GIV­ING

Im­tiaz Sooli­man’s or­gan­i­sa­tion, Gift of the Givers, pre­pared teams for quake-stricken Haiti within an hour, writes JANET SMITH

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

DOC­TOR Im­tiaz Sooli­man’s staff told him: “Please don’t say it.” Ev­ery time the CEO of the Gift of the Givers has a pre­mo­ni­tion, it comes true. So when he called them af­ter his hol­i­day in Egypt and Syria in De­cem­ber, telling them to get ready for “some­thing big”, they knew.

But they had had a feel­ing ear­lier that month any­way, just as they were clos­ing their op­er­a­tions in Jo­han­nes­burg, Dur­ban, Pi­eter­mar­itzburg, Cape Town and Malawi for the hol­i­days. Sooli­man was stock­pil­ing. “Some­thing told me… so I gave out new con­tracts. I just knew we needed more food parcels, we needed many more tents. The mo­ment I got back from hol­i­day, ev­ery day I was ex­pect­ing some­thing to hap­pen. I called the staff. I said, ‘I may call you back’. They said, ‘Don’t say it’.”

But by Tues­day, Jan­uary 12, Sooli­man was ready. He got a call at 6.10am from 702’s Yusuf Abram­jee, telling him a hor­ri­fy­ing earth­quake had pum­melled Haiti.

Within half an hour, Sooli­man made the an­nounce­ment that the Gift of the Givers would join the ef­fort.

Within an hour, he had as­sem­bled the first team of med­i­cal and search-an­dres­cue per­son­nel who would travel first to Paris, then to the Do­mini­can Repub­lic and on to the hor­rors of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

There had been no time to waste and as he was rapidly pre­par­ing, Sooli­man knew ex­actly who to call: para­medic Ahmed Bham and his team from North West.

“I met them last year and thought they were re­mark­able South Africans. They’d worked in nat­u­ral dis­as­ters be­fore and they ex­pressed their will­ing­ness then to work with us the next time we needed help.”

Sooli­man says it has brought him great sat­is­fac­tion to see how Bham has tow­ered in Haiti, to­gether with his reg­u­lar team of paramedics.

“This is the first time in 18 years that I have not led a team. But we had such a com­mu­ni­ca­tions prob­lem and a dis­tance prob­lem, es­pe­cially be­cause we do not have an em­bassy there. I had to base my­self some­where to sort it all out, so I de­cided to stay here.”

He asks for a few sec­onds away from our in­ter­view to take a phone call from the team in Port-au-Prince.

“Salaam,” he be­gins quite serenely, al­though Sooli­man soon rat­tles away at his cus­tom­ary rapid-fire pace.

“They’ve fi­nally reached the bor­der in a bus,” he says when he comes off the call. “That’s the team with your guy, Graeme Hosken (from Pre­to­ria News),” he ex­plains.

Sooli­man is re­lieved. That’s team num­ber two. Team num­ber three left on Wed­nes­day night and team num­ber four on Thurs­day night.

“I’m get­ting calls all the time from doc­tors and other spe­cial­ists. They want to join us.”

And that takes Sooli­man back very quickly to the sub­ject of Bham.

“Ahmed is a changed man for the rest of his life, I can tell you that. He’s a para­medic, he’s a great leader. He’s re­ally do­ing bril­liantly.”

Sooli­man knows all about stay­ing calm and re­main­ing in charge. Yet, he de­scribes him­self as “a very timid per­son”, es­pe­cially while he was grow­ing up.

“I never played sports. I was afraid of the hard ball in cricket and was afraid a soc­cer ball would hurt me.”

That was un­til he went to live with his mother in Dur­ban, leav­ing the small town of Potchef­stroom where he grew up with “a very soft” grand­fa­ther and fa­ther.

“There were only gang­sters there where my mother lived. They would stab you in full view. I thought, man, this place is not for me. Then the other chil­dren said, ‘come play soc­cer with us’.

“So I got a lit­tle ad­ven­tur­ous and got in­volved with the chil­dren. They had a cou­ple of teams, and I started out as the re­serve. My job was just to pick up the ball. The next year, I was the cap­tain. Then I learnt 13 dif­fer­ent sports and that took my timid­ness away.”

His early years in Potchef­stroom stayed with him. His fa­ther and grand­fa­ther had run a shop there and Sooli­man re­mem­bers them be­ing “im­mensely kind” to the poor.

“My mother was the same. She did not have much means, but she al­ways said, even if you can only give out one food par­cel a month, you must do that.

“So we used to give out two or three food parcels and go far out to find the very poor peo­ple. We were not ag­gres­sive, but I have learned to be­come a tougher man.”

Ma­tric­u­lat­ing from Dur­ban’s Sas­tri Col­lege, he trained as a doc­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of Natal and went into pri­vate prac­tice.

Sooli­man – who has won nu­mer­ous hu­man­i­tar­ian awards, both in­di­vid­u­ally and with Gift of the Givers – is the kind of per­son who wor­ries con­stantly about the teams in Haiti.

“I keep ask­ing: are they safe? They have wives and chil­dren. They are the sons of some­body. That’s my only pre­oc­cu­pa­tion. I can’t sleep. I must wait for the next call. When the first team’s flight was de­layed, I waited for that call till 2am, then we worked on prob­lems on the ground to­gether till 5am. Then I prayed.”

Did he imag­ine Gift of the Givers would be any­thing like it is to­day when he started it 17 years ago?

“Not in the least. I thought it was a one­off thing. I started it on Au­gust 6, 1992, af­ter I had met a spir­i­tual teacher in Is­tan­bul. He even told me the name, Gift of the Givers, and the slo­gan – the best among peo­ple are those who ben­e­fit mankind.

“It must be un­con­di­tional, he taught me. You’ll not be looking at black or white, or Chris­tian or Hindu or Mus­lim. You must look at a hu­man as a hu­man and not judge them. You must not ex­pect any­thing in re­turn. He told me the best you can ex­pect is a kick up your back­side and if you don’t get that, con­sider it a bonus.”

Sooli­man was on his way to Bangladesh on a re­lief mis­sion in 1991 when he had to travel via Turkey where met his spir­i­tual teacher. “I re­ally fell in love with him. I wanted to be like a dis­ci­ple of his. Af­ter that I found my­self in Bos­nia, get­ting in­volved there in help­ing peo­ple and I al­ways re­mem­bered what he said: this is un­con­di­tional.”

It was back in 1990 though that Sooli­man started his per­sonal jour­ney of want­ing to as­sist where there were dis­as­ters. His first des­ti­na­tion was Mozam­bique.

“I went there be­cause I wanted to help. I’d never done it be­fore. I saw two kids dig­ging a hole and build­ing a sort of sand­cas­tle. While they were play­ing, they were scoop­ing wa­ter to drink. They were frail and mal­nour­ished and that was their only drink­ing wa­ter in a drought.

“I thought of how eas­ily we sprayed our gar­dens and turned on taps without a thought. So I used my con­nec­tions and we dug 30 bore­holes there. That was the beginning. The next year was the Gulf War and we got in­volved there, then Bangladesh.”

Sooli­man says it has been re­mark­able how the world, and in­deed South Africans, have re­sponded to the earth­quake in Haiti when there have been so many other emer­gen­cies around the planet which have not at­tracted any­thing close to the same amount of at­ten­tion.

“You know, for us at Gift of the Givers, it has been in­ter­est­ing, be­cause a lot of peo­ple seem to think we are a Mus­lim or­gan­i­sa­tion – which we are – and that we serve only Mus­lims, which is not cor­rect.

“It is strange though that al­most ev­ery nat­u­ral dis­as­ter of late seems to have hap­pened al­most only in Mus­lim coun­tries… Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Gaza, Iran.

“But we have also been work­ing in Zim­babwe, Malawi… We’ve helped in the DRC and Rwanda. We’re deal­ing with hunger in Le­sotho, but none of those have re­ally grabbed me­dia at­ten­tion.

“Now sud­denly this thing comes and it’s in a 100 per­cent Catholic black coun­try. We re­spond with the same speed, even faster, than we have with Mus­lim coun­tries.

“It is a part of our re­li­gion that talk is not good enough, you have to see it in action. Kids do what they see their par­ents do, not what they say. Our re­li­gion ex­plains that God is not in need of any man’s pray­ers, He can take care of his own needs. So you can pray 50 times a day and it will make no dif­fer­ence if you do not act. Prayer just pre­pares your mind for ser­vice.”

Sooli­man be­lieves di­vine grace puts peo­ple in your path which is partly what has al­lowed the Gift of the Givers to grow a loyal group of doc­tors, paramedics and other vol­un­teers to en­ter dis­as­ter zones with them to try to save lives and help peo­ple.

“But I also say that you have to have a sharp mind, and God has given me lots of gifts, in­clud­ing a sharp mem­ory. I know how to make as­so­ci­a­tions and net­works. So ev­ery time I make an an­nounce­ment about us go­ing some­where, we are build­ing a list of those who can tell oth­ers who are open to new peo­ple and can com­ple­ment one an­other.”

Yet Sooli­man is very strict on one thing: no tears. “It is im­pos­si­ble not to feel for peo­ple, but you have to be ice-cold in this type of sit­u­a­tion, such as Haiti. You re­ally can­not af­ford to sit down and cry with peo­ple. You may end up do­ing noth­ing.

“I call a spade a spade. I’ve found that in the type of work we do, it’s the only way we can re­ally sur­vive and help oth­ers to sur­vive.”

PRE­MO­NI­TION: Dr Im­tiaz Sooli­man, CEO of Gift of the Givers, ‘knew’ a dis­as­ter was on the way.

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