Change the conditions, and maybe solve the problems

For 50 years, an unfazed philanthropist has cared for those on Pakistan's fringe.

By JOHN PENDYGRAFT Times Staff Photographer
Published January 14, 2007

Walk into an Edhi Foundation Village for mentally ill boys, and walk into bedlam. A cloth rope ties the ankle of a mentally ill child to barred windows. In a corner, a child curls up and whimpers. Another hits his head in a slow rhythm with his fist. Flies crawl unnoticed around dozens of children's blank faces.

The smell of urine hangs heavy in the air, cleansed only briefly by a breeze from an open doorway. Hundreds of voices unite into one indistinguishable noise that echoes off whitewashed concrete walls. Occasionally a singular, disturbed laugh or a cry pierces the low roar.

Abdul Sattar Edhi is undisturbed by the suffering that surrounds him. He strolls comfortably through the center of the room. He wears a long, flowing gray beard and traditional blue loose trousers. His long shirt is worn to the last threads, and is one of the two he allows himself to own. He could easily be cast as Dumbledore in a Harry Potter movie.

At 78, his dedication to serving afflicted Pakistanis since 1952 has earned him cult status, comparisons to Mother Teresa and buzzes of a Nobel Peace Prize. He created a foundation to do the work the government wouldn't - from providing ambulance service to caring for abandoned babies - and became the father of Pakistan's social service network. The children around him, and untold thousands of others, live in desperate conditions under his care. But they live. The alternative is certain starvation on the streets of Karachi, a city too big, too poor and too violent to notice their suffering.

"Humanity is our religion," Edhi, who speaks sparingly, explains. "We serve all humanity above religion, creed or class."

His foundation is nondenominational. It refuses support from any government, a policy that aims to avoid political entrapments.

The Edhi Foundation also sees government handouts as weakening the will of people to solve their own problems.

On the other side of the city, in the foundation's mental health village for women, another layer of the story peels away. The center is in a locked-down compound about the size of an American high school. Here the same smell of urine hangs in the air, but the sounds are different. It's not quiet, but it's much quieter than the village for boys. It hums sadly and endlessly, without punctuation. The vast majority of the mentally ill in Pakistan are women. The culprits are woven into the social fabric: gender discrimination, lack of education, domestic violence and little, if any, opportunity to better their lot in life.

Scores of naked and half-clothed bodies sprawled randomly on the floor create a twisted pathway through a large, central room where the most severely afflicted women are kept. One woman rolls from side to side, weeping constantly. Others are completely vacant. Others move in rhythmic circles, or stand motionless for hours. Volunteer nurses, many of them orphans raised by the foundation, buzz through the room in the Sisyphean task of trying to keep food and clean clothing circulating to everyone. Along the way they dole out moments of compassion - a smile, a blanket, a joke or a kind word. Wherever you look, it's overwhelming. In every corner, someone still needs something.

Life in Pakistan is hard, even by Third World standards. Thirty-four percent of the population suffers from some degree of depressive or anxiety disorders, according to a study done for the World Health Organization. It's one of the highest rates in the developing world.

Decades of violence and economic turmoil have uprooted generations of Pakistanis. According to the U.N. Millenium Development Goals report on Pakistan, one in three people live on less than a dollar a day. And a third of children under the age of 5 are underweight.

Abdul's son, Faisal Edhi, who is acting president of the Edhi Foundation, explains the link between the ocean of suffering he sees every day and the rise of Islamic extremism. He believes they are from the same source, and inextricably linked together.

"These are the victims of the same conditions that create Islamic extremism: violence and extreme poverty," he says. "Change the conditions and you solve both problems."