'Pakistan's Mother Teresa': Google Doodle honors Abdul Sattar Edhi

The Edhi foundation runs outpatient hospitals, an adoption center, and rescue boats across the country.

Fareed Khan/AP/File
Abdul Sattar Edhi, in a wheelchair, and other members of Pakistani civil society march during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Karachi, Pakistan on Sunday, March 8, 2009.

On what would have been his 89th birthday, Google Doodle is honoring Abdul Sattar Edhi, who went from begging for donations to his own volunteer philanthropic foundation to presiding over Pakistan’s largest humanitarian organization.

It was a lifetime’s work for Mr. Edhi, who dedicated his life to caring for the poor when he was himself a penniless refugee in newly independent Pakistan. Noticing that many Pakistanis were struggling to access education, healthcare, and other services, he set out to make a difference. The first donations he received went to fund a tiny medical dispensary in Karachi and a single ambulance, which Edhi drove himself. 

In 1951, he established the Edhi Foundation, and as the foundation drew donations and volunteers over the following decades, its reach expanded across Pakistan and, ultimately, internationally. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Edhi’s foundation raised $100,000 for those in need.

It is Edhi’s message of compassion – encapsulated in his foundation’s slogan, “Live and help live,”– that prompted the Google Doodle team to select him as the subject of a doodle.

“Here’s to Edhi, whose unwavering commitment to others will always be remembered,” the company said, noting his ascetic personal life yet vast charitable involvement.

The Google Doodle, whereby Google replaces the traditional logo on its homepage with another design, “aims to celebrate interesting events and anniversaries that reflect Google’s personality and love for innovation,” according to the company. On February 28, the Google Doodle of Abdul Sattar Edhi appeared in 11 countries, including the US, Estonia, and Pakistan. It shows the philanthropist and one of his ambulances, as well as depicting a family that has been helped at one of his dispensaries.

Born in pre-partition India, Edhi learned early to help others in need. One often-told story about the philanthropist relates that his mother used to send him to school with a single paisa coin to pay for his lunch – and another to give to one of the beggars he passed on the way. After she suffered a stroke in 1939, he cared for her until her death eight years later.

In 1947, then-19-year-old Edhi moved to newly independent Pakistan. Though he had little himself, he dreamed of helping others, and began pleading for donations. He began to recruit medical students as volunteers.

Today, the Edhi Foundation – which he and his wife, Bilquis, a nurse, ran together – has rescued more than 20,000 abandoned babies, cared for 50,000 orphans, and trained more than 40,000 nurses. Edhi himself was a registered guardian for around 20,000 children. 

The foundation runs outpatient hospitals, an adoption center, and rescue boats across the country, according to Al Jazeera. It also buries unidentified bodies and provides cradles where “unwanted babies” can be left for adoption agencies.

Such progress has not come without its share of challenges, however. Edhi regularly faced death threats, and both ambulances and volunteers have been attacked. In October 2013, Islamists occupied one facility, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The baby cradles have also been criticized on religious grounds, with some saying they encourage births outside of marriage.

Though he never received the Nobel Peace Prize, a source of some controversy, Edhi’s work won him numerous prizes in his lifetime, including the Gandhi Peace Award and the Hamdan Award for Volunteers in Humanitarian Medical Service. Next month, the State Bank of Pakistan will issue a commemorative 50 rupee coin in his honor. 

But for Edhi, none of that recognition mattered. What he wanted, above all, was to impact the lives of individuals. And that he did, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said when Edhi died.

"Edhi was the real manifestation of love for those who are socially vulnerable, impoverished, helpless and poor," the prime minister said. "We have lost a great servant of humanity."

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