Bilquis Edhi is a humanitarian and a social worker. She has been working with the Edhi Foundation since the early 60's. Edhi Foundation which was started by Abdual Sattar Edhi with the mission to provide aid to Pakistan's poor and down-trodden has become Pakistan's major relief organization under the leadership of the husband and wife team of Adbul Sattar and Bilquis Edhi. Today, in addition to services provided in Pakistan, Edhi foundation is a major resource for assisting victims of disaster internationally... more on Bilquis Edhi.
Interviewer's note: This interview was conducted at The Edhi Centre at Mithadar (old city district of Karachi) in November 2003. The conversation was in Urdu and has been translated into English by the interviewer.
What prompted you to join the Edhi Foundation? What were the conditions (of Edhi Foundation) like when you first joined?
I was in school at the time and had recently sat for my 8th grade examinations. I wasn’t too fond of studying so I left school and joined the nurses training course at the Edhi Nurses Training Centre. Later, Edhi Sahib proposed to me, and we got married in April 1966.
Edhi sahib’s sole possessions at the time were a broken old car and a small dispensary. There was a maternity home on the first floor with 6-7 beds, a small room – 6’ X 6’ on the ground floor which served as an office and a similar room on the first floor. There wasn’t much else but even in those days when we had very limited resources, people used to leave their kids with us. I used to look after them.
What was your first major experience at the Edhi Foundation - something that left an impact on you early on in your career?
During the 1965 war with India, the bombings resulted in a number of brutally mutilated bodies which we had to wash for burial. At times only an arm, leg or head was recovered. We were about 60-70 workers including voluntary workers collecting and then washing these bodies.
What are your current responsibilities at the Foundation?
My current responsibilities include looking after the ladies section, giving away children for adoption – mostly looking after women-specific and children related sections throughout Pakistan. My two daughters also work closely with me. We regularly visit our centres all over Pakistan to monitor their activities and give suggestions and recommendations on how we feel the work should be done. We also call our centres on a daily basis to ask if our help is needed with anything.
With regard to child adoption, what is the criteria that you use to approve / disapprove of couples who want to adopt a child?
Couples who want to adopt a child are interviewed by me. My criteria for adoption are as follows:
• Even after 10-12 years of marriage the couple is still childless.
• Prospective father’s salary should be reasonable.
• Prospective father should not have alcohol or drug-related problems.
• Prospective mother’s age should be younger than 50.
• Couple should own a house
I don’t give children to couples who keep changing their house – keep moving from one place to another.
Kids who are physically or mentally disabled are cared for by us. We have a separate section for them where we clean them, feed them, play with them etc. They remain with us for the rest of their lives.
Aside from the disabled children, what about the other children who don’t get adopted?
This is not a problem. We have over 4,000 applications in hand. We don’t have enough kids to give to people. So we can be careful in selecting prospective parents. We have a shariatnama in place which we make the parents sign where it is explicitly mentioned that in case of separation between the parents, the Centre will reclaim the child or let the child stay with the mother.
Edhi Foundation keeps expanding by adding new welfare services every now and then. How do you see Pakistan's future in view of the services that are being rendered by you?
When we go abroad we come back with lots of ideas. My husband dreams of the day when welfare facilities here would be comparable to those you find abroad. But right now this seems like a distant dream. We don’t even have clean drinking water here. Load shedding is an ongoing problem. After the recent oil spill [in Karachi] when the oil tanker broke in half, people were saying that our country had gone back 20 years in time. As far as I am concerned in the last 55 years we have not moved forward. We are still where we were 55 years ago.
[Edhi sahib and I] both think of things for the future. Edhi Sahib, when he comes up with an idea he writes it down. In 1976 we were involved in an accident which took place near a village with no airport or landing strip nearby. Around this time a building collapsed in Karachi - Bismillah Building. This was the time Bhutto Sahib was in power. Noticing Edhi sahib’s absence from the scene of the disaster he inquired as to his whereabouts upon which he was told of the situation. Bhutto sahib immediately dispatched a small airplane to pick us up. Edhi Sahib was admitted to the Civil Hospital in Karachi where shortly after gaining consciousness, he remarked that he would also like to buy a plane. I asked how will you be able to afford a plane – your current situation is such that when you put your hand in your pocket for some loose change, thread comes out instead. He was not disheartened and pushed on. Alhamdulillah we now have a plane, helicopters everything.
What has it been like being Edhi Sahib’s wife?
He is a good man. A little short tempered but good at heart. He still hasn’t built his own house yet. For the first 4-5 years after marriage, I used to live on the roof. Later, after the birth of my four kids, we moved to my mother’s house. My mother looked after my kids. On a daily basis I used to shuffle between her house and the Edhi Centre. After the kids grew up and got married, my mother passed away. Edhi Sahib spends most of his time at the Edhi Centre. Even when we were with my mother, he mostly spent his time looking after the affairs of the Edhi Foundation. In our 36-37 years of marriage there may have been at least 36 occasions where Edhi Sahib never even came home at night. He practically lived at the Edhi Centre here in Mithadar. Even now when our children want to see him, they bring lunch from their home and come and eat with us.
Have you ever taken some time out from work? Have you ever vacationed with Edhi Sahib?
We have never taken any time out from work but we have spent some good time together on the job. In the last 34-35 years there have been many occasions where we have had to drop off patients and deceased people to far off villages. After dropping them off, on the way back we have stopped over in villages and rural areas where we have been treated to lassi, chicken in gravy among other delicacies and looked after extremely well by the people of those areas. We have also sat on charpoys with our feet in the water – fresh cold water streams abound in these areas. So we have had some good times together. On these trips we used to feel like we were extremely rich people with cars of our own. Others who lived around us didn’t have any cars so they used to request us to take them along whenever we went on such trips. We used to take one or two of them along with us.
Has the government of Pakistan been supportive of your cause?
The Government of Pakistan has never created any obstacles for us. We never faced any resistance. In fact we get a lot of moral support from ordinary citizens, government agencies including the police. Only last night a child was found by the police – they straightaway brought the child to our centre.
Have international organizations approached you for donation purposes? Have you ever accepted donations from them?
International organizations such as the World Bank have offered us millions of dollars but we refuse all such offers. We only take money from Pakistanis residing in Pakistan or abroad. We have Edhi Centres in England and the US where again donations are only accepted from the expatriates residing there.
In the wake of Hakeem Said's and Dr. Ghulam Murtaza's murders, a lot of people are thinking that Edhi sahib and you are also prime targets. Does this situation bother you?
We have been receiving death threats from the outset but we are not afraid. Death will come at an appointed time, and when its time we won’t be able to do anything about it. So we are not afraid.
Who will look after the Edhi Foundation after both you and Edhi Sahib have retired?
Faisal, Kubra, Zeenat and Almas – all my children are educated, bright young people. After us, they will look after the Edhi Foundation.