For countless people and for countless years, Bilquis Bano Edhi had been a mother, especially for the orphans at the Edhi Foundation orphanage that she established with her late husband, the humanitarian and philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi.
On April 15, 2022, all these people and many more who worked or were supported by the Edhi Foundation, lost that mother, whom they all called ‘Bari Amma’.
At 74, Bilquis Edhi passed away at a hospital in Karachi, five years after her husband, whom she worked alongside to provide all kinds of humanitarian and philanthropic aid and services to people all across Pakistan.
A trained nurse, Bilquis Edhi, with her late husband, established the largest non-profit support system in Pakistan for orphans, unwanted and abandoned children, women and the destitute. The Edhis gave not just a home to those without any, but also provided educational, health, vocational and recreational support to anyone who turned up at any of their homeless shelters and rehabilitation centres. Edhi Foundation also has one of the world’s largest networks of ambulance services.
What they did and still do, through the Edhi Foundation, for the living in Pakistan is exemplary, but what they do for the dead is matchless. Whenever a dead or unidentified body is found, in whatever the circumstances, Edhi workers turn up to give it a decent burial. In riots, calamaties and tragedies, they arrive with rescue and aid. In fact, their morgue and funeral services establishments provide a vital support to the general public too.
I was fortunate enough to meet this remarkable mother to the motherless, some 14 years ago when I visited their headquarters at Mithadar, Karachi. I was doing a report on their orphanage and wanted to see first-hand how it was run.
Situated in a maze of narrow lanes in one of the oldest localities of the city, there residence was also nearby. They lived the way the homeless they provided for did. They were accessible to all they sheltered and I witnessed how all the children brightened up and rushed to her when they saw her. She was indeed the mother they did not have.
Over the years, countless babies have arrived at the Edhi Home. Many of them were abandoned in the cradle that is placed outside all Edhi centres in the country, urging people to leave their unwanted babies there, with no questions asked. This effort to fight infanticide, specifically female infanticide, have saved thousands of unwanted babies so far.
So far, over 23,000 babies and children have found a home with childless couples and families that the Edhis careful screen for suitability. And the best part was that they keep track of the children they pass on for adoption, to make sure they are well taken care of. People trusted the Edhis, both those who reached out for help and those who wanted to impart help through donations.
The unparalleled humanitarian work of Bilquis Edhi and Abdul Sattar Edhi is not just recognised in Pakistan, but they are equally respected and honoured abroad. The Edihs were widely praised for their care of a speech and hearing impaired Indian girl, Geeta, who stayed with the Edhis for 13 years after accidently crossing over to Pakistan from India and who was returned home in 2015.
The otherwise hostile Indian PM Modi was so touched by the care the Edhis gave to a lost Indian child that he announced a contribution of INR10 million for the Edhi Foundation.
The Pakistan government has decided to posthumously award her with country’s highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Pakistan, for her “unparalleled services to the country”. During her life, Bilquis Edhi was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 1986 which she received along with her husband Abdul Sattar Edhi, and the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award for Social Justice in 2015.
In 2021, The Impact Hallmarks [IH], declared Bilquis Edhi, along with a couple of others, as the most impactful person of the first two decades of the 21st century.
People like her and Edhi Sahab come only once in a lifetime of nations. One hopes that the foundation they laid for the good of all humanity continues with their good work.