Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of the Givers Foundation, a South African non-governmental organisation since 1992. The largest disaster relief group of African origin, it has done remarkable things - as has its founder. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/ANA Pictures
The story begins 25 years ago tomorrow. A young Pietermaritzburg doctor stands before a Muslim teacher in Istanbul, it’s 10pm on Thursday August 6, 1992. They have just finished praying.

The holy man, Mohammed Safar effendi, speaks to the doctor in Turkish.

The doctor doesn't speak Turkish, yet he understands every word.

The instruction is simple: “My son, I’m not asking you,” says the teacher, “I’m instructing you to form an organisation that will be called the Gift of the Givers. You will help all people of all races, or all religions, of all classes, of all cultures, of any geographical location and of any political affiliation.

“You will help them unconditionally, you will not expect anything in return, not even a thank you. In fact, for what you're going to be doing, expect to get a kick up your back If you don't get a kick up your back, regard this as a bonus.

“You will treat people with love, kindness, compassion and mercy. Remember the dignity of man is foremost, so if anybody is down on the ground hold them, lift them, embrace them. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide water for the thirsty. Wipe the tear of a grieving child, caress the head of an orphan, say words of good counsel to a widow, that costs nothing.

“Best among people are those that benefit mankind.”

This injunction was repeated three times.

Three weeks later Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, 55, was in Bosnia. The rest is history - much of it record-breaking. Gift of the Givers have been to most of the worst disaster zones in the world in the last 25 years, distributing R2.1billion in aid across 43 countries, notably Iran in 2003 after the earthquake, Thailand in 2005 after the Boxing Day tsunami, Haiti in 2010 after the killer quake there, Somalia the following year with the famine, Syria since 2012, the Philippines, Nepal and Pakistan.

Those have just been the foreign disasters, there's also the local disaster relief, most recently Knysna and just before that Tzaneen, Barberton and Khayelitsha. And that’s just this year.

Rice being packed by workers at the Gift of the Givers Foundation. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/ANA Pictures

But disaster relief is not the only thing Gift of the Givers does. The organisation builds hospitals and houses; they distribute aid, from foodstuffs to clothing and blankets; they run soup kitchens, and even cook food for other soup kitchens, especially where the cooking facilities might be unhygienic.

The sprawling township of Alex is a stone’s throw from Gift of the Givers' main logistics centre in Bramley, Joburg.

The relief workers regularly go in there and into the rural and peri-urban areas in other provinces where entire villages are in danger of starvation, but the TV cameras and the reporters with their notebooks aren't always there.

Today the organisation has three major distribution centres: in Bramley, Durban and Cape Town.

There are permanent offices in Lilongwe, Malawi, and Harare, Zimbabwe, while the admin office remains in Maritzburg where it all began. There are Sooliman and his wife Zohra, some relatives and their son’s room, which is the office, a fax machine and landline telephone amid the toys and the cot.

Zohra still runs Careline, the counselling division of Gift of the Givers, which she set up very soon after the first missions were completed, when she realised that people affected by disaster needed emotional care as well seeing to their physical needs.

The organisation is very small for the scale of work that it is busy with all the time, with a permanent staff of 60, casual labour for the manual work of loading and packing of emergency supplies and scores of volunteers, medical professionals and specialists among them, who give their time and expertise for free when Sooliman calls them to ask them to take part in one of his missions, which today can be planned and put into execution within two hours of the volunteers arriving in Cape Town, Durban or Joburg, picking up the specialist kit they need, whether for fires, earthquakes or water, and getting on board chartered aircraft.

The equipment ranges from the emergency bags that all volunteers take with them whenever they deploy further than Gauteng, to paramedic type overalls, wetsuits, fire-retardant jackets and pants, life jackets and air-portable kennels for the rescue dogs. There’s even a portable machine to find life under rubble, which was used so effectively in Haiti seven years ago.

Over the years, the organisation has innovated and designed, from the first-ever containerised hospital in Bosnia, which became the template for a rural primary health care roll-out for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma during her time as minister of health, to being able to operate from the runway the moment they land at their mission destination.

“We’re not a field hospital,” Sooliman quips, “we’re a mobile portable hospital when we deploy, we carry everything that we need.”

He’s proud of all the missions, Gift of the Givers has carried out over the last 25 years.

Some have been tougher than others, like Bosnia, which he credits for teaching him 85 percent of what he knows to this day, to Syria where the team went in and built a hospital in a war zone, and continues to service to this day, adding services like dialysis and cardio-catheterisation which are almost unimaginable.

Haiti was tough logistically. It was the first mission he didn't control on the ground, but it was also the first time a South African rescue group had pulled someone alive from beneath the rubble.

Pakistan was another highlight, being asked by the military not to go to the quake site but instead save a hospital that was condemned as unserviceable, within 24 hours, and create a 400-bed emergency hospital dealing with critical cases being airlifted in from the disaster epicentre.

He’s proud, too, that Gift of the Givers dispatches complete disaster relief teams.

“Some organisations send clothes, others food. Some send trauma specialists, others post-operative experts. Some send search and rescue teams, some send dog handlers with rescue dogs. Some build houses. We do everything, sometimes altogether and we even build hospitals.”

There have also been the countless times that Sooliman has interceded as a hostage negotiator. With almost perfect serendipity Stephen McGowan was released by al-Qaeda on Thursday, after being held for five-and-a-half years.

Sooliman had worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get him freed. There was no such news for local photographer Shiraz Mohamed, who was abducted mysteriously during a Gift of the Givers mission to Syria in January.

“We believe he is alive,” says Sooliman, “there is new information that we are following up.”

When Sooliman began getting involved in disaster relief, it was very much as a Muslim doctor. Ironically, his own transformation began when he got Willem Miller as a patient in Maritzburg. Miller, an Afrikaner, needed a doctor. Sooliman was the only one available.

As Sooliman began treating him, Miller told him about a man he had heard of in Istanbul.

“'Istanbul?’ I exclaimed,” remembered Sooliman this week, “I told him I hadn’t even been as far as Cape Town.”

Members of the Gift of the Givers Foundation prepare food packages and aid for needy people. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/ANA Pictures

In 1991 though, Sooliman did get to Istanbul. He was on his way back from Bangladesh where he’d been delivering aid and was donating his trucks to the Turkish Red Crescent organisation to let them distribute their aid.

On a whim, he made his way to Fatih, the old Constantinople part of Istanbul.

“It was '91, the Earth was polarised after the Gulf War, it was Christian and Jew against Muslim, and here we were in this Muslim city where people of all religions mingled freely, respecting one another, a place where our guide was an American Jew.

“I got to meet this old man who my Afrikaner patient had spoken so highly about.

"His face exuded love. He told me that Islam was about love, that we should look at people as people not about race. That first visit taught me to embrace people, to embrace difference and not be angered by it, to change my mindset.”

The following year he returned. His spiritual teacher saw the change in him and gave him his charge.

Sooliman’s followed that mission of serving mankind with like-minded volunteers ever since.

“They are from all races, all regions in this country. Some are very rich, but then I see them working in appalling conditions without sleep and without complaint.”

Some volunteers make it a condition of their jobs at hospitals that they get immediate leave to answer Sooliman’s call when it comes.

“Last Christmas, an Afrikaner Christian spent that holy time helping Pakistanis to do post-operative procedures. When she left everyone in that hospital cried with her. You can't under-estimate the quality of our volunteers,” he says.

Tomorrow will be a normal day for him and the Gift of the Givers.

Sooliman will pray in gratitude, five times as his faith requires, but there will be no special commemoration for this milestone, no party.

“How do I invite everyone?” he asks. “If a man gives me a million, but has R100 million, is that better than a man who gives me R10, but only had R10 to his name? What about those who gave nothing but remembered us in their prayers?

“We won’t invite anyone because everyone has been important to us. I will remember them and give thanks for them in my prayers. The projects will continue, the missions will continue because as the teacher said, everything is done through you, not by you.

“There’s no place for ego in what we do, we are merely instruments of the divine.”

Saturday Star