Gift of the Givers is the largest disaster response NGO of African origin on the African continent. This includes disaster intervention, the establishment of search-and-rescue, aquatic and medical teams, and 20 other categories of projects. Now a global humanitarian organization that has contributed R2.8 billion in aid to 43 countries, South Africa included. Gift of the Givers Founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman has been providing humanitarian aid for 27 years.
How it all started
“It started in Istanbul in Turkey on August 6, 1992. It was a Thursday night at around 22:00,” Founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman recalls clearly. It was after prayer that the Sufi spiritual master Muhammad Safer Efendi told me: “My son, I’m not asking you, I am instructing you to form an organization, and the name will be Gift of the Givers, and you will serve all people of all races, of all colors and of all religions, of all classes and of all cultures; you will serve any person of any political affiliation, and in any geographical location, and you will serve them all unconditionally. You will not expect anything in return – not even a thank you. This is instruction is for you, for the rest of your life and remember whatever you do, is done, through you and not by you.”
Where to from there?
He asked the Spiritual leader, what he was supposed to do now; as he was a doctor in private practice. I didn’t know what he meant by giving me this instruction for the rest of my life. He told me: “My son in everything that you do, you will know.” Today our many interventions include feeding schemes, a bursary project, drought intervention, hostage negotiation and providing aid following numerous natural disasters worldwide.
Best part is that they don’t have to look for money. When a disaster happens, even before they say they will intervene, people come to them, anyone from corporate to professionals asking what they can deliver or contribute. They do have funding for causes not carried in the news, the ongoing projects like winter warmth blankets.
Challenges in this are par for the course. This is especially applicable in a warzone; you are faced with doubt and suspicion. People don’t know you, so you are faced with matters of trust. In a warzone, people want to know which side you belong to it. If you chose one side, it automatically makes you an enemy to the other. There are ways to negotiate this, to show you are impartial. We work with governments to get our assistance delivered but do not align ourselves politically to any party. We do have diplomatic support from the South African Government.
In a disaster zone, people query how reliable you are, especially the government officials on the ground. Like an earthquake for example; the democracy, don’t know how reliable you are or if you can be trusted and fair play to them. People take chances. We have seen it; people take chances with lives of people. There is lots of red tape involved. We tell them to give the team 24 to 48 hours to put their credibility to the test. After that they usually tell us to go anywhere and do what we want.
Other challenges would be that there is always more need, than the afforded amount of time that you came for. You have to be realistic. Choose a destination and do the best you can.
There are many. Dr Sooliman has received awards from several presidents; South African president President F.W. De Klerk in 1993 and President Nelson Mandela in 1997. In July 2006 he received a Presidential Award from the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf for Pakistan earthquake response. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_of_the_Givers#Recognition
He considers recognition from your own country of utmost importance and not the same as from anywhere else. He recalls The Gift of the Givers participation after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. A team was assembled within an hour, after receiving the news. A 100 people were prepared to fly into a warzone to provide medical service. This despite what they will face and regardless of what might happen; looting, shooting, aftershocks and after effects. They pulled a survivor out, alive, seven days after the earthquake. All the major channels like CNN, BBC, Sky and Mexican TV were there. South Africa got recognition. The first time a team from Africa had taken someone out of disaster rubble alive outside the African continent. We got heart, skills, abilities, capabilities and expertise. Believe in yourself.
Gift of the Givers motto is directly translated from Arabic as “Best among people are those who benefit mankind” This means serving them with love, compassion, kindness, mercy and with the emphasis on serving mankind unconditionally. You will make sure you preserve the dignity of those who are downtrodden. The Islamic law encourages you to help people. As Dr Sooliman says we all have to give, our own kind of service as individuals in a small way.
One of the many shining giving examples is when they built the world’s first containerized mobile hospital in Bosnia in 1993. Everything had to be done from going to a war zone, negotiating, dealing with threats and dangers, Reserve Bank clearance, customs, shipping and immigration.
The hospital is fitted with state of the art technology, self contained for theatres, X-rays and ICU’s. Theatre equipment was needed, he couldn’t source it locally, as everything was bombed. One company quoted him R60 000, a lot of money if you have already spend R8 million. He would also need funds for transport through a bombing zone and accommodation. He found a brochure in his post box that afternoon. This company quoted him R30 000 for the same. When he asked if they are giving him plastic, it transpired that this company supplies the aforementioned company. He has never received a brochure from them prior to this or since then.
His Spiritual leader said: “Remember and remember this well, whenever you do something it is not done by you, but through you.” The day you forget that the Gift is gone, there should be no inflation of ego and no thinking I did it.
Even he can’t believe what he has achieved, like crossing borders, when there aren’t any, as it has been destroyed.
There are no plans, never were any. We are a Spiritual organization. As the Spiritual leader said, my son in everything you will know. I know what I do, when I do. How I know that I don’t know. But I know what to do, how to do and when to do it. In 27 years I waited for all those kind things to come in front of me, took all of them and ran with them.
Gift of the Givers is an example to us all and more than abide by the following: “Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things...as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.”