Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of humanitarian and disaster relief organisation, Gift of the Givers, is proof that faith can indeed move mountains – as that is all he had when he started the organisation – deep seated faith.
Fast forward 25 years, and the organisation has delivered R2.1 billion in aid to 43 countries, benefiting millions of people, and in the process, picked up 113 local and international awards.
Dr Sooliman remembers clearly how his sufti (spiritual teacher), Sheikh Muhammed Saffer Effendi al Jerrahi, from Istanbul, instructed him on August 6, 1992, to form an organisation.
“He said the name of the organisation should be Gift of the Givers, and that I will serve all nations, people of all cultures, of all religions, of all classes, of all colours, of all political affiliations and of any geographical location. He also instructed me to serve people unconditionally – to serve with kindness, passion and love – and to uphold the dignity of people is foremost. If people are down, you must pick them up, wipe the tears of a grieving child, feed, provide water, and clothe the poor. He also said that I must remember that whatever I do, is through me, not by me. So this is a spiritual calling and it’s a spiritual organisation,” Dr Sooliman said.
Being a medical doctor, Dr Sooliman did not know much about how to run an organisation, but he was assured by his spiritual teacher, who told him that “in everything you will know what to do”.
Within a week after establishing the organisation, Gift of the Givers responded to the war in Bosnia and it was there that it operated the world’s first hospital set up in a shipping container. This innovation resulted in the organisation receiving worldwide media coverage. From there, the organisation just grew bigger over the years.
“I didn’t envisage it will be this big, but every time I saw my sufti, he said it would grow,” Dr Sooliman said.
Gift of the Givers’ primary focus is still disaster relief, but it has also branched out to respond to other needs – including designing primary healthcare clinics, the Cape Counselling Services, the distribution of food parcels, feeding schemes, hospital support, life skills, jump-starting youth entrepreneurship at schools, housing projects and bursaries worth R7 million a year.
Of the 113 awards Gift of the Givers received, four were from presidents – former presidents FW De Klerk and Nelson Mandela, as well as President Jacob Zuma and Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, who gave Dr Sooliman a global citizen’s award for service after the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005.
By 1994 the organisation had grown so big that Dr Sooliman was forced to close his medical practice. “I couldn’t do two professional jobs at the same time. I keep in touch with my sufti, and he cautioned me to be always mindful of my role – that I am only doing this by the grace of God. This is not about me. We cannot lose our focus and spirituality. We are dealing with human beings and suffering.”
His advice to others who think they cannot make a difference to the big need out there?
“You might not be able to help everyone, but you can do the best you can. Everybody can do good, and it does not necessarily cost money. A kind word, sharing a bread, clothing a baby, or being a good listener to someone in pain. There is always somebody worse off than us.”
In April, Gift of the Givers purchased its first property in Cape Town – based in Belthorn. In previous years, the organisation rented various office space, including in Rylands and Ottery.
“In September last year, the KwaZulu-Natal government gave us a R25 million facility at King Shaka. It was built for us. We are just growing in every way. I would like to give a special thanks to Cape Town, and the people of South Africa, the continent and throughout the world for supporting us. I also want to give a special tribute to Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, and the Anglican church, as we have a good relationship with them,” Dr Sooliman said.
The new office of Gift of the Givers is based at 4 Aarbeids Roads, just off Belgravia Road, Belthorn. Visit its website at giftofthegivers.org