Pakistan Philanthropist Cares For Karachi's Forgotten Abdul Sattar Edhi, 82, has devoted his life to the destitute of Karachi, burying the city's forgotten and giving fresh life to its abandoned newborns. His pioneering work has been compared to Mother Teresa's, and donations to his vast network have already topped $36 million this year.

Pakistan Philanthropist Cares For Karachi's Forgotten

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In a county where public services often fall short, an 82-year-old man often fills in the gap. Abdul Sattar Edhi has devoted his life to Pakistans destitute. Hes personally washed tens of thousands of corpses rescued from gutters, beneath bridges and from the sea. Hes buried the forgotten and given fresh life the abandoned newborns of Karachi, one of the worlds largest cities.

NPRs Julie McCarthy traveled to Karachi.

Mr. ABDUL SATTAR EDHI: (Foreign language spoken)

JULIE MCCARTHY: Abdul Sattar Edhis 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 eight-by-eight-foot room Abdul Edhi bought nearly 60 years ago as a dispensary. He arrived with a 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.

Mr. EDHI: (Through translator) I saw people lying on the pavement. 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 I begged for donations on the street, and people gave. I bought this eight-by-eight room to start my work.

MCCARTHY: The single room has grown to a three-story headquarters. Donations, mostly from ordinary Pakistanis, topped $36 million this year. The vast philanthropic network offers Karachi's poorest what could be called cradle-to-grave service.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

MCCARTHY: In this maternity ward - one of two the foundation runs in Karachi -a newborn wails her way into life. One million children have been delivered in Edhi facilities across Pakistan since 1948 virtually for free, according to Abdul Edhi.

His wife, Bilquis, runs this operation with a sunny disposition that contrasts with the suffering here. Just 40 minutes after this latest delivery, the mother, grimacing in pain, gets up to leave.

And you actually told her to stay a half hour longer.

Ms. BILQUIS EDHI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: In the past, they would stay for three days, Bilquis says. But now, even if they have stitches, she says the women don't linger.

And while the newborns mother says this is her third child; Bilquis Edhi suspects it is her sixth.

Ms. EDHI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Islam is driving this, she says. With conservative clerics calling family planning haram, or forbidden, she says, women keep producing babies. And these women, Bilquis says, are dying in the process.

A bright pink veil carelessly lies across Bilquis's head. At 62, her skin still glows. Despite bypass surgery, she continues a marathon schedule devoted to helping impoverished women. Bilquis says in this conservative society, their problems start from birth.

Ms. EDHI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: When a baby girl is born here, the man storms out cursing his wife, she says. But whenever there is a male born, the men celebrate and offer us tea. She adds, most of the babies who are left in the cradle at our doorstep are girls. Sometimes, the babies are tossed in garbage heaps, gagged and wrapped in plastic bags. In one week, she says, we can get as many as 11 dead babies.

They are brought here

(Soundbite of gate opening)

MCCARTHY: to the Edhi morgue, where the acrid smell of embalming is in the air. Employees who are paid a small stipend load a corpse to be taken to the cemetery.

Standing before this small ambulance, theyve just laid inside a body. Its 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.

(Soundbite of sirens)

Mohammad Saleem and I follow the makeshift hearse as it snakes its way to the Edhi Foundation's cemetery on the outskirts of the city. For the past 24 years, Saleem has been a driver for the Edhi ambulance service, which now operates throughout the entire country. Saleem recalls his first assignment.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SALEEM (Driver, Edhi Ambulance Service): (Through translator) Mr. Edhi sent us to collect a dead body and the stink was so unbearable I couldn't stand it. We all ran. We came back with Mr. Edhi, who showed us how to pick up a dead body and transport it. We work long hours, but we're at ease. We have a kind of spiritual peace because somehow we're serving humanity.

MCCARTHY: 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.

(Soundbite of digging)

MCCARTHY: Gravediggers cover the corpses that have been slipped into the earth of this forlorn field with nothing but a white sheet to shroud them. In Karachi, death comes without pity.

(Soundbite of digging)

MCCARTHY: There is not an area of social need that the Edhi Foundation has not touched - 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.

Did you want a girl?

Ms. TAHERA HASSAN (Lawyer): Yeah, yeah, definitely, definitely, yeah.

MCCARTHY: Karachi lawyer Tahera Hassan says 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.

Ms. HASSAN: So I called him up and I was like, the baby's come. He like, how do you know? How will you know? How will you know it's the right one? I said, well, it's the right one. It's there. So, you know, I went and got her.

MCCARTHY: Maya is now three and looking forward to having a baby sister from the Edhi Foundation. Mother and daughter visit Bilquis Edhi regularly so that Maya will have a connection to the people Tahera calls phenomenal.

Ms. HASSAN: Because the kind of misery that they deal with on a day-to-day basis and they still look at the positive of things.

MCCARTHY: Abdul Edhi, bearded and slight, calls himself a pragmatic humanist. Hes also been called a communist for his belief that the rich enslave the poor. In fact, Edhi says, poverty is spreading terrorism.

Mr. EDHI: (Through translator) Almost all of our leaders are involved in looting and plundering, and the Taliban are a reaction to that.

MCCARTHY: Everyone said I was crazy to marry him, says wife Bilquis, and 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.

Mr. EDHI: (Through translator) I feel happy. There's so much craftiness and cunning and lying in world. I feel happy that God made me different from the others. I helped the most oppressed.

MCCARTHY: Bilquis Edhi says three or four more crazy people like him could change the destiny of Pakistan.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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