who committed suicide with her six children because of the misery of their life. Edhi started begging on the streets of Karachi to set up a free hospital. He raised enough money to acquire a small office, which he transformed into a medical dispensary, later buying his first ambulance and driving it himself to deliver aid and medicine.
As his operations grew, Edhi recruited medical students and formed the Edhi Foundation.
Today, the Edhi foundation is the world’s largest volunteer network, it has the world’s largest ambulance service, along with rescue boats, homeless shelters, nursing homes, soup kitchens, orphonages, clinics, women’s shelters, rehab centers and soutpatient wards. It has rescued 20,000 abondoned children, rehabilitated 50,000 orphans and trained 40,000 nurses. If you dial 115 from a phone anywhere in southern Asia, the Edhi Foundation will answer.
Many in his home country and abroad call Edhi the “Angel of Mercy” and Pakistan’s “Father Theresa”. Throughout his entire life he never owned more than two outfits, never took a salary from his foundation and lived in a modest apartment room within the foundation’s headquarters. He used to say “when you stop living for luxuries, you understand the real meaning of life”.
Edhi was a sunni Muslim but never discriminated against people of other faiths. He supported the people of Ethiopia during the 1985 Ethiopian famine and raised $100,000 for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He personally delivered medicines, food and clothing to refugees in Bosnia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. He and the drivers of his ambulances have saved lives in floods, train wrecks, civil conflicts and traffic accidents. When asked why his ambulances helped Christians and Hindus, his answer was: “Because my ambulance is more Muslim than you.”
In January 2008 Edhi was detained and interrogated by immigration officials at New York’s JFK airport under terror laws. Questioned by reporters as to the reason for his detention, he said: “The only explanation I can think of is my beard and my dress.”
He died on July 8, 2016 at the age of 88 from kidney failure and his last request was to donate his organs to help other people. He left behind four children from his wife Bilquis (a nurse who supported him throughout their 52 years of marriage). He also left behind 20,004 other children he is registered as the parent or legal guardian of. But the main thing he left behind is a legacy of humanitarianism and a life story that reminds us that every single person - no matter how little his resources - has the power to change the world.
I leave you with one of Edhi’s famous sayings “People have become educated… but have yet to become human.”