World's Nicest Man

How do we welcome him into the US? Why, detain him and confiscate his passport, of course. What else do you do with a Muslim, even if he is a Nobel Peace Prize candidate?

The Guinness Book of World Records has no category for World's Nicest Man. Imagine trying to create the metrics for that? But its 2000 edition features an entry that points us in the right direction.

Titled "Biggest Volunteer Ambulance Organization," it reads: "Abdul Sattar Edhi began his ambulance service in 1948 by ferrying injured people to the hospital and has since developed a service that attracts funds of $5 million per year with no government assistance."

Curious, we did some research. Turns out that Edhi's ambulance corps is just one of a wealth of services his foundation provides. But his Nobel Peace Prize-caliber work flies below the radar of most in the US.

Not that of the Department of Immigration, though, which detained Edhi when he flew into New York's JFK Airport this January. An alarm might have been set off by his possession of a green card when he wasn't a resident (though he makes lengthy stays). Of course, it couldn't have been his long beard and traditional Muslim dress.

Perhaps Immigration might have been trying to determine if the Edhi Foundation was a front for collecting funds for terrorists. Or maybe it just sought revenge for humiliating the US government when he ran a relief operation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In any event, Edhi was questioned for eight hours. Guess no one had a Guinness Book of World Records handy -- or the brains to call the Pakistani consulate, which could have told them that he may be the most beloved man in Pakistan.

Nor was this the the first time Edhi was subjected to these indignities. In 2006, he was held for 16 hours in Toronto and, in 2007, for eight hours in New York. The latter must have been a dry run for his detention this year, when, adding insult to injury, Immigration confiscated his passport.

Edhi and his wife were forced to remain in the US before the Pakistani consulate was finally able to clear him. "I am a man of emergencies," he told the BBC. "I need to be. . . where the suffering is, but here I have been sitting idle."

At 78 years of age, Abdul Edhi is old enough to have been around for the formation of Pakistan in 1947. When he was a child, he helped his mother with community work, but, not entirely his mother's son, he followed in his father's footsteps and opened a business.

Involved in a local charity with other businessmen, he called them out over their failure to serve the neediest. On which occasion, he told Contact Pakistan, "shoes, chairs and sticks were hurled at me."

When Edhi started his own dispensary in 1951, his business sense came in handy. For instance, he advertised in newspapers for donations -- of the skins from goats sacrificed on a religious holiday. In the beginning, he actually slept outside his center on a concrete bench in case anyone needed urgent assistance.

When his mother became seriously ill, the lack of mobility for the sick in Pakistan hit home to Edhi. "The first time I had attempted to get an ambulance to take my mother to a hospital," he told Contact Pakistan. "I was told that there was only one in the entire city of Karachi."

During a flu epidemic in 1957, he rented tents on credit and set up camps as if he were capitalizing a new business venture. Observing his work during the crisis, a businessman made the first substantial donation to the dispensary and Edhi was able to buy his first ambulance, a used Hillman van he converted.

Today the Edhi Foundation receives $10 million a year, mostly from private donations, according to an essential article about its workings by Richard Covington. It claims that only ten percent goes to administrative overhead. Edhi himself professes to take no salary, surviving instead on investments.

Fifty years later, a sharply abbreviated list of its free or dirt-cheap services includes:

Four-hundred ambulances (85 cents for a local call) including three planes and a helicopter.

A network of Edhi dispensaries, including a small cancer hospital and the Edhi Free Diagnostic Center.

Shelter for the homeless and disabled, as well as education and training, especially for children.

Edhi Maternity Homes for delivering babies, training nurses, and placing abandoned babies with foster parents. To this day, Covington reports, there is a cradle outside each Edhi center with a sign that reads, "Do not kill."

Among the more unusual services: 1. Working to secure the release of prisoners who are either innocent or mentally ill and then providing them with shelter. 2. Recovery of drowned bodies by divers.

Finally, dead bodies are prepared according to Muslim traditions. In fact, spurred by the difficulties that Muslims in the US face ensuring that their dead are properly bathed and shrouded, Edhi acquired property in Queens, New York to address this problem.

Even though he's been called a "mental case" by his wife (who's almost equally committed) and he's demanding and impatient, we're still comfortable dubbing him the World's Nicest Man.

Edhi may not be comfortable being held up as a standard which American humanitarian efforts are not meeting. His difficulties with Immigration notwithstanding, he still needs to work with us to meet his goals here. But the question begs to be asked: Is there anything comparable to the Edhi Foundation in the US?

What need have we of the services of a foundation like that? Does the US look like a third-world nation? But, after Katrina, and with the state in which we find our economy and the nation's health-care system, many of us are no longer too proud to beg.

It's true that our government provides some of these services under programs like Medicare and Medicaid. And there's always the American Red Cross, but, controversies aside, its mission is mainly responding to disasters, as well as providing blood services.

Once Abdul Edhi picks up that Nobel, perhaps Americans will be shamed into increasing our relief efforts both overseas and on our own soil. In the meantime, let's hope we keep him off our Terrorist Watch List.