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Profile : He Works Wonders in Pakistan : 'I am just a simple man,' Abdul Sattar Edhi says. 'A simple man trying to bring a social revolution. . . .'


KARACHI, Pakistan — It is before dawn, and Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife are trying to brighten the darkness of one of the world's poorest cities.

Rolling off his rope cot, Edhi walks into the next room to bathe the body of a small boy, found dead in the gutter and brought here by police. Later his wife, Bilquis, appears from another room to wash and wrap an old woman's thin corpse in white shrouds and send it to a nearby mosque for funeral prayers.

Soon the 61-year-old Edhi is at his cluttered desk. An anguished father pleads for treatment for his sick daughter. Edhi forgives the fee with a wave of his hand. A judge phones to say he is sending over a runaway. Another caller has found an abandoned baby. Finally, a wild-eyed man runs in and pulls a wad of crumpled rupees from his pocket. Edhi saved his son's life, he shouts.

"This is all I have," the man cries, pushing the money at Edhi. "You are a saint!"

Edhi shakes his head and smiles. It's not the first time he's been called saintly in the three decades since he started the city's first free ambulance service and drug dispensary after watching his mother fall sick and die while he scoured Karachi for medicines unavailable to the poor.

"I am just a simple man," says Edhi with a grin. "A simple man trying to bring a social revolution in Pakistan."

To a remarkable extent, Edhi is succeeding. Using private donations and thousands of volunteers, he has built the largest, best organized and most surprising private social service network in South Asia. It has eclipsed a pitifully inadequate public system while helping literally millions of people here in Pakistan's largest city and beyond.

Based in a dingy three-story building on a busy back lane, the Edhi Foundation now commands a fleet of 550 ambulances, including two planes and a helicopter. There are blood banks, orphanages, family-planning clinics, a tuberculosis hospital, an eye hospital and a kidney dialysis center.

Edhi has shelters for battered women, runaway boys and abused animals. His agencies deliver babies, treat heroin addicts, feed the poor and bury the dead. He's begun building a network of roadside first-aid centers, each with an ambulance, every 35 miles along Pakistan's highways. When a ferry sank recently, he decided to create a sea-borne ambulance service as well.

Edhi has helped drought-starved farmers, flood-ravaged villages and warring ethnic clans. His ambulances are the first at fires, street riots and train wrecks. He refuses any subsidies from the government. "I just want to do something for my country," he explains.

And that's just at home. He raises money from Pakistanis in California, New York and in Europe and sends blankets to Afghan war refugees, food to Somalia's starving, tents to earthquake victims in Armenia and aid to war and disaster victims in Bangladesh, Lebanon, India, Iran and elsewhere. His goal is to bank enough money now to make the foundation self-supporting after he dies.

"I'm no longer retail," says Edhi, who has only a sixth-grade education. "I'm wholesale now."

By all accounts, Edhi has changed little as his empire has expanded. He wears the same coarse blue-gray, pajama-like shirts 24 hours a day, often for weeks at a time. He still needs an Urdu translator so his staff can understand his thickly accented native Gujarat. He and his wife still sleep in the same simple room where they began their marriage, close by the tin-topped table where they wash the nameless dead brought in from the streets each night.

"I don't know what the city would do without him," says an admiring Western diplomat in Karachi. "I don't know what the country would do without him. He's the major social service system for the whole country."

Edhi is a tall man with a rough-hewn face and a long white beard in the Muslim style. He is balding, but what hair is left is cut close. He has chestnut-red cheeks that crinkle when he laughs out loud, which is often. His eyes are piercing.

"He never asks people for anything," says his aide, Anwar Kasmi. "The people believe in him. So they give to him. And he motivates them to help themselves."

Edhi's father was a wealthy grain dealer outside Bombay. But he credits his mother for the work he does today.

"It was my mother's teaching," he recalls as he drives an ambulance van to Korangi, a north Karachi suburb where he runs a home for 250 boys. "When I used to go to school, she would give me two paise and tell me to spend one and give the other to the poor."

His mother, he quickly adds, gave him no religious instruction. Edhi says he is a Muslim--but adds that human rights is his real religion. And that has brought him trouble from Karachi's conservative clerics. Several denounced him and forbade people to give Islamic charity to him.

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