In 2018, I was commissioned by an organization to visit Edhi Centre’s in Karachi and collect stories about the people who worked there and how they ended up in their jobs. Here are some of the inspiring individuals I interviewed and photographed.
There are swings outside the Edhi homes that sometimes
have babies in them. Babies no one wants to keep.
Babies who cry and cry till a kind soul come out and takes them in. I know this because, a long time ago, I was one of them.
Growing up in the Edhi homes, I became their family.
I was loved and encouraged. The focus was never on the hands I did not have; it was on all that I did have. How can you not flourish like a well-watered tree with that kind of unwavering support?
You should see me today. I can do it all.
I am part of the organization and logistics management at the center. A lot of my skillset involves doing tasks that, at one time; no one imagined I could do. I can read, write, answer calls and book appointments as part of my job and I do this with both ease and pride.
I have come such a long way simply because I had people around me, who saw me as a human being, smart and caring, not just someone born without hands. They did not give up on me because of a disability, instead they thought to further the part of me that could overcome it.
We see so much of a harsh reality at the center that it is easy to lose hope and feel like there is no one out there who wants to help. It’s at times like that I want to tell people LOOK AT ME. See who I was, unwanted and alone, and look at what I have become, an individual with merit and something to give back. With people who are committed to changing others’ lives, who look at all humans as having potential and possibility, I really do believe that anything is possible. After all, I am the living proof of it.
One of the biggest constants in life is that it is completely unpredictable. You can have everything one minute and nothing the next and with the winds of change, people change as well. And nothing shows you the harsh reality of a statement like that than working at a place like Edhi centre.
I have worked here for 25 years and in all my years and all my positions from pharmaceutical to ward in charge to now managing this center, I have seen thousands of heartbreaking stories but there are some that just don’t leave you. These are the sudden events, when people from respectable well off families encounter life changing circumstances which leave them mentally or physically compromised and they are left here by family or strangers or well-wishers because they simply cannot be handled anymore. It truly humbles you to see that no matter who you are or what you have achieved or been careful to avoid, life is life and can bring you to your knees within seconds.
It takes a particular sort of person to be able to work here at Edhi. It’s not a job you choose; rather it’s the job that chooses you. Just anyone cannot do it. Look at me. I exist solely for this place now. Give me a holiday and watch me become anxious after barely a day has passed. I can work 12 hours and it feel like minutes, because once you start trying to help the people who walk through the door, you get drawn into wanting to make things better. And there is no end to that kind of work.
What we do requires commitment, empathy and more than anything else, a passion to continue to make right things in some small measure, for all the people who rely on us. I don’t believe it is something that you can necessarily learn; I think this gift of wanting to help is God given because I have seen so many people come here to work, but barely last a day in this environment. The people who stick it through, they are made of more and they will manage to do more- helping to make better the lives of those who have nowhere else to go.
Mohammad Aslam’s Story
We all live a certain way, moving fast and forward, until one day, suddenly, our life is transformed. Everything changes, and you have to find your way back again to what makes sense to you.
Growing up, I saw my father always take out time from his schedule for social work. He said that helping others brought him deep happiness.
At that time, while somewhere in my head and heart I am sure I knew the value of giving back, I was too immersed in moving ahead, in the busy life of earning money and chasing steps in my corporate career.
And then, the accident happened. Within minutes, nothing was ever the same again. Almost 75% of my body was burned away, leaving me exposed and vulnerable and as I would later discover, brand new.
Being away from Pakistan, stranded in Dubai where the incident took place, and the long interminable year of treatment and healing ensured that the person who emerged was someone very different.
Something in my very soul had shifted and I knew with utmost certainty that I could not live a life centered around only myself anymore. The urge to make a difference, to somehow help those who were needy, was overwhelming and I arrived at Edhi Sahib’s doorstep, without a plan, without an idea or any consideration regarding job or salary- just armed with the heartfelt desire to make things better for others. The rest, I had faith, would work itself out.
They say that the ability to be able to help anyone out, even in the smallest way possible, is a sign that God has blessed you; given you a second chance to truly understand the purpose of life. And as I spend my days here, earning my blessings, I can say with complete surety that the deep happiness and true satisfaction that I feel every day, far outweighs anything that I earned before.
Have you ever witnessed pure love for humanity- a kind of service and giving back that is not tethered to any return or payback? If you haven’t, you have missed out on life.
For 16 years I worked as a computer lab manager in the army. My life was routine and structured and I was trained to manage, deal with and solve problems that came my way with focus and alone. After retiring I decided a change was needed and I joined the Edhi administration. My job initially involved organizing timely food dispatch to centers, organizing of patients into the relevant care centers, managing the ambulances and various maintenance duties. Eventually, as I grew into my new calling, I moved into admissions, taking on the responsibility of admitting new patients and starting their registration processes.
You don’t realize when the whole idea of giving back seeps into your psyche. One minute you are doing your job almost automatically and the next you realize that witnessing everything that people go through and being there to help them has changed the very core of you.
I remember this one time so clearly. I admitted a Professor who had come in from Dubai. He was so clearly in anguish. His son had died in a car accident here and because it was exam time, he had been unable to take leave from where he was teaching to be here for the funeral. He was struggling with depression and in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
Once you have seen the kind of trials people around you are going through, you develop a kind of inner peace. You worry about nothing worldly. You cannot take stress about small things because your life is now about being there for those people who are in such dire need of support and help.
Really if you don’t love all humans unconditionally, this job isn’t for you. I hope to stay working for Edhi till it is time for me to leave this world.
“I was 12 years old when I saw a man get hit and thrown off his motorcycle. The impact was strong and he flew in one direction, his bike in another. Most of the crowd ran towards the bike because they couldn’t see where he landed. I however, couldn’t keep my eyes off him and ran straight to him and tried to pick him up. Edhi Sahab, whom I had grown up watching on television, directly inspired my actions. He was so dedicated and selfless and I made up my mind that this was what I wanted out of life too.
I had always been a sensitive child, and rather than hardening me, growing up made me more acutely aware of what I could do to make things easier for others. Watching hardship – old people struggling in the heat to make ends meet hits me hard and to this day, I silently pray that one day I have enough means to make a real difference.
7 years ago, I quit my job and joined Edhi Centre and trained as a rescuer, which means I am on first response for emergencies like the Baldia Town case, but along with that, I am also the person who oversees the bodies arriving at the morgue. Being that close to something so final, seeing families break down seeing their loved ones gone, has changed me forever. If I was sensitive before, I am warm now. I have become extremely soft hearted as I see people sometimes even take their anger out on me, with no one left to scream their injustices to. I feel compassion for all these people, who affected by harsh realities, are simply looking for someone who will show them some sympathy.
I get to be more human here than I have ever been before in my life. To me it doesn’t matter that the person walking through the door is a Muslim, Hindu Christian Sikh or whatever; to me they are a human being who needs something and that is the biggest equalizing force in the world. The work I do here keeps my soul light and after all that I have seen and been through, I truly believe that there is no better job satisfaction than feeling at peace with yourself at the end of the day.”
“I ran away after my first day of working at the Edhi Centre.
Having arrived here from Hyderabad after both my parents’ death, fresh after Intermediate, I was alone and clueless and at the center was told I had to work with patients with mental and addiction problems. I had agreed to it without much thought and was so overwhelmed that I bolted.
But Edhi Sahab didn’t give up. My manager at the time was sent after me and explained to me, clearly and gently, that working at the center was unlike working anywhere else. That if we worked diligently, with heart and commitment, we would notice ourselves getting detached from the worry of the world. I think they understood what I needed at that time in my life better than I did.
Working with mentally challenged and people who suffer from addiction and substance abuse is tough. I attend to these people with dignity, calm and poise, no matter how dangerous, violent or repulsive their story or the person is. Every tear we wipe away, every word we patiently listen to when no one else will is rewarded when we hear them say a prayer for us. And when they pray for us, they save us from everyday burdens- of sickness and trial and strife. They are so grateful to us for helping them making things right – and when prayers come so directly from the heart we are filled with a blessing that cannot be touched because it is of the purest kind.
You know how they say, that when you have no direction, the person who helps you becomes your direction. That is what Edhi Sahab is for me. You could say I was born here. Now twenty years later, I have come a long way. I have a wife and kids, a home of my own and this job that gives more than it takes.”
“Though I originally hail from Larkana, I have lived most of my life in Karachi with my husband and three kids. It was a regular life, with the typical expectations until many years ago, my husband fell sick and needed surgery. With him unable to provide, it meant I had to get out of my comfort zone and get a job.
I started a job in a corporate company and began to believe that money was everything. Slowly that became my primary focus. I was convinced that it was money that guaranteed your position in the eyes of the world and people would only admire you if you were rich. Eventually I had to leave that job, and since nothing else was on the horizon, my family tried to convince me to join an orphanage as a cook. I was very skeptical. The wages were almost half at what I had been earning at my previous job, and given the high esteem I gave money at that time, I felt it would be a waste. Nonetheless, something in me said to give the place a chance.
At the orphanage, I felt almost an instant sense of relief at the friendly, relaxed environment and demeanor of the people. I felt at as if I was home.
The children felt familiar, like my own and it was then that I knew that I had been selling myself short. If I had to work, it should be in a place like this.
And that is what eventually brought me to Edhi Homes.
To this day, I am amazed at the level of fulfillment that my job brings me. Hailing from the corporate background, I could not imagine that the post of a cook that is not an officer level nor a managerial post could demand the kind of gratitude and regard that it does. I see the respect in the eyes of my managers and I am filled with a sense of worth that makes me want to do better.
Recently my husband had a heart attack and in between hospital runs, I could not be there at the center to cook constantly. Everyone came together to help. They made sure food was cooked the days I was unavailable and even the managers were supportive and understanding enough to allow me the flexibility without making it difficult for me.
Though my years at the company meant my wages were better, when I look back I realize there was no mental peace, no satisfaction even for the overtime. Here I work harder, the hours are almost double and the wages half, but God helps me survive and thrive because I truly feel like I am doing something good. I really do believe that this is what will be a means for my absolution later on. I know I am needed and what I do makes a difference.”
Mohammad Shafiq’s Story
“They say our circumstances can change our fate, and that one’s kismet can depend solely on where one was at a particular moment of their life. I think this is particularly true for me.
I grew up in the 90’s. It was a time of change for Pakistan and I have to admit I was a typical teenage “loafer”. My friends and I used to roam around, useless and lazy, creating mischief. We were insensitive to other people’s pain, often laughing at those who were hurt. Everything was a joke to us. Living in what was a marginalized area, things got very bad politically; so bad in fact that I remember we used to step out and see dead bodies everywhere with black kites feeding on them. The situation was so insecure and tense that they would not let even Edhi Sahab and his rescue ambulances come inside our area. I still carry the trauma of what I have witnessed with me.
Seeing the unrest up close however, had one good effect. It changed me. My friends and I evolved from those purposeless teenagers into actual caring human beings. We helped push dead bodies on donkey carts because we realized there was no one else there to help. Seeing the sorrow and pain people were in was no longer a joke. Today, I can barely stand to see someone suffering, and I think those hard days were the reason the passion to join Edhi Sahab’s team developed in me. To be honest, I think Edhi Sahab saw something in me that even I didn’t. I joined as an Ambulance driver, and after 12 years, I was moved to manage the fleets.
I remember once I was on duty, driving some bodies to Jinnah Hospital. I was parked and waiting outside when a bomb exploded about two feet away from me. Everything around me, my ambulance included, was destroyed. Even my cap was blown into pieces off my head, but I escaped with a mere scratch on my arm. Can you believe it? After something like that, something so close and horrifying, how can you not be convinced that God has some purpose for you?
Thinking about that day still sends chills down my spine and yet it also serves as a daily reminder that my job here is to help, that someone’s life depends on me, and that is what God intended for me to do, so I should be grateful and not waste the opportunities I am given every single day to change things for those around me.”
Mohammad Waqas’s Story
“How can one stay sane and on track with so much around us that can pull us down and render us incapable of any thought, much less positive action? I always wondered that myself, until one day a motorbike accident in college changed that for me.
I still remember vividly, the shaking body of the student before the ambulances arrived. The rescuers swooped in like heroes, controlling the situation and handling him with such ease and precision that I was awestruck. It inspired me so much- this strength and resilience in them which allowed them to serve humanity in this way. My college Principal had in the past, often spoken to us about having a higher purpose, about serving humanity, and the incident that day cemented my belief that this was what I wanted to do in my life. After all, anyone can get a job and earn money, but to be able help people in need and also make money would be an ideal dual purpose in life.
I joined Edhi right after graduating nearly 7 years ago and now work as a senior clerk in the center’s emergencies department. It has been a truly learning experience for me from day one and I have seen more than my share of terrible stories in the years I have been on the job. Being in charge of emergencies, it comes with the job description. There was one incident in Turbat I will never forget, where I had to pick up bodies with my bare hands, while ignoring the blood and gore around me. I couldn’t eat food for three days after that.
A lot of my work involves going to troubled areas like Landhi and Korangi to help victims of gunshot wounds as well. One would think doing this kind of work, I would need therapy or slip into depression but I have come to understand that I am wired very differently from most people. While ordinary people may run away from these incidents, I have always had it in me to run towards them to help.
Perhaps it is filmy of me to say this, but there is an inexplicable sense of joy when you actually save someone’s life. I suppose it is the adrenaline high that pushes any other feeling of sadness or fear aside, turning what you feel into a complete sense of accomplishment. The gratitude and prayers we receive from the families of those who we rescue go a long way towards making this the kind of job you cannot walk away from.
One of the toughest things to learn has been to empathize without succumbing to the emotions that we feel in those difficult moments. If we get invested in each person we save or help or bury, we would be rendered useless. We need to stay practical and strong while handling things efficiently. So you can say the greatest lesson I have learnt yet is not only how to handle emergencies and tragedies but how to stay human and be able to console those afflicted in the midst all of it.”
“Everyone has a job they can do well, because they have that capacity in them or the talent. But the people who work here, they see impartiality in the way things should be, and it becomes their mission to make things better for all.
Despite holding a diploma in automobile engineering, I never had any interest in the greasy field and the thought of getting under cars to fix them was both annoying and boring. What truly inspired me was my wife’s work as a staff nurse so I started moving in that direction.
Before Edhi I was involved in patient care at hospitals and private care for the elderly at their homes. Now I have been on the rescue team as a “Madadgar” for over ten years. The most important part of my job is to get to the scene of the incident as fast as possible. I have to stay confident and move fast, without losing focus or letting anything distract me. Of course, how it all plays out is never in anyone’s control but we stay determined to get him alive to the medics as soon as possible.
What we do here at Edhi Foundation can only be done by individuals who have sympathy in their heart for all other people, regardless of their status. No ordinary person will be willing to stop at a roadside and pick up a person who has just been hit by a car. We even help those whose own family has run away, scared and unsure after an accident. I have thought about it often, but I don’t think this feeling and drive to help is something that can be learnt- you are born with it and those are the special people who end up at Edhi Foundation, changing lives.
One of the most important things I have realized in my decade of this work is that we are all equal. Here we see well off, educated people suffer from so many of the same things that a poor man is often burdened with. Accidents, mental illnesses and diseases do not look at social strata before striking. They can happen to anyone at any time.
I used to think income was everything , that the more you had the better things were, but now, my main focus and passion has become human rights- the need for everyone to be treated the same. It has been a lifelong dream of mine to open an old age home and all that I see at Edhi motivates me to keep working towards achieving that goal.”
“After you finish your Matriculation, you feel the world is yours. You feel that you can do anything anywhere, as long as you have the drive. But I knew I wanted to serve humanity. So at the age of 17, I joined Edhi Sahab.
Looking back, I realize that when I started I wanted to make a difference but did not have the kind of passion that I have today, almost 18 years later. It seeps into you slowly, this change and you stop caring by and large about the more worldly things that interest your peers, like fashion and makeup in my case; your mission becomes bigger.
Having worked at the Edhi center for 18 years, I now handle all the accounts of the donations that come in. Handling money and donations is not easy. One has to be extremely diligent and completely honest.
Given the levels of poverty around us, a person who is suffering financially may get tempted, but our work here is for others. Not everyone can do this job.
I have been lucky enough to work closely with both Edhi Sahab and Bilquis Edhi during my time here. Edhi Sahab used to walk long distances across cities on his donation collections across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. I was so young at the time and his work had a deep impact on me. He would sit in the heat, talking to anyone who wanted to talk to him. I truly felt like I was part of something great. He would tell me in his gentle voice, that even if the slightest effort of mine could go towards making someone else’s day better, then I should not think twice about doing so.
I remember particularly this one trip to America I accompanied Edhi Sahab. Despite having money to spend over there, Edhi Sahab would go to sleep at 5pm in the evening. He would wake up at 3 am and I would give him breakfast. Bilquis Edhi used to ask me why I woke up to give him breakfast. And my reply was, that if helping mankind was Edhi Sahab’s mission then helping Edhi Sahab was mine. All he did was make calls the whole day, for donations. I recall telling him that we were in New York and there was much to see so we should go out and enjoy ourselves. He would always quietly refuse and say his was on a mission for humanity and he would not stray from it. All he was interested in was helping mankind and that was the biggest lesson he left behind for all those who had the honour to work close to him.”
“One of the most unusual things about life is that though you can hate how you end up somewhere, you can love where you end up.
After my husband’s death 8 years ago, I found myself in a life I was not prepared for. My husband had always taken care of my six children and us and we were now suddenly at a point where ultimately, I would be their only parent. I felt dejected and depressed, because children should have both parents to raise them and now mine would have no father.
I don’t know how I ended up at Edhi. Perhaps it was a calling. We all have this one point in our lives where, if we listen to our inner voice, we find ourselves at the right place.
Before I joined Edhi a year ago, I was a polio vaccination supervisor and did a lot of fieldwork. My faith in the human race had started dwindling quite a bit, as more and more situations showed me that people were generally self-absorbed and that we mostly lived in the world where people don’t consider or care about each other’s feelings. Even families don’t feel the need to connect or watch out for each other the way they used to anymore. I could feel that I was falling into a deep depression and finding no respite from these suffocating thoughts.
But my down ward spiral could not possibly continue once I stepped this environment and met the selfless and warm-hearted people who work here. I don’t know how but somehow, Edhi Sahab with his warm ways and dedicated work has created this amazing organization that not only provides hope for so many lost people but also provides an anchor for those working in it. I often sit and marvel at how he did it. He took one step, of caring for others and it has had a domino effect, changing hundreds and thousands of lives here in Pakistan. Here, he’s given lost and unwanted human beings not just a roof over their heads but a place to truly call home. He has managed to create a haven where anyone who has felt alone can walk in and belong.
Though I ended up here because of unfortunate circumstances, I truly cannot say that I do not wish I were here. These children at this orphanage feel like they are my own and I am putting my heart and soul into trying to raise them just as I raised mine. It is important to me that they turn out to be good HUMANS above anything else. I want them to learn how to deal with the realities of the world outside with compassion and warmth and not feel the kind of cynicism and disconnect that I had started feeling. I want people to look at them and admire them for how well they have been raised to handle what comes their way because only then do I feel I will have done them justice.”
All Photos and Interviews ©Khaula Jamil