In Pakistan, Carrying On a Legacy of Answering SOS Calls

KARACHI, Pakistan — For decades, the sight of Abdul Sattar Edhi pleading for donations was enough to press even the most tightfisted of Pakistanis into reaching for their wallets.

Such was the impact of Mr. Edhi, a humanitarian icon in Pakistan who died last summer after a prolonged illness. In a country where many citizens have given up on the government, Mr. Edhi’s expansive philanthropic network acts as a benefactor, providing everything from emergency assistance to welfare services.

Now his son Faisal Edhi is carrying on his legacy and trying to ensure the survival of the philanthropic foundation at a time when donors have grown tired of being asked to respond to a string of disasters and as competition from Islamic charities mounts.

“I would ask him how we would continue in his absence,” Faisal Edhi said. “He would say: ‘I have put up the building. Now you have to paint and decorate it.’”

as support of the foundation in Pakistan has declined. Faisal Edhi has accused the government of impeding the import of vehicles for ambulances, and has reported a drop in donations since his father’s death.
The word Edhi is akin to an SOS call for many Pakistanis. They trust the foundation with their donations and with performing last rites for the dead. The Edhi Foundation runs Pakistan’s largest free ambulance service and its network includes shelters, nursing homes, orphanages and morgues.

Edhi volunteers appear at every disaster zone and crime scene, bearing stretchers and shrouds. It is hard to imagine Pakistan’s cities functioning without the Edhi Foundation. As the noted urban planner Arif Hasan put it in the 1990s, “Without the Edhi Trust one does not know how Karachi would cope with its victims of violence.”

“He carries this huge responsibility on his shoulders,” said Dr. Seemin Jamali, the head of emergency services at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Karachi, who has worked with the Edhi Foundation for 25 years. “He is upbeat, and with a lot of public support, he can do it. The foundation has already been set, and now he needs to carry it forward.”

Mr. Edhi, 40, spent time as a teenager in Florida and New York. He has worked with the Edhi Foundation for half of his adult life, mostly handling administrative affairs, and slowly trying to raise the standard of services and digitize record keeping.

The foundation’s systems are antiquated — records and receipts are mostly on paper — and the voluntary nature of the organization comes with its set of challenges.

“The staff is sometimes hesitant when they don’t know how to use a computer,” he said. “We’re trying to train them. It’s a slow process.”

“A revolution causes a lot of damage,” he added with a laugh. “So we’re trying to do this through evolution.”
At the foundation’s offices in the historic Mithadar district of Karachi, where Abdul Sattar Edhi began work in the 1960s, a large painting of him cradling a baby is propped up in the reception area. A “get well soon” card is still affixed to the wall, along with a fading calendar that juxtaposes his image with that of Mother Teresa, and a framed commemorative stamp issued by the government after his death.

In the later years of his life, he made headlines with politically charged statements, like calling for a military takeover of Pakistan, and declaring politicians corrupt, or sounding alarmist notes about the state of the country.

At work, he would meet with the dozens of people who needed assistance with everything from adoptions to ambulances, or answer the phone himself, a rarity in a country where meeting anyone requires going through layers of middlemen and assistants.

It is the part of the job with which Faisal Edhi is still struggling. “I’m stretched,” he said.
The foundation is managed by a trust that comprised its founder, his wife, Bilquis — a philanthropist in her own right — and their children, Faisal and Kubra, while managers from outside the family handle the daily operations.
“The children are all very hard-working and down to earth, and they’re always available,” said Jameel Yusuf, the former head of Karachi’s Citizens-Police Liaison Committee. “It’s a tough job. Edhi covered everything from east to west, north to south; he didn’t leave any stone unturned on all issues involving citizens and their plight.”
Faisal Edhi’s loss is double-edged: He lost a father and his backbone of support at work. “Now I’m alone,” he said. “I don’t feel like leaving his room empty. I still sleep on a cot near his, because that’s where I’d slept for the last few years.”

He is excited about an ambitious new project to train midwives, nurses and paramedic staff at an Edhi-run hospital, just as he worries about the financial health of the organization.

Islamic charities, he said, have undercut individual donations to Edhi by dividing people along sectarian lines, since Islamic charities are often closely linked to a particular sect.

Religious pressures have long been a challenge for the foundation. Detractors of the elder Mr. Edhi accused him of apostasy and questioned why he would rescue and take in abandoned babies, or work for non-Muslims.
Faisal Edhi recalled that people from the family’s Bantva Memon ethnic community would even sometimes refuse to greet his father.

But Mr. Edhi is adamant about upholding the policies set by his father, such as the foundation’s refusal to accept donations from donor agencies or any government. “It has always been supported by ordinary Pakistanis,” he said.

Work at the foundation has not stopped for a day, he said, not even for his father’s state funeral in July.
“The government may have announced a three-day mourning period,” he said. “But we kept working.”

On a Monday morning, volunteers at the Edhi office in Mithadar fielded myriad queries from people stopping by and answered a near-constantly ringing phone. In another corner, a volunteer wrote out donation receipts worth $250 for Edhi to enact the ritual of animal sacrifices and meat distributions on their behalf before the Islamic holiday of Eid. Mr. Edhi occasionally popped out of his office to talk to staff members.

The work of the foundation carries on.
“He wanted to make Pakistan a social welfare state without participating in politics,” Mr. Edhi said of his father. “That was his dream, and this will be my aim as well; to go from village to village, to make a parallel setup that can help improve people’s lives.”

He added that he believed the state was unwilling to help the people. “In smaller districts, you can find advanced weaponry at local police stations, but when you go to the local hospitals, there’s no advanced equipment,” he said. “Our ruling class is not ready to give services to the people.”

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