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In gritty Karachi, husband-wife team saves unwanted babies

Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi are revered for their work over the last half-century, pulling abandoned babies from the dumps and drains of this Pakistani city.

By Joel ElliottContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 14, 2008

A life of helping: In a half-century of work, Bilquis Edhi (c.) and her husband have rescued tens of thousands of abandoned children and placed more than 15,000 with adoptive parents. She screens potential couples in her office.

Jodi Hilton

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Tiny, pink, and asleep in the arms of an orphanage worker, Amna didn't know she had survived being abandoned two days earlier in one of the world's grittiest cities.

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Nurses had found her crying alone outside a local hospital – one of hundreds of babies abandoned in Pakistan each year. But helped by the Edhi Foundation, a nonprofit humanitarian organization based in Karachi, Amna soon would be adopted by a local couple who had been unable to have children.

The heads of the foundation, the husband and wife team of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi, have achieved a revered status for their work pulling abandoned babies from the dumps and drains of Karachi and receiving them from mothers with no questions asked.

In more than a half-century of work, they have rescued tens of thousands of babies and – despite prejudice against such children – placed an estimated 16,700 in adoptive homes.

"It's an amazing thing, because here in a society where there is no place for an illegitimate child they are providing a place for them," says Meera Jamal, a reporter for the newspaper Dawn. "People do hold [Mr. Edhi] in high respect.... He is viewed as the Mother Teresa of Karachi." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Meera Jamal's name.]

The foundation has encountered resistance from religious leaders and other members of the local community, the Edhis say, because it takes in abandoned babies regardless of ethnicity or religion. The foundation makes an effort to match babies with people who are of the religion of their parents, if it is known – a highly sensitive issue among the country's religious leaders.

"It's very dangerous here," Mrs. Edhi says. "The mullahs right now only threaten to kill us – if we gave a Muslim child to a non-Muslim family, they would kill us for sure." But despite numerous death threats, they have persisted.

Today, the Edhis and workers with the foundation say, they find fewer babies abandoned in the dumps as mothers have become more aware of the service they provide. The foundation's headquarters takes in about 300 abandoned babies each year, down from a peak of about twice that number 30 years ago.

As the foundation has grown, it has occasionally been accused of corruption among the lower-level staffers, but the Edhis continue to maintain a broad base of support from the public. Mr. Edhi has gradually handed over the reins to his son, Faisal Edhi, who has worked to bolster discipline and structure in the institution, say observers.

A partnership based on charity

The couple's partnership began in 1964, when Bilquis, then 16, asked Abdul to let her join the foundation, which he had been building for 14 years, to train and work as a nurse. Though 20 years Bilquis's senior, Mr. Edhi soon proposed to her – in the maternity ward – and they were married in 1966.

By 1970, realizing that abandonment was far more widespread than they had thought, the couple mounted a public education campaign and began placing cradles throughout the city in hopes of encouraging mothers to leave their unwanted babies anonymously.

Today, they maintain about 40 cradles in Karachi, and 350 others throughout the country. Approximately 50,000 children at any given moment depend on the foundation for their survival. Mrs. Edhi, a warm, motherly figure known throughout the city as "baji," or "big sister" in Urdu, heads the foundation's baby rescue operation and free maternity ward in Karachi. Mr. Edhi often rises as early as 3 a.m. to help feed some of the orphans. With cropped white hair, a long beard, and a worn, homespun salwar kameez, the traditional Pakistani dress, Mr. Edhi travels the country and the world raising funds, efforts he characterizes as being "a beggar before the public."

Information about the Edhi Foundation can be found at their website: The Edhi Foundation does not accept donations from government agencies or religious organizations, but will accept donations from individuals.