On Friday the 1st of April, Rhodes University is conferring an Honorary Doctorate on Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder and leader of Gift of the Givers.
In the midst of disaster, drought, floods, famine, disease, death and destruction you will find Dr Imtiaz Sooliman.
The founder of the international relief organisation, Gift of the Givers, this Pietermaritzburg-based medical doctor, who qualified in 1984 at what is now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has devoted his life to courageous, selfless, dangerous work in crisis zones across the world.
Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, Japan, Indonesia, Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, Libya, Malawi, Mozambique, Sudan, Zimbabwe … since 1992 when he founded Gift of the Givers, Dr Sooliman and his team of 200, including search and rescue personnel, doctors (including trauma, emergency and primary health care specialists), nurses, and allied medical personnel (including dietitians, dentists and trauma counselors), have served in 41 stricken countries. They offer emergency medical response, fully equipped mobile hospitals, food, shelter, clothing, blankets, reassurance and care to millions of people. Financially, this amounts to R1.5 billion rand in aid over the 24-year period.
War ravaged Syria is one of their current focus areas. They have established two highly efficient hospitals in the North of Syria, where, in the first two months of this year they treated 27 000 patients.
In the hospitals they have a programme of upgrading and transferring skills to doctors, nurses and other personnel. They have also set up refugee camps, provided food, blankets, baby milk powder, clothing and tents.
“Syria is totally destroyed, no one wants to be forced to leave their home and country but they have no option,” says Dr Sooliman.
Disasters strike at any time and it takes just one call from him at any time of the night or day to assemble the team.
“When you arrive in any disaster area, all you see is destruction and total chaos,” he explains. “You immediately have to find a place of security for your team, a place with water and sanitation. You have to sort out transport and access, connect with the country’s government officials and local disaster teams, overcome the bureaucracy, locate the nearest hospitals or set up your own mobile hospital.
“While this is happening you need to gain the trust of people whose lives have been shattered. To achieve all this you not only need to be backed up by people with exceptional skills, you need people who work from the heart with the highest integrity, not for the money.”
While much of the world is driven by money, Dr Sooliman is driven by his humanitarian spirit, his need to help others in need, regardless of their race, culture, religion or political affiliation.
The story of how he came to commit fulltime to this work reminds us of the power of the invisible influences in this world.
Dr Sooliman’s destiny took shape in 1991 when he met the person who was to guide his life.
“It came about after I met an Afrikaner guy called William Miller in Pietermaritzburg,” he explains. “He told me about a Sufi teacher by the name of Muhammad Safer Efendi whom he had met and who had a profound influence on his life. He said that I had to go and meet him in Turkey. I had never been out of South Africa but I felt compelled to do this, which I did in 1991. The moment I saw his face I experienced the deepest feeling of love, it was a connection of the heart and soul and I was not alone in this. My wife, Zohra, had exactly the same experience.”
Muhammad Safer Efendi spoke Turkish and Dr Sooliman spoke English during their meeting and though they could not speak each other’s language they completely understood each other.
“He became my teacher and on Thursday night, 6 August 1992, he said to me: ‘You will form an organisation; the name will be Gift of the Givers. You will serve all people, of all races, of all colors, of all classes, of all cultures, of all religions, of any geographical location and of any political affiliation and you will serve them unconditionally; you will not expect anything in return not even a "thank you". You will serve people with love, mercy, kindness and compassion and remember the dignity of man is foremost, if someone is down in the ground you don't push them further in, you hold them and lift them up. You wipe the tear from those who are crying, caress the head of an orphan, say words of good counsel to a widow, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and provide water to the thirsty. You will work with government but never for government. Whatever is done will be done through you and not by you. In everything you will know. This is an instruction to you for the rest of your life.’”
Dr Sooliman’s teacher also explained to him that he needed to focus on Africa. “All spiritual leaders say that Africa will be the spiritual centre of the world because of the quality of the people and we have certainly experienced this on our missions,” Dr Sooliman continues.
“In places like Sudan we were greeted with such warmth and love and the people wanted to give us something from their homes when they have absolutely nothing.”
He says that on all their missions they experience such patience and gratitude.
“When we were in Somalia and Libya the people there told us that they felt such warmth and caring from the South Africans. All our team members will tell you that once you have experienced this kind of gratitude you cannot live without it, it drives you do more.”
Dr Sooliman met with his teacher 21 times before his teacher passed on in 1999. “He is no longer in this world but he is with me even more than when he is alive,” says Dr Sooliman who says what he has been able to accomplish through the Gift of the Givers has definitely been divine guidance. “I have been shown the way in disaster situations where I had absolutely no idea how to proceed.”
A book published in 2014 titled ‘A Mercy To All’ on Dr Sooliman and Gift of the Givers, describes his spiritual journey and how he took the Gift of the Givers forward.
The Sufi order to which he belongs is an extension of Islam and Dr Sooliman emphasises that people should not confuse organisations like ISIS with Islam. “Everyone should be afraid of ISIS and similar organisations because what they are doing is completely against true Islamic teaching, which does not allow killing and oppression of any kind, including the oppression of women.
“Islam emphasises peace and understanding and that women hold a higher status than men. Women can achieve whatever they wish to achieve from education to business to property ownership. The prophet says that paradise lies at the feet of the mother, and therefore women should receive the highest respect.”
Zohra Sooliman, who is a co-founder and trustee of Gift of the Givers Sooliman, has a special interest in the empowerment of women and children. She has an Honours degree in Psychology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and leads the Gift of the Givers Careline in response to the need for psychological support throughout South Africa.
Dr Sooliman believes that young men and young women in South Africa and throughout the continent need to develop a far stronger sense of themselves, their strengths, skills and capabilities. “We’ve tended to looked to the northern countries for this but we have such capacity of our own if we apply ourselves.”
His favourite place in the world is South Africa. “We have a beautiful country with beautiful people,” he says.
The problems we are facing, he explains, are because “many people in South Africa, as has happened all over the world, have lost their way. People become greedy and self-centred, which, in turn, creates strife, war and disaster,” he explains.
“I do have faith that we can turn this around, but the switch has to come from all of us. We have to understand that we need to heal ourselves and this requires of us to strive for honesty and integrity and to develop the desire to help other people.
“Our people in government need to realise that they are not here for themselves, they are here as the servants of the people, they are here to serve the people of this country.”
He adds that we also have to focus on food security and start looking after our natural environment, because this is what gives us life. We take clean, fresh water for granted but without it we cannot survive.
“What encourages me is that when I do guest lectures at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I see that young people understand the importance of sharing and food security and environmental conservation. They get it and they have a strong sense of our common humanity and a desire to transform society for the better.”
Dr Sooliman’s desire would be to own his own hospital in South Africa that offers the best medical care in the world to the poor at an affordable cost. “The hospital would also look after people with greater means who would pay higher prices for treatment but we would not exploit them,” he says, adding: I know that it will come in the right way at the right time if it is meant for me.” Considering his journey thus far and the achievements of the Gift of the Givers, there is no doubt his hospital will happen.
By Heather Dugmore