Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman Picture Itumeleng English
Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman Picture Itumeleng English

Sooliman’s proof it’s better to give than receive

By OPINION Time of article published Nov 20, 2016

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Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman was bestowed the Global Citizen Award last week, writes Thabiso Thakali and Roland Mpofu.

Johannesburg - One of the most terrifying moments in Imtiaz Sooliman’s work came in 2014 - when he sent his office manager to Yemen to negotiate with al-Qaeda for the release of Bloemfontein teacher Pierre Korkie and his wife Yolande.

The pair were kidnapped on May 2013 where Yolande volunteered at a hospital and Pierre taught English.

Sooliman’s heart was beating wildly as he spoke on the phone with the negotiator he’d sent to speak to the hostage takers who’d demanded a $1 million ransom.

It was a perilous situation that could have gone horribly wrong. During this period, Sooliman spent six weeks living with his children without talking to them once.

“I had this heavy responsibility (on my shoulders) that I could have sent a man to his death or victory,” he said. “It only dawned on me when my children said I hadn’t spoken to them - but I’d been thinking about this hostage situation, because of the intense focus it required. You can’t make a mistake.”

For seven months, Sooliman said, the captors in Yemen had kept a watchful eye over his Gift of the Givers Foundation in the media as it sought the release of the two.

Sooliman was encouraged by his organisation’s work in the country as it was neutral, apolitical and provided aid without asking questions.

And leveraging on its presence, he increased aid supply to get to more areas and hoped to obtain the buy-in of tribal and religious leaders that South Africa was helping them.

Eventually, a call came through to him one night to meet the captors and he sent his office manager to Yemen while he remained behind.

“The moment he walked in there they said: You know who we are, we are al-Qaeda, what you want?’ Just like that, it was the introduction,” recalled Sooliman. “My negotiator had to explain their body language to me.

“They asked for $1 million and he said we had no money. I asked him to show them what we had done. Food parcels and helping the poor.

“Al-Qaeda sitting around the table watching pictures is not normal; terrorists don’t do things like that. They said ‘good work, but we need the money’.”

Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers eventually secured the release of Yolande after more than 500 days of being held hostage for a ransom.

He also negotiated her husband’s release but he was killed in a US military raid before he was to be delivered.

Last week, on Friday, Sooliman was bestowed the Global Citizen Award in recognition of his tireless efforts in sacrificing everything to help others.

The Global Citizen Award is given by international advisory firm Henley & Partners, each year to an inspirational individual who has made an extraordinary contribution towards improving the global community.

Sooliman has developed Gift of the Givers Foundation into Africa’s largest disaster relief group raising more than $150 million in life-saving aid for over 42 countries around the world.

His team provides medical assistance, equipment and supplies, as well as high-energy and protein supplements, food and water to millions of people each year.

In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the foundation sent four rescue teams and aid materials to the country. At one point in 2011, they were the only international aid group providing food parcels to Somalia.

But Sooliman has also struck a fine balance between international humanitarian work and local disaster relief efforts.

Last week, after a storm and floods hit parts of Gauteng, leaving a trail of destruction and despair, Sooliman’s team was in Alexandra at 4am to deliver relief to flood victims.

“We are feeding 2 500 people daily, we have provided the shelter to the Chauke family whose child was swept away by floods,” he said.

“We were involved in Marikana, Lily Mine, Kroondal, Orkney and Klerksdorp; we were involved with the university student feeding.

“We got involved in Germiston after a tornado, in Ennerdale, and we are still busy. We are driving 1 million litres of water daily from our borehole to people in need but it is still a drop in the ocean, forgive the pun, compared to what’s required.”

Even more remarkable is Sooliman’s cutting edge innovation and invention. The Gift of the Givers designed and developed the world’s first and only container hospital, comprising 28 units. His foundation also established Africa’s largest open-source computer lab.

In Syria, which is the main focus of the foundation’s relief efforts at the moment, they have erected two hospitals and are running a programme to upgrade and transfer their skills to doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

“If you are not king in your own country, you are not going to be king in the rest of the world,” Sooliman told The Sunday Independent.

“I have been stressing to my teams that we have to be No 1 in SA, not competing with anybody but competing with ourselves, to make sure we give the best to our own people.”

Sooliman, who was born in Potchefstroom in the North West, drew his inspiration for social responsibility, helping and caring for others from his parents.

Growing up, he witnessed the suffering of others, which taught him to be grateful for what he had.

In 1992, while in Turkey, Sooliman met his spiritual leader, who instructed him to form this organisation to help people all over the world unconditionally and not expect anything in return.

And since then, he has never looked back. The Gift of the Givers’ level of preparedness for any disaster today, according to Sooliman, means a team can be assembled in one hour.

The foundation has more than 200 standby teams of search and rescue personnel, equipment and supplies ready at any given time, Sooliman said.

“We have a mobile hospital ready. We set up our infrastructure such that when disaster happens elsewhere, it is a totally different team that is send to the one working in SA,” he said.

“We have 35 vehicles, our own trucks, huge warehouses; the government has now given us a warehouse at King Shaka Airport, R25 million, state-of-the-art, close to the runaway.”

Friday this week, marks five years since another South African, Stephen McGowan, and Swede Johan Gustofsson were captured in Mali. Sooliman has been battling for 115 months to get McGowan released from al-Qaeda captivity in Mali, yet he refuses to give up hope.

As a Muslim, Sooliman said his passion to help others was largely driven by religious belief that “God does not need your prayer if you don’t help fellow men”.

Sooliman said the award he received gave his organisation an opportunity to be recognised by more people worldwide in the hope of getting more funding to help those in the country and the continent.

The Sunday Independent

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