Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife, Bilquis, run the Edhi Foundation, a pioneering, 60-year-old social work network that includes Karachi's only ambulance service, orphanages, a bakery to feed the poor, and a morgue and burial service.
Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife, Bilquis, run the Edhi Foundation, a pioneering, 60-year-old social work network that includes Karachi's only ambulance service, orphanages, a bakery to feed the poor, and a morgue and burial service. Julie McCarthy/NPR
Toddlers rest at one of the Edhi Foundation's orphanages in Karachi. Under the supervision of Bilquis Edhi, the group has placed some 19,000 children — many left on the doorsteps of foundation offices throughout the city — for adoption.
Toddlers rest at one of the Edhi Foundation's orphanages in Karachi. Under the supervision of Bilquis Edhi, the group has placed some 19,000 children — many left on the doorsteps of foundation offices throughout the city — for adoption. Julie McCarthy/NPR
Rows of numbered but unnamed graves stretch across the vast cemetery on the outskirts of Karachi where the Edhi Foundation buries the city's unidentified dead. In the foundation's own morgue, Abdul and Bilquis Edhi have personally washed and prepared for burial tens of thousands of unclaimed dead bodies.
Rows of numbered but unnamed graves stretch across the vast cemetery on the outskirts of Karachi where the Edhi Foundation buries the city's unidentified dead. In the foundation's own morgue, Abdul and Bilquis Edhi have personally washed and prepared for burial tens of thousands of unclaimed dead bodies. Junaid Khan/NPR
Gravediggers hold a short funeral service over the burial site of a young man who was found dead in the streets of Karachi. Over the decades, the Edhi Foundation has buried tens of thousands of dead whom authorities cannot identify and whose families do not claim them.
Gravediggers hold a short funeral service over the burial site of a young man who was found dead in the streets of Karachi. Over the decades, the Edhi Foundation has buried tens of thousands of dead whom authorities cannot identify and whose families do not claim them. Julie McCarthy/NPR
Abdul Sattar Edhi has personally washed tens of thousands of corpses that he has rescued from gutters, beneath bridges and from the sea. The 82-year-old Pakistani has devoted his life to the destitute of Karachi, burying the city's forgotten and giving fresh life to its abandoned newborns. His pioneering social work has drawn comparisons to Mother Teresa's.
His mission is synonymous with this sprawling port city, where rickshaws bearing veiled women, scooters spewing smoke and drivers pressing palms to horns all squeeze in the narrow streets through spaces as thin as a ray of hope.
Amid the chaos, in an aging building, is the room Edhi bought nearly 60 years ago to use as a dispensary. He arrived with the mass migration of Muslims from India six days after Pakistan's independence. Edhi was barely 20 when he began the work that would make him arguably the most respected figure in Pakistan.
"I saw people lying on the pavement," he recalls. "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."
The single room has grown to a three-story headquarters. Donations, mostly from ordinary Pakistanis, have already topped $36 million this year. The vast philanthropic network offers Karachi's poorest what could be called cradle-to-grave service.
Women's Suffering Starts At Birth
The Edhi Foundation runs two maternity wards in Karachi. Since 1948, 1 million children have been delivered in Edhi facilities — virtually for free, according to Edhi.
His wife, Bilquis, runs one of the maternity wards in Karachi. She has a sunny disposition that contrasts with the suffering there. Just 40 minutes after delivery, one mother, grimacing in pain, gets up to leave.
"In the past, they would stay for three days," Bilquis Edhi says. "But now, even if they have stitches, the women don't linger."
The mother says this was her third child; Bilquis Edhi suspects it is her sixth.
"Islam is driving this," she says. Conservative clerics call family planning haram, or forbidden. As a result, she says, "Women keep producing babies, and these women are dying in the process."
A bright pink veil is placed carelessly across Bilquis Edhi's head. At 62, her skin still glows. Despite bypass surgery, she continues a marathon schedule devoted to helping impoverished women.
In this conservative society, women's problems start from birth, she says.
"When a baby girl is born here, the man storms out cursing his wife. But whenever there is a male born, the men celebrate and offer us tea," she says.
"Most of the babies who are left in the cradle at our doorstep are girls," she adds. "Sometimes the babies are tossed in garbage heaps, gagged and wrapped in plastic bags. In one week, we can get as many as 11 dead babies."
Death With Dignity
The babies are brought to the Edhi morgue, where the acrid smell of embalming fills the air. Employees who are paid a small stipend load a corpse into an ambulance to be taken to the cemetery. It is a long slender body prepared for burial. It bears a number, but it bears no name. The Edhi Foundation buries bodies that cannot be identified.
The makeshift hearse snakes its way to the Edhi Foundation's cemetery on the outskirts of the city. Mohammad Saleem has been a driver for the Edhi ambulance service for 24 years. The service now operates throughout the country. Saleem recalls his first assignment.
"Mr. Edhi sent us to collect a dead body, and the stink was so unbearable I couldn't stand it. We all ran," Saleem says. "We came back with Mr. Edhi, who showed us how to pick up a dead body and transport it."
"We work long hours," Saleem adds, "but we're at ease. We have a kind of spiritual peace because somehow we're serving humanity."
The two young men being laid to rest this day will be interred in a place as bleak as their lives likely were. The van bearing their bodies bumps along the potholed unpaved streets. Little boys rush to sneak a peak through the window, while babies sit like Buddhas in the endless debris.
Gravediggers cover the corpses that have been slipped into the earth of this forlorn field with nothing but a white sheet. In Karachi, death comes without pity.
Finding Homes For Unwanted Children
There is not an area of social need that the Edhi Foundation has not touched, even raising money for the families displaced by the fighting in Swat Valley and pleading with judges to reform the prisons.
The group also has placed more than 19,000 abandoned babies with adoptive parents.
Karachi lawyer Tahera Hassan wanted a baby girl and approached the Edhi Foundation. Not long after, Bilquis Edhi took her utterly by surprise when she called to say that her baby was ready. But her husband wasn't. He was away.
"So I called him up," Hassan says, "and I was like, 'The baby's come!' He said, 'How will we know? How will you know it's the right one?' I said, 'Well, the baby's there. It's the right one! It's there.' So I went and got her."
That baby, Maya, is now 3 — and looking forward to having a baby sister from the Edhi Foundation. Mother and daughter visit Bilquis Edhi regularly so Maya will have a connection to the people Hassan calls "phenomenal."
She says they are able to look at the positive side of things, despite the misery they deal with on a day-to-day basis.
'I Feel Happy God Made Me Different'
Adbul Edhi, bearded and slight, calls himself a "pragmatic humanist." He also has been called a communist for his belief that the rich enslave the poor. In fact, Edhi says, poverty is spreading terrorism.
"Almost all of our leaders are involved in looting and plundering, and the Taliban are a reaction to that," he says.
Bilquis Edhi says of her husband, "Everyone said I was crazy to marry him. Friends joked that while they'd go on picnics, he'd take me to graveyards."
But the man who built Pakistan's biggest social service network with no formal education says he does feel a bit crazy, and he revels in it.
"I feel happy. There's so much craftiness and cunning and lying in the world. I feel happy that God made me different from the others. I helped the most oppressed," he says.
Bilquis Edhi says three or four more people like her husband could change the destiny of Pakistan.