A charity that gives food – and frees hostages

How Gift of the Givers, a Muslim-funded philanthropy in Africa, has become one of the world's most unusual charities.

Members of Africa’s largest humanitarian aid organization, Gift of the Givers, distribute food to striking miners in Marikana, South Africa, in 2012.

It was before 6 a.m., and Imtiaz Sooliman was already wide awake. That, in itself, was hardly unusual. Dr. Sooliman runs Africa’s largest humanitarian aid organization, a South African charity called Gift of the Givers Foundation, and describes himself as a man who gives “four thirds” of his time to his work. His days often begin before dawn and end near midnight, and his three phones almost never stop chirping and buzzing. “I never have to go looking for work,” he says. “The work comes looking for me.” 

But this was different.

On Dec. 6, 2014, Sooliman, normally a blur of movement in his green Gift of the Givers tracksuit, was the one waiting. Three thousand miles away from the bedroom of his Johannesburg, South Africa, home, a convoy of cars prepared to begin a long ride into the Yemeni desert. At the end of their drive was Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher who had been held by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen for more than 18 months. Sooliman and his organization had been frantically trying to broker his release, using a tactic unlikely to appear in any hostage negotiation handbook. 

Yolande Korkie (l.), a hostage who was released by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, and Imtiaz Sooliman, head of a charity that negotiated her freedom, meet the press in South Africa in 2014. Her husband was also taken captive.

Each time Sooliman’s negotiator, a round-faced young Yemeni journalist and aid worker named Anas al-
Hamati, had traveled to meet Mr. Korkie’s captors, he carried with him a thick photo album documenting Gift’s extensive charitable projects in the impoverished regions where Al Qaeda was entrenched – food drops and water wells, donations of school supplies, clothing, and medicines. If he could impress upon the militants the scope of Gift’s goodwill, Mr. Hamati reasoned, maybe they would release Pierre.

The strategy had worked before. Nearly a year earlier, Al Qaeda had released Pierre’s wife, Yolande, without even receiving a ransom, and now it appeared they were poised to free him, too, for a relatively small sum. This was to be Pierre’s last day in captivity. 

The night before, Sooliman had been on the phone with Mrs. Korkie until well after midnight, and now, as a hot summer morning cracked over the city, he picked up his phone again. He found Yolande’s contact information and typed her a short text message. 

“The waiting is almost over,” he wrote. Then he got up to make himself a cup of tea. 

Two hours later, another of his phones buzzed. It was Pierre’s uncle, his voice dull and heavy. 

What? Sooliman asked. 

Pierre was dead. 

•     •     •

Negotiating the release of hostages is hardly Sooliman’s day job – though it can be equally difficult to say what, exactly, is. Since he founded Gift of the Givers Foundation in 1992, the organization’s humanitarian relief teams have appeared in their trademark green polo shirts at the site of dozens of disasters, famines, and military conflicts. They have provided emergency medical and logistical assistance in the early days of many of the past two decades’ worst natural and man-made crises, stretching from Haiti to Bosnia to Bangladesh. 

But as in the case of the Korkies, the group’s work also sprawls well beyond traditional disaster relief. I first encountered the organization as a journalist covering the aftermath of a series of deadly xenophobic attacks in South Africa in April 2015. Behind a decrepit Johannesburg discount mall, a small army of green-clad volunteers had set up a small refugee camp for those who had fled their homes, a bare but cozy tent city from which they doled out blankets, clothing, and daily meals.

Patients wait for medical attention provided by the Gift of the Givers Foundation at a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The organization runs hospitals in Syria and soup kitchens for needy university students in Johannesburg. There is a Gift of the Givers counseling hotline, a Gift of the Givers trademarked meal-replacement supplement for the malnourished, and a fleet of Gift of the Givers mobile medical clinics. Recently, the organization assisted in bringing home 23 South Africans lured into joining Islamic State in Syria, and now they are working on another hostage negotiation – this one in northern Mali. 

All of this places the group at a unique intersection in the humanitarian world. In a community of global nongovernmental organizations that often view Africa as the planet’s sad charity case, Gift of the Givers represents an inversion of conventional logic: an African aid group that takes care of its own – and helps bail out the rest of the world. 

“I think we are at the beginning of the end of the so-called development era, in which rich countries gave aid to poor countries to help them develop,” says Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, secretary-general of CIVICUS, a global network of NGOs and foundations that promote civil society. “It’s still the case that when a disaster strikes somewhere in the world we have a relatively small number of international groups from a relatively small number of wealthy countries acting to intervene. But Gift of the Givers Foundation is a great example of the future – an African actor that plays on the global stage.”

The ascension of groups like Gift has also provoked some existential questions about the future of international aid work. Critics say such organizations simply don’t play by the old rulebooks of humanitarian intervention – often eschewing the kind of distanced neutrality that has long governed Western aid work (at least in theory) for a more personalized approach to relief and assistance. 

“It’s not principled humanitarian aid, it’s partial humanitarian aid,” says one international aid worker familiar with Gift’s work, who asked not to be named to avoid sowing conflict between groups. The aid worker cited the case of the charity’s recent work in Syria, where local media captured shots of Gift of the Givers volunteers with their arms slung over the shoulders of soldiers of the Free Syrian Army, a prominent rebel group. There’s no question for anyone looking at Gift’s work in the country which side they are on, the aid worker says. 

“That doesn’t mean your service is less valuable, but it does mean you can’t stand up and say you’re a principled, impartial actor in these situations.” 

Within Gift itself, however, there is little concern for such soul-searching. Debates on where the organization fits into the aid world are far less important to Sooliman, for instance, than how their work is seen by two entities – their donors and their God. 

The organization is funded largely by South Africa’s sizable Muslim community, whose members donate as part of the charitable almsgiving that is a core tenet of their faith. 

“Everything we do is spiritual. It’s faith-based,” says Sooliman, whose wide glasses and salt-and-pepper beard give him an unmistakably bookish, grandfatherly look. “The Islamic teaching is very clear: Help people. It’s not help black people or white people, or to help people from this country or that country. It doesn’t say you must feed people or unite families or free hostages. It just says help people. It’s such a broad category, and that’s what we do.”

Ryan lenora Brown
Women fill buckets of water at a well drilled by Gift of the Givers near Phuthaditjhaba, a city in South Africa’s Free State province.

Hamati says that is the precise ethos Sooliman imparted to him when the two first met in late 2012. Sooliman had seen a BBC report on famine in Yemen, and as he is inclined to do, he jumped on the next flight to Sanaa to see if Gift of the Givers should start an operation there. 

At the time Hamati was just a friend of a friend, a journalist for the Yemeni state newspaper whose phone number Sooliman had gotten from a local contact in Johannesburg. But within 48 hours of Sooliman’s arrival in the country, he had hired Hamati to run a local Gift relief operation. 

“He makes very strategic decisions about who he puts under him, and then once he does, he trusts those people completely,” says Shafiq Morton, a South African journalist and the author of “Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers: A Mercy to All.” Sooliman has long been known for this kind of brusquely efficient – and highly personal – approach to management. He rarely hires people based on cover letters or job applications, preferring instead to select his closest associates almost on instinct. 

His style has been a source of frustration for some who have worked with Gift. They say once Sooliman has made up his mind on a person or project, there’s no convincing him otherwise. But it has also earned Sooliman, who is a medical doctor by training, many admirers. 

Kristen Van Schie, a South African journalist who has traveled on disaster relief trips to Syria and Somalia with Gift of the Givers, told me she had never met another person of power in a large humanitarian aid organization who was so trusting of local knowledge and abilities. 

“He doesn’t insist on sending ‘his people’ from South Africa to run an operation,” she says. “He trusts local people – I think as a person of color from South Africa, he simply thinks, why wouldn’t I?” He knows firsthand, after all, the dangers of making judgments based on appearance about who is fit to lead. 

In Yemen, too, he wasted no time turning over the operation completely to Hamati. After they met, Sooliman flew back to Johannesburg, leaving his new deputy to set the agenda on the ground. And when Hamati called him a few weeks later to ask if he could try and help free the two South African hostages, Sooliman immediately said “yes.”  

“I told him, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose. The worst thing that can happen is we fail. But right now no one is doing anything so we should at least try,’ ” he says.

But there was one small obstacle: Hamati had no idea where the hostages actually were. So he put on his green Gift of the Givers polo shirt, emblazoned with a South African flag and the phrase “Best among people are those who benefit mankind,” and loaded up a Gift-branded truck with supplies. 

Then he headed out into Al Qaeda territory. “We brought the local media with us to show what we were doing, and everywhere we went, we showed pictures of Pierre and Yolande,” he says. “There wasn’t any real strategy. We were just trying to make ourselves and our intentions known to local people, and at the same time let them know we were looking for this South African couple.”  

It worked. Six months after Hamati and Sooliman’s call, in December 2013, Hamati got word from the Al Qaeda cell holding the Korkies. 

They wanted to talk.  

A team from the Gift of the Givers Foundation aids victims in Kathmandu, Nepal, after a devastating earthquake struck the country in April 2015.

Every movement has a creation story, and when asked, Sooliman offers this one: 

On a Thursday in August 1992, an impressionable young South African doctor walked into the Istanbul mosque of Sheikh Saffer Effendi al-Jerrahi, a Sufi mystic. The sheikh turned to him and began speaking in Turkish, a language Sooliman did not speak. But that day, he says, by some miracle, he understood every word.

“My son,” the man said, locking eyes with his new protégé. “I’m instructing you. You will form an organization. The name will be Waqfu’l Waqifin” – a phrase whose direct translation is “the gift of the givers,” though its actual meaning is something closer to “those who are blessed must give.” 

The sheikh also had a warning for Sooliman: “Don’t expect anything in return, not even gratitude.” 

But if the organization was born spiritually that day in Turkey, it came of age somewhere else entirely – in a scrappy young democracy in Southern Africa, at a moment when the country was thinking radically anew about whose lives mattered, and how much. The founding of Gift of the Givers was sandwiched between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the country’s first multiracial vote, and the organization seemed, at times, to be a projection of the young nation’s anxious optimism for its future. If only Gift could build enough houses and clinics, if only it could keep people clothed and fed and safe, maybe this new experiment, this new nation, could work. 

Gift’s rise also symbolized a small but significant shift that had been going on in the humanitarian aid world for the past 20 years – away from programs funded and run by organizations in Europe and the United States, and toward those in the developing world whose concerns are locally dictated, driven, and paid for.

“Though change has been slow, things are definitely shifting,” says Mr. Sriskandarajah of CIVICUS. “You have local organizations building capacity. You have new donors on the scene like Turkey, China, and India, who don’t necessarily see the world the same way as the old Western donor countries do, and then you have groups like Gift of the Givers that grew up in South Africa but are now using their experiences to help in other parts of the world.” 

Gift’s African origins have long been a significant advantage to the organization’s work, says Mr. Morton, the journalist and author. During a Gift of the Givers famine relief operation in Somalia in 2011, for instance, he listened to a woman remark that the group’s doctors were the first relief workers she had met who played with her children, a small act of compassion she couldn’t forget.

“It can be easier to understand poverty and suffering when you come from a place where it is also part of your day-to-day [life],” says Morton. “I think Gift has an abiding sense of compassion because of apartheid: There’s an almost instinctive understanding of the dynamics of tragedy and need coming from the place that they do.” 

Its roots have also made the organization feel more of a moral imperative to help at home. In the years since its founding, the charity has watched as the gap between the country’s rich and poor has opened even wider – along with the chasm between the promises of democracy and its reality a generation into its evolution.  

“There are good ideas and bright people [in government], but implementation is a problem, and that’s the gap we’re still stepping into,” says Badr Kazi, Gift’s corporate liaison manager. With social welfare projects often tangled up in Kafkaesque bureaucracy, or funds siphoned off by corrupt officials, he says there remains a pronounced need for the work of charitable organizations like Gift – something that 20 years ago many here wouldn’t have expected. 

“The continued growth of Gift is in a way an indictment on South African society,” he says.

On a recent morning in Phuthaditjhaba, a town in South Africa’s drought-parched Free State province, a Gift truck trundles up to a well the organization drilled earlier this year. A knot of women are gathered around it, filling heavy buckets with water. 

No water has come from the taps in their homes in nearly a year, they say, since the water at a local dam plunged to a dangerously low level and the municipality shut off service completely. The government-sponsored water trucks that come by twice a week to fill the gap, meanwhile, aren’t enough.

Gift has drilled 15 wells in the area this year, says Emily Thomas, who runs the group’s relief work for the drought, which has been among the worst to hit Southern Africa in the past half century. But the need is overwhelming. The pumps are now so overused that they break down frequently. Gift doesn’t always have the resources to maintain them, and neither does the local municipality.

“There’s no budget to build as fast as we need,” says Alphia Makhoba, a water superintendent for the municipality. “We constantly need more and more and more.” 

On this day, the Gift team has brought along 300 food parcels – bags of staple goods such as beans and flour. As they pass them out to those gathered around the well, the crowd grows. Soon, the packets are gone, but the people aren’t. As Gift’s staff prepare to leave, several women kneel in the dust in front of the truck, quietly scooping up individual beans that have spilled out of bags. 

“It’s so hard to go after a once-off drop like that, because each time you do, you know that you leave, but the poverty stays,” Ms. Thomas says. 

•     •     •

In the early hours of Dec. 6, 2014, as the Gift of the Givers staff in Johannesburg and Yemen slept, another hostage rescue mission had already begun, entirely unbeknown to them. 

Around 1 a.m. local time, a cluster of V-22 Osprey military aircraft touched down in an isolated village in the Shabwah Governorate of Yemen, disgorging a team of 40 US Navy SEALs into the quiet night. 

They hiked for six miles into the desert until they reached a walled compound where intelligence had pinpointed that an American photojournalist named Luke Somers was being held by Al Qaeda operatives. 

But before the team could reach the compound, they were spotted, touching off an intense firefight. By the time it was over, and the SEALs rushed into the compound, Mr. Somers had been killed. So had Pierre Korkie – who the US forces said they hadn’t known was also there.

“We were not aware in advance about any release plans for other hostages,” an anonymous US official told The New York Times after the failed raid. “That was not part of our planning.”

But Sooliman says to this day that he can’t believe that. 

“I think the US government knew we were going in because the Yemeni government tells them everything and we had told the Yemeni government,” he says. The US government has continued to deny that claim, but has apologized repeatedly for Pierre’s death, and both Yolande and Sooliman say they hold no grudge. 

When it comes to work, “I’m emotionless. My wife tells me, ‘You’re an alien. You’re not from this planet,’ ” Sooliman says. “I’m very caring, but I don’t get personally involved. Otherwise, after two days, I’d be unable to function in this job. I would have had to give it up 20 years ago.”

In fact, no sooner had Sooliman attended Pierre’s memorial service than he started in again, undeterred, on another hostage negotiation, this one with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali. There were now two new families – one South African, one Swedish – waiting for word from him on their loved ones. The two men were captured while visiting the country as tourists in 2011. And there was a new Anas al-Hamati, too, a wiry Malian businessman named Mohamed Yehia Dicko, who had contacted Gift in Johannesburg and offered to help after hearing Sooliman speak about the hostages on a local radio program.

In mid-2015, Sooliman sent him off to Mali, where he followed Hamati’s lead – crisscrossing the country’s impoverished desert areas using charity to catch the eye of locals, and, he hoped, the captors. “We just wanted to be a trusted presence,” Mr. Dicko says. “This situation needs someone who all parties can trust to negotiate in good faith.”

Both hostages remain in custody, but there are halting signs of progress. In October 2015, the captors sent Dicko short “proof of life” videos on a flash drive, showing the two men assuring their families and governments that they were alive. 

“My wife and my family ... I understand that I may be seeing you soon. I believe that there is a ... South African organization involved now brokering the release,” says Stephen McGown, the South African hostage, his cheeks sunken but his eyes bright. “I thank this organization for everything, for bringing this to a close and having me home soon.”

He pauses, swallowing hard. “Thank you.” 

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