Bilqees Edhi was a mother countless children looked up to as their own. I met this dynamic lady at her orphanage in 2008, and talked to her about motherhood, the motherless and her own mother. Here is her interview, and my impressions of this selfless woman and the beautiful children who got a second lease on life thanks to her.

They call her ‘Mummy’, all 38 of them. Mostly aged between one to five years, a few babies and several five to nine-year olds among them, they have no or just vague memories of their real mothers. She is the only mother they know and love. She is Bilqees Edhi.

They are orphans, lost or those abandoned by their families due to various reasons, and are living in the children’s home situated at the second floor of the Edhi Centre headquarters, Mithadar, Karachi. These young ones are among the hundreds of children and youngsters who have been given a home when they lost, or were thrown out of, their own homes.

According to Bilqees Edhi, she has given about 19,000 children, most of them being the ones left in the cradle that stands outside all Edhi Centres across the country, to childless couples who have adopted them with delight.

In other words, she has found mothers for many who had none of their own, and tries to be one for those who are in her care.

Photo Courtesy: Fahim Siddiqi/White Star/Dawn

“But children need their own mother, and nobody can replace her. Even if a mother beats a child, the child will turn to her for comfort,” expresses this lady who tries to give love and care to so many, along with a safe place to live and all basic necessities of life.

“A mother is the most important and influential person in a child’s life, even when the child grows up. She is the person who shapes or breaks individuals and families. A mother is the prime minister of the house, she is the one who shapes society,” asserts Mrs Edhi.

When asked about her own mother, the slightly troubled expression that had shadowed her face as she talked of the distressed children in her care changes. She immediately smiles, and a soft nostalgic, faraway look enters her eyes.

 “I was very pampered by my mother because I was the only daughter, besides two sons. She was very soft-spoken and sweet, and it is from her that I have learnt to be humble and satisfied with all that I have. She passed away 15 years back, but I still miss her each day,” she confesses.

With a husband whose life is dedicated to serving others, life for Bilqees Edhi has not been easy, but it was her mother’s support that made her sail through thick and thin.

Bilqees Edhi elaborates, “My house is near this centre and I now spend most of my time here. But when my children were young, I had my mother to help me look after them when I was here. In the 40 years of our marriage, Edhi Sahab has not spent a day at home. So it was with her that I left my children when I would come over here to be with him and to help him.”

The Edhis have five children, two sons and three daughters, one of the daughters being an adopted one and last year they saw their first grandchild, a girl, get married.

“The children all live independently, with one of our sons studying in the US. They are all educated and living happily, but they do come and visit regularly. Our son, who is here, helps Edhi Sahab in his work and I am happy that we are blessed with obedient children,” Bilqees Edhi tells me proudly.

Photo Courtesy: Fahim Siddiqi/White Star/Dawn

Now it is time to meet the lost souls who have found a home here and we move to the first floor where the children’s centre is situated. A locked gate is opened when we arrive, clearly indicating that unauthorised entry is not allowed for the safety of the residents. We pass a room with lines of mattresses on the floor, spread with clean, identical bedsheets. Next door is a room with rows of cots, clearly for the babies.

Bilqees Edhi takes me inside and we see a six-month-old sleeping in a cot. Hearing us, he wakes up and cries. She quickly rocks the cot and puts him to sleep again. Part of the child’s upper lip from the centre up to the nose is missing, a birth defect.

“He was left in the garbage heap to die. But don’t worry, his lip will be fixed. I have had such babies before and people have readily adopted them and had them treated,” Begum Edhi whispers.

Surprised, I marvel that there are people ready to accept someone else’s less than perfect child, while his own parents have, literally, throw him away.

“Yes, there will be many people interested in adopting him. You know, there is still a lot of goodness left in this world,” the confidence in Bilqees Edhi’s voice made one readily believe her.

We pass a room with a TV and toys, which she says is their TV room, and come to a place where several women are busy powdering and changing toddlers and babies who have just had a bath. Bilqees Edhi knows each one’s name and they all know her for each of them responds to her greeting, a few rushing into her arms for a kiss and a cuddle, and then being handed back to complete their dressing up.

As it is about ten in the morning, all except for these babies, have had a bath and breakfast and are now sitting fresh and bright in a room that serves as the classroom. All are sitting on a large mat, with the younger ones in front and the older ones at the back. The teacher, a young lady, is conducting an oral Islamiat class of sorts. I am told that the children are all given Quranic lessons and some formal education at all the children’s homes.

I was very pampered by my mother because I was the only daughter, besides two sons. She was very soft-spoken and sweet, and it is from her that I have learnt to be humble and satisfied with all that I have. She passed away 15 years back, but I still miss her each day,” Bilquis Edhi confesses.

As we enter, all the children stand up and I lose Mrs Edhi to them as a few immediately surround her with some query or demand, just as children always demand their mother’s attention as soon as they see her. The little ones are clearly curious about the arrival of a stranger, any unusual happening in their small world is a matter of great interest.

Pointing to a year-and-a-half old Asim lying on the mat with his head in the lap of his seven- or eight-year-old sister, Asma, sitting in the classroom, Mrs Edhi informs me, “After their mother died some months ago, they were left here by their relatives as no one wanted to take care of them. Poor Asim is so affected by all this that he never lets Asma out of his sight. He cries his heart out even when she goes to the bathroom. So while we had set up this home for the very young ones, we let the older children stay here too when they are in a sibling group. As it is, being away from the family is such a tragedy for them, we don’t separate them from their siblings.”

Asma tells me that she has a married sister and a couple of older siblings, and, understandably, nobody wanted to take on the extra burden of looking after them so they were left here. When I ask if anyone comes over to visit them, Mrs Edhi quietly shakes her head in the negative. “Few children get visitors when they are left with us, even when they have close family members.”

Few children get visitors when they are left with us, even when they have close family members.”

— Bilquis Edhi

The death of a mother or parents is not the only tragedy that deprives children of their homes, children are also left at the Edhi Centre when the mother remarries and the stepfather wants to have nothing to do with them.

“After a husband dies, I feel a woman should not remarry if her children are not accepted. As it is, they are deprived of a father’s love and then they get separated from their mother also, which is a trauma that they never recover from. What happiness will the mothers get when their children are not happy?” wonders Bilqees Edhi.

“A mother is a role model for children and when they grow up without one, they keep on searching for a mother figure all their lives,” concludes a woman who chooses to be a mother to the motherless.

This post originally appeared in the mid-week magazine of Dawn, The Review, on May 8, 2008.

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