Abdul Sattar Edhi was born in 1931 in a small village of Bantva near Jhoona garh, Gujrat (India). When Edhi was at the sensitive age of eleven, his mother became paralyzed and later got mentally ill. The battle against the disease finally resulted in a failure and her persistent sorrowful condition left a permanent impact on Edhi. His studies were also seriously affected and he could not complete his high school level. Edhi’s mother died when he was 19. His personal experience made him think of thousands and millions, in misery like his mother. Even at this early age, he felt personally responsible for taking on the challenge of developing a system of services to reduce human miseries.
In 1947 Abdul Sattar Edhi and his family migrated to Pakistan and settled in Karachi. That was a time of great emotional trauma and social and political upheaval. He became involved in social work and began working with welfare organisations and soon started his own dispensary, providing medical aid to the poor. He bought his first ambulance, an old van which he called the "poor man’s van" and went around the city providing medical help and burying unclaimed bodies. His van became his advertisement and soon he came to be known for his work with the poor. As a consequence, donations started pouring in and his operations expanded, employing additional nurses and staff. It was here he met his wife Bilquees who was a trainee nurse at the dispensary. They got married in 1966. Bilquees became the ideal wife for him, totally committed to welfare work.
The Edhi Foundation grew as people began to recognize its humanitarian aims. In 1973 when an old apartment building collapsed in Karachi, Edhi ambulances and volunteers were the first to reach the scene and start rescue operations. From then on, through the troubles in Karachi and all over the country Edhi ambulances have been rescuing and taking the injured to hospitals and burying unclaimed bodies. They go to places where even government agencies hesitate to venture. The Edhi Foundation is the first of its kind in South Asia that owns air ambulances, providing quick access to far-flung areas. Whether it is a train accident or a bomb blast, Edhi ambulances are the first to arrive. The foundation relies on the support of its thousands of workers and volunteers who form the backbone of the organisation.
Despite the growth of the foundation, Abdul Sattar Edhi remains a very down to earth person. Dressed always in a grey homespun cotton, he has a hands on approach to his work, sweeping his own room and even cleaning the gutter if need be. Apart from the one room, which he uses for his living quarters, the rest of the building serves as his workplace in Mithadar, a locality of old Karachi that is full of narrow streets and congested alleyways. Adjoining their living room is a small kitchen where Bilquees usually prepares the midday meal. Next to it is a washing area where bodies are bathed and prepared for burial.
When Abdul Sattar Edhi is not travelling to supervise his other centres, a typical day for him begins at five in the morning with Fajr prayers. His work starts thereafter answering any calls for help, organizing and meeting people in need while afternoons are spent at various centres and hospitals all over the city. In the evening he dines with hundreds of poor at his "langar" [free community meals] at another Edhi centre in the city. His Fridays are invariably spent at homes for the destitute children where he personally helps bathe the ones who are physically handicapped, before joining them for Friday prayers. Occasionally, when he is able to, he also takes them out for picnics.
The foundation has a Legal aid department, which provides free services and has secured the release of countless innocent prisoners. Commissioned doctors visit jails on a regular basis and also supply food and other essentials to the inmates. There are 15 "Apna Ghars" [Your Homes] homes for the destitute children, runaways, and psychotics. Over the years millions of children have been rehabilitated and reunited with their families thorough the Edhi network. The foundation also has an education scheme, which apart from teaching reading and writing covers various vocational activities such as driving, pharmacy and para-medical training. The emphasis is on self-sufficiency. The Edhi Foundation has branches in several countries where they provide relief to refugees in the USA, UK, Canada, Japan, and Bangladesh. Abdul Sattar Edhi plans mass campaigns against narcotics, illiteracy, population control and basic hygiene. His wife Bilquees works in the areas of maternity centre management. She runs 6 nursing training schools in Karachi, which provide basic training courses.
Abdul Sattar Edhi’s vision is to create an institution that will carry on his life’s work and survive for a long time to come. His dream is that of a Pakistan as a modern welfare state, which provides a safety net for the poor and needy while providing basic health and education with vocational skills. A welfare state he feels is the only way to tackle Pakistan’s myriad social problems. He hopes that one day Pakistan will be a model for other developing countries.
In 1985 Abdul Sattar Edhi received the Nishan-e-Imtiaz from the Government of Pakistan in recognition of his services. The Government of Philippines awarded Abdul Sattar Edhi & his wife Bilquees the Magsayay award. In 2006 Abdul Sattar Edhi received an honorary doctorate degree in recognition to his unparalleled services to mankind, his dedicated and indiscriminate long work towards the betterment and welfare of humanity across the globe. It was said in a citation that Abdul Sattar Edhi had won the trust of millions as a person of integrity, a person with deep sympathies, unmatched capacity for leadership and enterprise and unsurpassed ability to organise and manage. He at 78 is a movement, promise, hope and has become a legend and an example.
The Edhi Foundation has grown to have a fleet of 1,200 ambulances, three aircrafts, one helicopter and 20 emergency medical service ambulances with 40 emergency medical technicians and 30 rescue boats. The foundation annually handles over one million dead bodies, provides shelters to about 25,000 men, women and children and extends healthcare facilities to over 400,000 patients, serves free meals to over 125,000 poor, trains over 200 nurses and imparts free education to over 5,000 youngsters.
Dr Abdul Sattar Edhi believes that the educational system somehow lacked in the purposes of making graduates the fellows who could feel and respond to the issues of humanity. “You must work for human rights as well, otherwise your degrees will be useless,” he believes. Dr. Edhi, who always like to wear militia and speak with all sense of modesty and openness, says he could not read the Holy Quran and his school education remained confined to two Gujrati books only, he personally feels that those who cared for the human rights, worked honestly, stood against exploitation of the poor and ensured payments of taxes and zakat would finally come out as successful and satisfied persons in all respects.
Dr. Abdul Sattar Edhi who has personally supervised relief efforts to help survivors of the devastating earthquake in the north of Pakistan says that people called him maulana which he did not like very much as he did not qualify for that and moreover this limited him to some particular group, while he wanted to work for humanity. He believes now people will also call me doctor and pray for me that I could serve the needy persons more vigorously.
What started as a one-man show welfare centre with a mere Rs.5000 and operating from a single room in Karachi is now the Edhi Foundation, the largest welfare organisation in Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation refuses to take any aid from the Government, thereby maintaining its independence.