As a youngster in India, Edhi had to drop out of school to care for his ill mother, who was paralyzed when he was 11, and died when he was 19. His family moved to Pakistan in 1947. Rather than go back to school, Edhi decided that others needed the kind of care his mother got, so in 1951 he started a foundation in Karachi, Pakistan. He had no funding, and simply led by example: eventually people started donating to the foundation to support Edhi’s work. As the foundation grew, so did its area of operation — the entire country, and even farther — and its mission: the Edhi Foundation now runs the largest ambulance service in the country, homeless shelters, diabetes clinics, legal aid, hospitals, drug rehab services, family planning centers, orphanages and adoption centers, educational services, two blood banks, an animal hostel, nursing and old-age homes, even graveyard services.
Their core mission is to teach self-sufficiency, and Edhi modeled that, too: he ran the foundation himself for more than 60 years. “Abdul Sattar Edhi was the real manifestation of love for those who are socially vulnerable, impoverished, helpless and poor,” said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “If anyone deserves to be wrapped in the flag of the nation he served, it is him.” Edhi lived in a two-room apartment near the foundation’s headquarters, and neither he nor his wife, a nurse, accepted a salary. He shunned publicity for himself, but was dubbed the “Father Teresa” of Pakistan; clients called him “Nana” (grandfather). He was criticized for not offering Islamic prayers, and countered with the foundation’s motto: “Serving Humanity is the Spirit of All Religions.” He also promoted work opportunities for women: a quarter of the foundation’s paid employees are female. He thought society still had some growing up to do. “People have become educated,” he said, “but have yet to become human.” Edhi died July 8, while being treated for renal failure. He was 88.