THE EDHI FOUNDATION,
Top Left: In gritty
Karachi, husband-wife team saves unwanted babies
Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi are revered for their work over the last
half-century, pulling abandoned babies from the dumps and drains of this
By Joel Elliott | Contributor to The
Christian Science Monitor
from the July 14, 2008 edition
Reporter Joel Elliott discusses
the Edhi Foundation in Karachi, Pakistan.
- Tiny, pink, and asleep in the arms of an
orphanage worker, Amna didn't know she had survived being abandoned two days
earlier in one of the world's grittiest cities.
had found her crying alone outside a local hospital – one of hundreds of babies
abandoned in Pakistan each year. But helped by the Edhi Foundation, a nonprofit
humanitarian organization based in Karachi, Amna soon would be adopted by a
local couple who had been unable to have children.
heads of the foundation, the husband and wife team of Abdul Sattar Edhi and
Bilquis Edhi, have achieved a revered status for their work pulling abandoned
babies from the dumps and drains of Karachi and receiving them from mothers
with no questions asked.
more than a half-century of work, they have rescued tens of thousands of babies
and – despite prejudice against such children – placed an estimated 16,700 in
an amazing thing, because here in a society where there is no place for an
illegitimate child they are providing a place for them," says Meera Jamao,
a reporter for the newspaper Dawn. "People do hold [Mr. Edhi] in high
respect.... He is viewed as the Mother Teresa of Karachi."
foundation has encountered resistance from religious leaders and other members
of the local community, the Edhis say, because it takes in abandoned babies
regardless of ethnicity or religion. The foundation makes an effort to match
babies with people who are of the religion of their parents, if it is known – a
highly sensitive issue among the country's religious leaders.
very dangerous here," Mrs. Edhi says. "The mullahs right now only
threaten to kill us – if we gave a Muslim child to a non-Muslim family, they
would kill us for sure." But despite numerous death threats, they have
the Edhis and workers with the foundation say, they find fewer babies abandoned
in the dumps as mothers have become more aware of the service they provide. The
foundation's headquarters takes in about 300 abandoned babies each year, down
from a peak of about twice that number 30 years ago.
the foundation has grown, it has occasionally been accused of corruption among
the lower-level staffers, but the Edhis continue to maintain a broad base of
support from the public. Mr. Edhi has gradually handed over the reins to his
son, Faisal Edhi, who has worked to bolster discipline and structure in the
institution, say observers.
based on charity
couple's partnership began in 1964, when Bilquis, then 16, asked Abdul to let
her join the foundation, which he had been building for 14 years, to train and
work as a nurse. Though 20 years Bilquis's senior, Mr. Edhi soon proposed to
her – in the maternity ward – and they were married in 1966.
1970, realizing that abandonment was far more widespread than they had thought,
the couple mounted a public education campaign and began placing cradles
throughout the city in hopes of encouraging mothers to leave their unwanted
they maintain about 40 cradles in Karachi, and 350 others throughout the
country. Approximately 50,000 children at any given moment depend on the
foundation for their survival. Mrs. Edhi, a warm, motherly figure known
throughout the city as "Baji," or "big sister" in Urdu,
heads the foundation's baby rescue operation and free maternity ward in
Karachi. Mr. Edhi often rises as early as 3 a.m. to help feed some of the
orphans. With cropped white hair, a long beard, and a worn, homespun salwar
kameez, the traditional Pakistani dress, Mr. Edhi travels the country and
the world raising funds, efforts he characterizes as being "a beggar
before the public."
Edhi Foundation also runs a number of other humanitarian-based operations, including
a country-wide ambulance service, maternity wards, hospitals, morgues, and
problem of abandoned babies is partly a matter of economics, says Mr. Edhi.
"Our country is very, very poor," he explains, his spare frame
looking small behind a heavy wooden desk surrounded by posters of the
foundation's projects. "We have hundreds of thousands of hungry
its status as the country's center of commerce, Karachi's poverty rate is
around 50 percent, more than twice the rate of the country, according to a city
study. Impoverished couples often find themselves with no way to support their
growing families. With a female literacy rate of 43 percent and a deeply
entrenched dowry tradition, female babies are seen as a liability and thus
abandoned or even killed. The Edhis' records show that they find more than
twice as many abandoned girls as boys.
tens of thousands of girls spend their days in the orphanages, many until they
are married, the Edhi Foundation keeps a waiting list of several thousand
families who want a baby boy. "I tell them, I don't make boys here,"
Mrs. Edhi says. "But with so many of the people, that's all they are
a potential adoptive couple
Edhi fields dozens of inquiries daily about either adopting babies or else
leaving them in her care. Her phone rings constantly, and a string of visitors
files into her office from the dirty, crowded street that snakes through a
cluttered bazaar in downtown Karachi.
recent morning, a young couple entered her dimly lit office, silent except for
a few whispered exchanges. They carried documents indicating their annual
income, paper-clipped to a glossy photo of their wedding four years before.
They wanted a child because they were unable to conceive, Hamid Khan told Mrs.
were saying it was her problem," he said, referring to his wife, Rosina
Khan. "But it is not her problem, it is our problem. We love each other
and we don't want to split up."
Khan took out a cloth and began wiping away his tears as Mrs. Edhi interviewed
him and his wife. He explained that their parents had pressured them to
divorce. Theirs was a 'love marriage,' not an arranged one, and their parents
had taken their barrenness as a sign that the union was not meant to be.
Finally, the couple worked up the courage to ask Mrs. Edhi for a child.
Atypically, they wanted a girl. "My neighbor has a little girl, and I like
to play with her," says Mrs. Khan. "I'd like a daughter."
Mrs. Edhi verifies the couple's information and places them on a waiting list.
She doesn't grant all requests. Families with children of their own are denied,
and Mrs. Edhi tries to weed out suspicious-sounding callers. In addition, the
foundation assumes most abandoned babies have been "born Muslim," and
will only place them in Muslim homes.
come to one of the Edhi Foundation's 20 homes around Pakistan as infants or
older and remain there until adulthood if they are not adopted or claimed by
their parents. Schools attached to the orphanages provide an education that
extends into the teen years. Some stay on and work for the foundation.
children who had lived their whole lives in the orphanages knew little or
nothing about their origins. "I have been here since I was a baby,"
says Mona, a teen who like others has taken Edhi as her last name. "I like
it very much. They are my parents, and this is my family."
Information about the Edhi Foundation can be found at their
The Edhi Foundation does not accept donations from government agencies or
religious organizations, but will accept donations from individuals.
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