PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The aging man in mud-splattered, frayed clothes has barely lowered his body onto the sidewalk when the money starts piling up. Heeding his call for donations for flood victims, Pakistanis of all classes rush to hand over cash to Abdul Sattar Edhi, whose years of dedication to the poor have made him a national icon.
He thanks each donor, some of whom ask to have their photo taken next to him. Four hours later, the crowd remains — and the equivalent of $15,000 is overflowing from a pink basket in front of him.
Edhi has been helping the destitute and sick for more than 60 years, filling the hole left by a state that has largely neglected the welfare of its citizens. Part Mother Teresa, part Gandhi, with a touch of Marx, he is the face of humanitarianism in Pakistan.
Funded by donations from fellow citizens, his 250 centers across the country take in orphans, the mentally ill, unwanted newborns, drug addicts, the homeless, the sick and the aged. His fleet of ambulances picks up victims of terrorist bombings, gang shootings, car accidents and natural disasters.
Pakistan's corruption-riddled government acknowledges Edhi and other charities do the work that in other nations the state performs. The country has no national health service, insurance program or welfare system, and few state-run orphanages or old people's homes.
The foundation offers an alternative to charitable work performed by hardline Islamist groups in Pakistan, some with alleged links to terrorism. The spread of these organizations has triggered concerns in the West, including their work in the aftermath of this summer's floods.
Edhi is a devout Muslim, but critical of Islamic clerics in general, not just extremists. He says they focus on ritual, preaching hellfire and defending the faith against imagined enemies, rather than helping the poor — which he says should be the cornerstone of all faiths.
The 80-something Edhi — he and his children disagree on his exact age — lives with his wife, herself a charity worker, in a tiny room in one of his welfare centers in Karachi, a bustling port city. His bed is a one-inch thick mattress on a piece of wood.
"I am a beggar for the poor," he says, stained teeth showing in a wide smile, eyes sparkling after a week touring flood-hit areas. "Serving humanity is the biggest jihad. It is the real thing."
Dealing with birth and death
Edhi deals with birth and death, and almost everything in between.
Just above his bedroom, a maternity ward and an orphanage are home to 18 children, many of them abandoned by their mothers in cradles left outside his centers. They wear hand-me-downs from the city's rich. Edhi's wife, Bilquis, tries to get the children adopted, but few Pakistanis want to take girls or older children, she says.
On a recent afternoon, the kids shouted out English nursery rhymes and danced. They then sat cross-legged on the floor, drinking tea from plastic mugs and eating spicy pastries and sticky sweets that an anonymous benefactor had dropped off.
The home was clean and bright, with plenty of toys and loving staff. But there was no place to play outside, and the roar of motorbikes from the lanes below was a constant backdrop.
Across town, workers at the Edhi morgue were dealing with latest influx of bodies. They receive around 25 a day, half of which are never claimed — the city's unloved and unknown.
Working quickly but carefully, they cut the clothes from the bodies, lather them with a bar of soap from head to toe, rinse them with water from a jug, then wrap them in a white sheet. The bodies are bussed across town, prayed over and buried in unmarked graves.
The body of American journalist Daniel Pearl, killed by al-Qaida terrorists in Karachi in 2002, was picked up by an Edhi ambulance and taken to the morgue, the largest in the city of 14 million people.
The morgue is attached to a hospital for the homeless, a dispensary, a shelter for boys and women and children, even a wedding hall for the marriages arranged for children who have been looked after by the foundation. The smell of baking bread from an oven that churns out 9,000 loaves a day fills the air.
"The poor can come here and get a solution to all their problems," says Ejal Hassan Zaidi, who had accompanied a neighbor to the morgue to collect the body of his 3-year-old daughter, killed in a hit-and-run incident hours earlier. "From the cradle to the grave."
Family moved to Pakistan in 1947
Born in what is now India, Edhi and his parents moved to Pakistan in 1947 when that country was created as a Muslim state at the end of British colonial rule. The family was quite well off — his father was a traveling salesman — and socially progressive.
In his biography, Edhi credits his mother for setting him on a humanitarian path. She urged him to give half his pocket money to someone poor every day and rebuked him if he didn't.
"'You have a selfish heart, one that has nothing to give,'" he remembers her saying. "'What kind of human being are you? Look at the greed in your eyes. Already you have started robbing the poor. How much more will you rob from them in your lifetime?"
When she was dying, he looked after her, bathing her emaciated body and washing and braiding her hair — experiences that would also shape his life.
"The first night she spent in the grave, I dedicated my life to the service of mankind," he says.
Edhi started small. In 1951, he bought an eight-foot-square shop in a slum neighborhood in Karachi that he converted into a dispensary. Seven years later he bought a van that he used as an ambulance, writing "Poor Man's Van" on both sides.
He became intimately involved in the business of caring for the sick and dying. He would drive the ambulance to the scene of an accident to pick up the bodies, administer injections during a flu outbreak and travel across the country to help after earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Edhi's record of round-the-clock service and frugal lifestyle attracted donations, and he soon had a fleet of 14 ambulances. In the 1980s and 90s, he opened centers and ambulance services throughout the country. He donated $200,000 to relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, and his workers have also helped out in disasters in Asia and the Middle East.
Pakistanis generous with giving
Pakistanis are a generous people, required by their Muslim faith to give away 2.5 percent of their wealth each year. The last nationwide survey done in 1998 showed that Pakistanis gave the then equivalent of $820 million to charity, around the same as the government's health and education budget at the time. There are no numbers on how rising terrorism and a poor economy have affected this philanthropy.
Edhi does not accept donations from international organizations or governments, including Pakistan's, saying he doesn't need outside help and it is important for Pakistanis to help each other. He and his wife live simply of the interest from some savings.
The foundation does not produce detailed financial statements or annual reports. Edhi points to a wall of files in one office in which he says everything is accounted for. Donors do not seem to mind, such is their trust in him.
"You ask any Pakistani on the streets, Edhi is total credible with them," says Anjum Haque, the executive director of the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy. "The success of the trust is down to Edhi himself."
Last year, donations to Edhi-run charities totaled around $5 million, according to Faisal Edhi, the founder's son and trust member. A significant chunk of the funds comes from overseas Pakistanis, who want to donate to their homeland.
The lack of transparency has caused some concern among others in the charity sector in Pakistan. Faisal Edhi acknowledges that some of their 13,000 employees — who receive very modest salaries — might skim money off donations. There have also been questions raised about the lack of professionalism and efficiency, specially as the foundation has grown.
Edhi Village, a 65-acre complex in the undulating hills beyond the northern slums of Karachi, is home to 300 children, many picked up off the streets, and 900 adults, many elderly or suffering from mental disabilities.
Most wear clean, ironed clothes, and the food is fresh. Yet there are also signs of neglect. One naked youth dragged himself through a puddle. Some had no shoes and begged visitors to buy them a pair.
The adults live in rooms around the size of three tennis courts, bare except for raised sections for sleeping. They are locked inside for part of the day. There are two doctors, four nurses and two ward boys looking after them.
"We do the most we can do with our resources," says Billal Mohammad, a regional Edhi manager. "They would be living on the pavement under the sky. We give them shelter, food and treatment. You must not see this place throughout Western eyes."
'They are all looters'
Edhi has made no secret of his dislike of Pakistan's ruling class. So it was a surprise to see a gaggle of politicians using one of his orphanages in Karachi as a venue to mark the recent birthday of President Asif Ali Zardari.
The visitors spooned cake into the mouths of the children, shouted political slogans for television cameras and asked Edhi to be photographed next to them. He said he only let the politicians in so the children would have a party to enjoy.
"So what if the politicians are using me? They even use God," said Edhi, who sat by himself for most of the event. "Landowners, clerics, politicians. They are all looters. There is no fear in telling the truth."
Hardline Islamist groups have criticized Edhi for his progressive views on women and the secular nature of his work. Some have said that by accepting newly born babies from unmarried mothers, he is promoting premarital sex.
"We meet them and we read their newspapers. They say we are non-Muslims, unbelievers and communists," says Faisal Edhi. "The jihadi groups don't like us. They don't believe in humanity."
There are questions about what will happen to the foundation when Edhi dies. He says his two sons and three daughters will take over, though without him at the helm, people may not give as generously.
For now, his children appear more concerned about their father's health. Apart from an afternoon nap, he works just as hard as he did when he was in his 30s, they say.
"We tell him to take it easy, but he doesn't listen," says daughter Almas Edhi. "He wants to keep busy."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.