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Pakistan mourns 'Angel of Mercy,' philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi

Humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi, whom some have dubbed 'Father Theresa,' ran a crucial network of social services, including ambulances, 24-hour emergency services, morgues, shelters, blood banks, and orphanages.

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    Abdul Sattar Edhi, center, joins a rally to mark International Women's Day in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2009. The country celebrates Mr. Edhi's life and mourns his death, on Friday in Karachi.
    Fareed Khan/AP/File
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Tens of thousands of people attended the funeral of legendary humanitarian Adbul Sattar Edhi, known as a beacon of hope to the impoverished, homeless, wounded, and ill, who died Friday in Karachi, Pakistan.

"We the poor lost our father today," said mourner Rafiq Ahmad. 

From humble origins, Mr. Edhi came to run a crucial network of social services, including a fleet of nearly 2,000 ambulances, 24-hour emergency services, morgues, shelters, blood banks, and orphanages.

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“He was the real manifestation of love for those who were socially vulnerable, impoverished, helpless and poor,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Edhi’s good works were set against the backdrop of populous Karachi – a city rife with poverty, violence, and government corruption. He did not accept funding from the government or from individuals whose motives he doubted, choosing to fund his operations entirely by private donations, most from the middle class.

Born in India in 1928, Edhi immigrated to Pakistan in 1947. Just four years after arriving in Karachi, he fell into his social work, which he later called his "vocation."

"I saw people lying on the pavement," Edhi said in a 2009 interview with NPR, recalling how he started his first clinic. "The flu had spread in Karachi, and there was no one to treat them. So I set up benches and got medical students to volunteer. I was penniless and begged for donations on the street. And people gave. I bought this 8-by-8 room to start my work."

Since that time, Edhi and his wife Bilquis, whom he married in 1965, built the country’s biggest humanitarian force, based in the capital city of over 20 million. Their ambulances rush to the scenes of violence and terror. They have placed over 20,000 children for adoption. They wash and bury the city’s unknown dead.

Edhi’s work providing medical support and shelter to the elderly and mentally ill was reportedly inspired by the difficulty he experience in finding support after his own mother experienced a stroke when Edhi was 11, reports Pakistan's Dawn News.

And while the Edhi Foundation handles tens of millions in donations each year, Edhi remained humble throughout his humanitarian reign – only owning two sets of shalwar kameez for clothing and living in a small room adjacent to the office, the Washington Post reports.

And while funding has been less free-flowing than it used to be, Edhi’s wife told the Guardian last year, the Edhi Foundation is well-established, with members committed to continuing their humanitarian work.

While Edhi’s work has earned him the gratitude and respect of many Pakistanis as well as international acknowledgment from awards to documentaries, he has not been without criticism. Last year, Mrs. Edhi told the Guardian that hostility from religious and political groups was on the rise.

Some of Edhi's humanitarian policies went against conservative sensibilities. Once, when questioned about why his ambulances picked up people of other religions, Edhi quipped, "Because my ambulance is more Muslim than you."

Some criticized his orphanages as encouraging out-of-wedlock births. And just two years ago, Edhi was robbed while sleeping in his room adjacent to the organization’s offices.

"They call him an infidel, saying that he does not say his prayers," his wife said. "What we are doing should be done by the government and should be appreciated, but instead we are blamed."

The organization strove to fill holes in state safety nets for the underclasses. For example, Pakistani doctor Junaid Razzak, who returned to his country after international study in 2004, described seeing patients arriving to Karachi hospitals on foot, bus, two-wheelers, taxis, or occasionally private cars. The only other option? The fleet of Edhi ambulances, which Emergency Physicians International says were then the only organized medical transport service in the country.

Last year, Hafiz Saeed announced the establishment of another humanitarian ambulance fleet. But Mr. Saeed, a cleric wanted by India for his alleged involvement planning the 2011 terrorist attack on Mumbai, calls for jihad alongside his humanitarianism, the Guardian reports.

The contrast with Edhi’s message of peace underlines one of the crucial foundations of who Edhi was and what he stood for, with his openness to help all people in need and his instance on maintaining his autonomy from government or political allegiance.

Over the course of his life Edhi was awarded the Gandhi peace award, the 2007 Unesco Madanjeet Singh prize, the 2011 London peace award, the 2008 Seoul peace award, and the Hamdan award for volunteers in humanitarian medical service. He was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; this year again, the BBC reports, Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan’s teenage Nobel laureate, added his name to the list.

After Edhi’s death, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he prayed that Edhi would have "the best place in paradise.”

Edhi, eternally humble, may have other plans:

“I will not go to paradise where these type of people go,” he said in 2015, in response to accusations of atheism from conservative political and religious leaders. “I will go to heaven where the poor and miserable people live.”

Material from the AP was used in this report.

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