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Gift of the Givers has been to some of the world’s most horrendous disaster scenes and has helped millions of people. But how did it all start?

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman spent many years studying to become a doctor but, in 1992, he left that all behind.

How it all started

“It’s not something I planned; it all happened by coincidence,” says Sooliman. “On 6 August 1992 when I was 28 years old – it was a Thursday night – I was in Istanbul with a spiritual teacher. There were people from all countries, all religions, and all colours – there was a unity of man, of different groupings in a holy place. After a religious ceremony the teacher just looked at me and it was as if something was talking through him – he just looked at me and said:

‘My son I’m not asking you I’m instructing you. You will form an organisation; the name will be Gift of the Givers. You will serve all people of all races, of all religions, of all colours, of all classes, of all political affiliations and of any geographical location and you will serve them unconditionally. You will not expect anything in return - not even a thank you. In fact, with the kind of duty that you’re going to do, expect to get kicked in the butt. If you don’t get kicked regard that as a bonus. Serve the people with kindness, with compassion, with mercy and remember the dignity of man is foremost – no matter what condition there is, you always protect the dignity of man and, when you serve them, serve them with excellence. This is an instruction for you for the rest of your life. Remember that whatever is done is done through you and not by you. Don’t ever forget that!’

“I knew immediately I wanted to do that. I asked no questions. But I did think that maybe he’s talking about a small thing once in a while in between my medical practice. I never expected something like this!”

It began in Bosnia

The first project that Gift of the Givers took on was Bosnia in August 1992. “I just started when the civil war broke out,” says Sooliman. "I knew nothing about NGO work. Not even five months later we designed the world’s first containerised mobile hospital.

“It’s driven by fate, because you feel that connection all the time. You feel the calling, you feel the need, you see the suffering of man and you want to do something. There’s a lot of prayer involved. You’ve been shown what the right way is; what to do and what not to do. And it’s very clearly put in front of you.”

Gift of the Givers is in the business of saving lives which includes search and rescue missions. There are about 60 permanent day-to-day staff members. The medical team fluctuates according the need, but there is a core group of about 30 volunteers while the search and rescue party also numbers about 30. “The search and rescue guys are paramedics so there’s an overlap between the two teams,” says Sooliman.

The work the medical staff members at Gift of the Givers do can be very traumatic. In Haiti it left deep emotional scars that changed them forever.

Death is everywhere

“In Haiti the stench of death is everywhere! Doctors complained they’re finding only bodies; there’s nobody left alive. It’s terrible, but the thing that really broke them was in a church where they had to re-amputate the feet and hands of children that somebody before us messed up. There were hundreds of children like this!

“After that, when they told those children to go home, the children said ‘go home where?’ There is no house. There are no parents. There are no grandparents. There’s nobody. And they have torn clothes and no food or water. The stench of death, broken buildings, broken souls… My teams broke down.”

Although it’s an NGO Gift of the Givers is run very professionally as if it was a business. “We would not have lasted two decades if it wasn’t,” says Sooliman. “Everything must be perfect. Corporates want to see professionalism.”

Funded by ordinary South Africans

Gift of the Givers is funded predominantly by ordinary South Africans. “A poor school in Orange Farm – the kids don’t have shoes, they don’t have lunch, they don’t have a jersey in winter – gave us R41 000 when we had the crisis in Somalia. A government school in Rylands gave us more than R100 000. Pensioners give us money.

“Recently a guy came out of prison. He said that he hasn’t been a good man; he’s done bad things. He gave us everything he had when he left prison – R5.60. People all over South Africa respond in this manner.

“We have difficulties, but it’s nothing in comparison to what you see elsewhere. We must never be ungrateful.”

Sooliman says it’s the suffering of others that keeps him going. “We want to carry out service. We want to do this over and over, because you see the pain and suffering of people. When you can offer something and put a smile to somebody’s face you feel great.”

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This article first appeared on CapeTalk : Meet the noble soul who lives to serve and ease suffering

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