The Little Shoulders on Which Rests the Biggest Welfare Empire in the World
By Rabia Ali / Photo Aysha Saleem
One evening, around five months ago, a frail Edhi Sahib, the country’s most loved social worker, called out to his son who was leaving the center to go home to his wife and four children. “Faisal tum meray pass yaheen rahna. Kaheen mat jana [Faisal, you stay here with me, don't go anywhere],” were the unexpected words uttered by a man who has never been fond of emotions or embraces.
The son had been waiting for these words his entire life. They were enough to make him stay. Faisal decided to settle down, then and there, in his father’s modest room at their Mithadar head office.
“It upsets me to see him this way. He has always been so active,” says Faisal, glancing at his father sitting next to him, during an interview with The Express Tribune. An almost bald head over a round face that extends into a prominent nose, Faisal looks a lot like his father.
Edhi’s health is deteriorating fast and, as the elderly man swings between his house and the SIUT, Faisal does not dare leave him or the foundation.
Health woes brought on by old age and renal failure have made Edhi, now 87 years old, almost retire from work and his beloved Edhi Foundation. The latter, with an annual expenditure of over Rs1 billion, is now being looked after by Faisal.
It is the philanthropist’s wish that Faisal run the foundation after him. “My will is that Faisal runs the Edhi Foundation,” says Edhi. When asked if the son would be able to run it the way his father did, he runs a hand through his white beard, stares straight ahead and replies firmly, “He is capable of running it. InshaAllah [God-willing] he will.”
Time spent with Edhi at this stage of his life is making up for Faisal’s childhood, which he lost to mentally challenged children or victims of killings. Edhi was always too busy with his work. These days, however, in their room where the beds lie next to one another, the father and son duo enjoy Noor Jehan’s ‘Dukae dil jo kisi ka, woh admi kia hai,’ well past midnight. In the daytime, they have brief conversations on life hereafter. When Faisal goes to his office to work, Edhi calls him after every 15 minutes to see if he is still there. He always is.
An unusual childhood: One of Edhi’s four children, Faisal was born in 1976. “I was born in my own house,” he says pointing towards the ceiling, the labor room situated just above his office.
Edhi and Bilquis were not typical parents, always caught up in their charity work. The children seldom saw their parents and were raised in their grandmother’s two-room house. They would meet once a week on Friday afternoon for lunch.
Other days, Faisal would run through the narrow lanes for 10 minutes from his grandmother’s house to get to the center to spend the night there. Studying in the locality’s Kutiyana Memon School for primary studies and Madrassa Islamiat School for secondary, he was less interested in studying and more in cycling and driving.
“When Pappa would go abroad, I would beg him to bring back a battery-operated car. But I never got it. He said it was a waste of money.” To quench his love for cycling, Faisal would drive the orphan’s bicycles in Sohrab Goth or rent them in the neighborhood for Rs1 per 15 minutes.
His other wish was to see his father dressed in a suit instead of his signature grey shalwar kameez. “But he never wore it. I wish I had seen him in a suit once.”
Faisal’s childhood also carried lifelong lessons. Men in the neighborhood would criticize Edhi for his liberal and unorthodox views. “Your father is an unbeliever,” they would say.
While the child would respond angrily, Edhi would tell him to remain claim and not to dignify them with a response. “Leave them. Our work is not fighting,” he would say.
Faisal and his siblings were also trained not to think of the ambulances and centers as their own property. “Everything belongs to the people. Nothing is ours,” Edhi would say to them. They were regularly reminded of the charity worker’s principles of truth, honesty, simplicity, hard work and punctuality. From a young age, Edhi involved Faisal in his work. The young man would stand beside his father when he would bathe the deceased or offer funeral prayers. There is one particular incident that he remembers to this day.
When Faisal was nine, he and his father went to recover a four-day-old body in Gulistan-e-Jauhar. “The body was in a suitcase and it was open. I was terrified as there were insects and worms. I ran away and sat in the car alone but I felt someone was with me.” For the next seven days, Faisal suffered high fever and sleepless nights.
“That was the first and last time I was afraid. Like Pappa, I have never been afraid again.”
To the US and back: In the late 80s, when Faisal was 13, he was sent to America by the family. “Mummy was scared that I would be killed as people were rallying against Edhi. Violence was also breaking out in the city,” said Faisal.
He first went to stay with a surgeon in Florida, later moving to his elder brother Kutab’s place in the US. Faisal remembers selling newspapers in New York to support himself.
However, he came back after three years and joined college to complete his studies. As Faisal grew up, like Edhi, he started reading and studying about communism. Edhi read Karl Marx in Gujrati while Faisal read it in Urdu.
At 19 years, Faisal was married to Saba, a relative’s daughter, in an arranged marriage. Always careful about spending money, Edhi made sure his son’s wedding was a low- key affair. There was no valima. “Pappa was adamant on not spending money on wedding cards. But mummy fought and had 200 cards printed.”
Faisal kept working for the organization, and later joined the University of Karachi for a Master’s degree in general history. Not many people would know that the slain reporter, Wali Khan Babar, was a close friend of Faisal in the university.
“In the university, the APMSO and Jamiat approached me but I was a socialist kind, a revolutionary. Wali Babar was in the IR department. We were both broad-minded and would often have discussion where we would talk about the distribution of resources and money.” Faisal pauses. “I was shocked when he was killed. I don’t understand why it happened”.
Life today: Where Faisal sits today, inside the headquarters of the Edhi Foundation, has been the office of Abdul Sattar Edhi for more than 30 years.
Edhi’s name plaque still hangs outside the room from where the finances of the Edhi empire: the 300 centers, 1,500 ambulances and 4,000 staff are controlled. “The finances had been handed over to me 25 years ago when Edhi Sahib said I would be handling the checks,” he explains.
The senior Edhi never liked computers. Faisal has a black laptop perched on top of his table. Edhi never cared about documentation. The son stresses on documenting everything; the room now has a cupboard with record files and boxes filled with receipts.
But there are more similarities than differences. Like Edhi, Faisal doesn’t care about clothes, housing or food. His motorcycle, he claims, is his only property.
As Faisal spends most of his time at the headquarters, he claims that while his wife is supportive, she does get upset with him for not coming home.
“Mummy is not feeling well too. She has a heart problem. While Pappa is getting weaker day by day, he gets angry at doctors and sometimes doesn’t take medicines.”
As he speaks, Faisal stops to receive a call from the Governor House, wanting to talk about an event. A young man comes in to offer himself as a volunteer. There is a third interruption and three excited men walk in, saying they want to run a campaign for Edhi to get a Nobel Prize.
All this makes Faisal happy and he talks about how he wants to form a control monitoring room for the ambulances and make it more tech-savvy.
He doesn’t like to think about the time when Edhi will no longer be there. But he realizes that there will be a gap and donations will dwindle. He feels that this is a huge responsibility on his shoulders. “I have plans. But without Edhi Sahib, I can’t do anything.” - The Express Tribune