Left in Abdul Sattar Edhi jhoolas at birth, decades later these men are at the forefront of Pakistan’s Covid-19 battle
Legacy of Abdul Sattar Edhi. Abid* wakes up every morning, has breakfast and takes a shower before heading to the Edhi Centre in Kharadar in old Karachi where he volunteers. His commute is about 15 minutes by motorbike, but these days it feels shorter. Since March 23, as some form of a government-imposed lockdown has been in place, Karachi’s roads have been wearing a deserted look.
Abid vrooms past the uncharacteristically quiet metropolis and gets to the centre. On his way, he crosses one of Edhi’s jhoolas (baby cradles). This particular cradle has been here for years. Much has changed around it during this time. The road on which it is located has been renamed from Bunder Road to M.A. Jinnah Road. Governments have come and gone. And Abdul Sattar Edhi, the beloved founder of the Edhi Foundation, has passed. But his legacy has lived on. And despite being a little rusty now, the jhoolas have stood the test of time.
These jhoolas, 300 of which are installed at emergency Edhi centres around the country, are a unique concept. People can leave unwanted babies in these cradles, no questions asked. Most jhoolas around the country have a quote written on them: “Qatal na karain, jhoolay main daal dein [Do not kill the child, leave them in the cradle].”
Sometimes these cradles remain empty for months. But this has not been the case during the lockdown. As recently as April 19, a newborn girl was left in the Abdul Sattar Edhi jhoola close to the godown where Abid currently volunteers. About three decades ago, the now 34-year-old was also left in the very same jhoola.
The vast majority of children under care at the Abdul Sattar Edhi centres are eventually adopted. Every year, the foundation gives over 250 babies and children up for adoption. Till date, over 23,000 babies and children have joined families that were previously childless. But not every child — or family — is as lucky.
He fears for his family, as he goes back to his wife and four children every night. Still, he manages to take solace in the fact that the ration he is packing has reached thousands of needy people, not only in Karachi, but in other cities of Sindh and Balochistan as well.
“There are hundreds of such children, who have been raised [at our centres] and are still living in the shelter homes of our organisation,” Faisal Edhi, the head of the Edhi Foundation, tells Eos. There are currently 100 adult men in Karachi who were left in the baby cradles as kids and have grown up at Edhi’s shelters.
Some of these individuals, like Abid, go on to become volunteers with the foundation and are amongst the first responders during a crisis. Even today, as most Pakistanis are being encouraged to stay at home, these men, often donning red shirts that read “EDHI 115”, are out on the frontlines, embodying the values that Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founding father of the foundation, inculcated in them.
Volunteers are sitting in a circle under a shade, filling small plastic bags with pulses, wheat, flour and rice. Abid joins them. Their hands move fast, but they are precise with the quantity they put in each bag. All these items have been donated to the foundation, Abid tells Eos. “We do not know who sent this donation,” he says, not taking a break from his work while speaking to us. “We are making small packs to send to the poor and needy people who are currently unable to earn their livelihoods due to the ongoing lockdown,” he adds.
A few steps away, around a dozen volunteers of the charity put sacks of the ration on medical stretchers, using them as trolleys. The ration is then loaded into ambulances and, soon, staff on field operational duties gets on its way to start distribution.
“We have opened 120 sacks of essential commodities for packing today,” a volunteer tells Eos. Twenty-five volunteers work on ration-packing these days. Fifteen live in a nearby shelter home and 10 others come from the Edhi Home in the Sohrab Goth area.
While tasks like giving ghusl (funerary bath) are performed by individuals hired by the foundation on a monthly salary, other jobs such as packing are distributed within the Abdul Sattar Edhi family. Indeed, many of the volunteers working at the godown have been brought up at Edhi shelter homes. “This is a great service to humanity,” Abid proudly says, as he cleans sweat from his forehead and face, not covered by a mask.
Abid, who is clearly smart and witty, appears to lead other younger volunteers. It makes sense that the youngsters would look up to him. After all, Abid has similarly volunteered with the foundation in the past. “I have also volunteered during disasters such as floods, heatwaves, rains, etc,” he says. Usually, Abid works in the automobile workshop at the foundation. In return, he gets a small stipend and the foundation has helped him and his family with accommodation.
He recognises, though, that the current crisis is different from those in the past. He fears for his family, as he goes back to his wife and four children every night. Still, he manages to take solace in the fact that the ration he is packing has reached thousands of needy people, not only in Karachi, but in other cities of Sindh and Balochistan as well. Many volunteers seem to hope the blessings they would get from this work would keep them protected.
Nasir, another volunteer, considers himself lucky to have the chance to serve humanity. “Yeh kaam har kisi ke naseeb mein nahin hota [Not everyone is destined to do such work],” says the volunteer, who like Abid was raised at an Edhi Centre.
Unlike Abid, Nasir was not left behind in an Edhi jhoola. He is actually neither an orphan, nor was he left at the centre. He was born in a poverty-stricken household in Punjab. When he was five, he ran away from his home. He snuck on to a train and reached Lahore by chance. But once in the city, he was caught by the police and handed over to the Edhi Foundation.
As a young boy, the chances that he would be adopted were quite high. It was not long before he was adopted by a family in Lahore. “They promised to keep me like their own,” he tells Eos. But that was far from the truth, he says, without getting into details. Soon, he found himself back at the shelter.
A ray of hope appeared again when a family in Karachi adopted him. But they too were unable to accept him as their own, Nasir says. “They also treated me like a servant,” he says, with tears welling in his eyes. “I left that family and returned to the charity.”
Every year, a special cross-country bus takes missing children to different cities in an attempt to reunite them with their loved ones. “Of the 400 such children who were living in shelters with me, 200 managed to find their families,” Nasir tells Eos. He also went on the bus twice, but did not find his parents. Disappointed, he decided not to take the bus a third time.
“Yeh barray sawaab ka kaam hai [This is God’s work],” Nasir says. “Helping the needy.”
Those left in the jhoolas are different, says Faisal Edhi. These children are either born out of wedlock or their parents leave them in the cradle due to poverty. Often, girls are given up because many people do not want to raise daughters. And even during adoption, many people want to try and adopt sons.
Then there are children with intellectual disabilities. “Parents mostly abandon these children being unable to afford their upbringing, both in terms of the hard work involved and the monetary cost,” he says.
The welfare organisation currently shelters some 250 girls and boys under the age of 18 in Karachi alone. When these children grow up, most of the men and women serve in the offices of the charity as volunteers. They are not hired as employees, and are instead provided a small stipend, food and shelter. In addition to the 100 men still with the organisation, 350 women who grew up at the shelters in Karachi continue to live with the foundation. They primarily take care of the elderly individuals housed at the shelters.
“They can leave the shelter home once they are adults,” Muhammad Bilal, an office-bearer at the foundation’s head office in Kharadar, Karachi, tells Eos. “It is their choice,” he says.
Unfortunately, however, these individuals do not have many choices ahead of them. Some like Abid and Nasir continue volunteering with the foundation, partly because they are not highly educated or skilled.
Faisal Edhi says that most children living in their shelter homes only have access to an informal education.
Indeed, some get a better education than others. “It all depends on who is willing to get it,” Faisal Edhi tells Eos. Girls end up studying more, he says, explaining that boys are mostly not interested in getting any formal education. Naturally, when they grow up, they have limited employment opportunities. “Unfortunately, they can neither become engineers nor doctors,” he says.
However, there are some success stories. Faisal Edhi says that a few of the girls currently living in the shelter homes got secondary education and the foundation now plans to enrol them for higher education.
But apart from the few who are exceptionally driven, most end up working in different departments at the welfare organisation. The grown-up girls work in the orphanages and also take care of minors. The boys work in the kitchens, orphanages, the automobile workshop, the transportation department and perform field rescue operations.
The welfare organisation currently shelters some 250 girls and boys under the age of 18 in Karachi alone. When these children grow up, most of the men and women serve in the offices of the charity as volunteers.
Some have also picked up skills like plumbing, construction and automobile repairs.
Usually, both Nasir and Abid work at the automobile workshop.
“We get up in the morning, have breakfast and go straight to work,” Nasir says. “We get free in the evening and go back to the shelter. That’s it.”
Nasir lives in a four-storey shelter building nearby. Two people share one room here. Before the lockdown, he would sometimes go to the market during the week. But he does not have any relatives to visit. This is the case for many others at the shelter. With nowhere to go, they have created a world of their own.
The children play games like cricket and football here. Sometimes they grow up, fall in love and marry within this close-knit community. “The foundation prefers men and women to marry in families outside so that they become part of a family system,” Bilal says. But it doesn’t always work out like that. “Some mute women and men, who were sheltered with us, got married to each other because it is difficult to find a life partner from the outside,” Bilal shares with a hint of a smile on his face.
“These children are not interested in mingling with the outside world,” Faisal Edhi says. “The society’s behaviour towards them is unpredictable.”
“Where would they have gone if we hadn’t taken them in?” the philanthropist asks. “Now, they are happy to live with us.”
Faisal Edhi is carrying forward his father’s work. There was a time, not too long ago, when orphan children of unknown parentage could not be registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) because they had no legally appointed guardian. This kept such children from obtaining a national identity card.
This changed only in 2014, after a landmark ruling that allowed heads of orphanages, where such a child is living, to become the child’s legal guardian. It was Faisal Edhi’s father, Abdul Sattar Edhi, who first brought the matter to the notice of former Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Chaudhry in 2011. According to a Dawn report, in a letter to the then-CJP, Abdul Sattar Edhi had complained that Nadra was not issuing ‘Form B’ to children whose parentage was unknown or those who had been left with the organisation by their parents and were now living in Edhi shelters.
Ever since the ruling, Edhi Foundation claims to have registered many children of unknown parentage in the name of its patron Abdul Sattar Edhi and other senior office-bearers, including the late Anwar Kazmi, the late Abdullah Kaka and Ismail Viyani.
Years later, individuals like Nasir feel indebted to Abdul Sattar Edhi for making this happen (amongst other things). Even during the lockdown, when people are mandated to carry their computerised national identity cards (CNICs) when outside their homes, they can go out without any fear. “Earlier, I was afraid of going out because once I was caught by the police, as I did not have a national ID card,” Nasir recalls. “The charity had to secure my release.” But this has not been the case for the past few years. Nasir proudly shows a coloured photocopy of his CNIC that he now carries all the time. The original is stored someplace safe.
There was a time, not too long ago, when orphan children of unknown parentage could not be registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) because they had no legally appointed guardian. This kept such children from obtaining a national identity card.
But despite having CNICs, most volunteers working at the godown say they do not have any interest in voting during elections. “There is no use of it,” Abid says, clearly frustrated at being asked why he would not want to exercise his right to vote. “What have they done for us before?” he asks, quickly responding to the question himself — “Nothing.”
Other volunteers working with him share that they have also never voted and do not support any leader or political party.
Under the Ehsaas programme the government proudly announced in 2019, it said it would facilitate 4.2 million orphans. The government also plans to introduce a comprehensive policy regarding orphanages, which would include standards for these facilities to improve their living conditions.
But men like Abid and Nasir have grown up in a Pakistan where the primary hope for children like them were organisations such as the Edhi Foundation. Understandably, they are sceptical of promises and changes in policies.
The government is not the only institution the children and volunteers who have grown up at the shelter homes appear to be wary of. Walking around, one feels the suspicious gaze of the insiders. As we approach some of the volunteers for an interview, they almost run away.
“None of them wants to speak about their personal life to the media,” an employee of the foundation informs us. “The media has shown them on screen and telecast their stories, but it has served no purpose,” he says matter-of-factly.
It’s understandable that the volunteers would be tired of the media attention, especially at this critical moment. It has been an unprecedentedly busy time for the organisation, with the foundation getting dozens of calls a day from people worried that they or their relatives are infected with the coronavirus.
The busy days have also come with a lot of media attention for the Edhi Foundation. Faisal Edhi, the chairman of the foundation, has been making headlines ever since the lockdown began. First, the foundation had to close its morgues for a day because bodies of people who had reportedly died after contracting Covid-19 were being brought for ghusl while those washing the bodies were not prepared or trained to mitigate the risks. They feared that those washing the bodies could catch the virus themselves.
But within a day, Faisal Edhi announced the reopening of the morgues and resumption of ghusl services for suspected coronavirus victims across the country. Their volunteers had been trained by doctors of infectious diseases in safely handling these cases, he said. The volunteers who had been trained by doctors of Dr Ruth Pfau Civil Hospital in Karachi, had also received demonstrations on how to wash their hands and protect themselves.
In a couple of weeks, Faisal Edhi continued to make headlines as some outlets reported a statement of his, supposedly claiming that there had been 70 percent more deaths in Karachi this April as compared to last year. As the statement quickly spread across an already panicked public, the foundation issued a press release rejecting the reports. Faisal Edhi maintained that the foundation had shifted over 400 dead bodies in Karachi between March 14 and April 2 this year, as compared to 323 bodies during the same period last year. The difference, he insisted, was not big. He said the media had sensationalised his statement, without understanding the data.
Around the same time, the philanthropist also invited the ire of some segments of society when he was photographed giving Prime Minister Imran Khan a cheque of 10 million rupees for his Corona Relief Fund. Others defended the move, saying naysayers were oblivious to the ground realities of Pakistan.
And then all the disagreements seemed to disappear earlier this week.
On April 21, it was reported that Faisal Edhi had tested positive for the virus. Messages of support and prayers for the philanthropist took over social media and the airwaves. “Get well soon, champion,” one Dawn.com user wrote. “The world needs you back on your feet.”
Away from it all, volunteers such as Abid and Nasir continue to push themselves to achieve Faisal Edhi’s target of providing ration to 100,000 needy families across the country. As they work together, they do not practise social distancing and have little protection. While the workers performing more high-risk jobs, such as providing ghusl, have been given makeshift protective gear such as raincoats and rubber boots in the absence of proper protective personal equipment, other volunteers, such as the ones working in the godown, have next to no protection.
Why are these men so passionately assisting a society that has never fully accepted them, we wonder. “Yeh barray sawaab ka kaam hai [This is God’s work],” Nasir answers the question we never asked.“Helping the needy.”
As the battle against Covid-19 continues and the economy dips into a recession, the number of children left in the jhoolas by helpless poverty-stricken parents may well increase. One hopes that we, as a country, can take better care of them and stand in their support. For they have always stood by Pakistan in its hour of need.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.