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