Cape Town – On World Humanitarian Day, which was celebrated on Monday, the founder of Gift of the Givers, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, looked back at his profound journey that took him from his medical background to being one of the country’s great humanitarians.
In 1985, after completing his internship following medical school, Sooliman moved to Pietermaritzburg from Durban. It was there that an “Afrikaner guy” was referred to him for treatment by his (Sooliman’s) neighbour.
“As we got to know each other, he (the Afrikaner) told me, ‘I see you are a man who is interested in religion. There’s a spiritual teacher from Turkey you need to meet. He is a Sufi master,’” Sooliman said.
“I made a joke: I still haven’t seen Cape Town, when am I going to see Turkey?
“Then he said something very profound: ‘What God wills, happens. There is a time and a place for everything.’ And true to what he said, in 1991 I went to Turkey for the first time. It was on that trip that I met the spiritual master (Muhammad Safer Efendi) for the first time.
“I came back a year later, because I had fallen in love with the man. It was a Thursday night, August 6, 1992. We have what is called in Sufism, ‘Zikr’, which is a ceremony where you pronounce God’s names in Arabic. After that recitation at 10pm, from the corner of the room, he looks me in the eye and he looks heavenward at the same time.
“In fluent Turkish he says, ‘My son, I am not asking you, I am instructing you to form an organisation. It will be ‘Gift Of The Givers’ (translated into English). You will serve all people, of all races, all religions, all colours, all classes and of all cultures, and of any geographical location and political affiliation but you will serve them unconditionally.
“‘You will expect nothing in return, not even a thank you. In fact, in what you are going to be doing for the rest of your life, you can expect to get a kick in the butt.
“‘Serve people with love, kindness, compassion and mercy, and remember the dignity of man is foremost. So if somebody is down on the ground, don’t push them down further. Hold them, elevate them, lift them.’
“He said: ‘Caress the head of an orphan, wipe the tear of a grieving child, say words of good counsel to a widow. All these things are free. They don’t cost anything. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, provide water for the thirsty and in whatever you, be the best at what you do.’
“He repeated three times in Arabic: ‘Ghairoon naas may yaan faoon naas’, meaning, best among people are those who benefit mankind. He went on further to say: ‘This is an instruction for you for the rest of your life, and remember, whatever you do is done through you and not by you. It is a spiritual gift, a spiritual favour and it comes through you.’
“Subsequent to that, I asked him: ‘What does this mean? I am a doctor in private practice. What am I supposed to do?’
“He said: ‘My son, in everything, you will know. This organisation will grow and grow and grow.’”
In just over two decades, Gift Of The Givers has managed to fulfil the instruction after helping people unconditionally, has been to 43 different countries, delivered R2.8billion in aid, helped millions of people in Africa, South Africa and the world.
The organisation started off as a disaster intervention agency, and initially only delivered food and medicines, and then later added its own medical teams. This was followed by primary health-care, trauma, post-op rehabilitation, search and rescue and aquatic teams. It also built houses after disasters and has become one of the most complete disaster organisations in the world.
Sooliman is reflecting on the 27-year journey of Gift of the Givers in their anniversary month.
Most recently, the organisation made headlines when one of its volunteers was shot and killed in Hanover Park. Ameerodien Noordien, 20, of Hanover Park was shot and killed due to gang violence in October last year.
Ameerodien was a volunteer for the organisation. Three other people were wounded during the shooting.
When asked if he had any regrets, Sooliman says: “If I had to do this thing again, the only thing I would have done (differently) is allow for more family time, but fortunately they (the family) have been very supportive and understanding.
“Two other things I wanted to be a physician, that opportunity never arose. This thing (Gift Of The Givers) came and it just took over my whole life,” he said.
“However, there is one thing that is still doable – I want to do karate. I want to be a black belt in karate. That I still have a chance to do. Maybe I will achieve that one day,” he said jokingly.
“Other than that, I have no regrets and my thanks go to my family, to my staff, my teams, because their families have also allowed them to go into dangerous, high-risk areas.
“Thanks to the South African government, the media, the corporates, the ordinary South Africans, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, everybody, in the whole of South Africa.
“Everybody prays for and supports us. We are what we are because of South Africans,” he said.