“I look at myself and acknowledge that the kind of things that I have done are not humanly possible. There has to be a bigger hand helping you, a support staff, a team, people around you.”
Born in 1962 in the small, four-district town of Potchefstroom in South Africa, it is little wonder that Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman has always had a strong sense of community. He graduated as a medical doctor in 1984, but gave up his career not even a decade later to dedicate his life to providing humanitarian aid. The Gift of the Givers Foundation was founded on 6 August 1992 following an encounter with Dr. Sooliman’s spiritual leader on a Thursday evening in Istanbul.
“My son, I am not asking you; I am instructing you to form an organization,” Sufi Sheikh Muhammed Saffer Effendi al Jerrahi told him. “The name in Arabic will be Waqful Waqifin, and that name in English is translated into ‘Gift of the Givers’. You will help all people of all races, of all religions, of all colors, of all classes, of all political affiliations and of any geographical location. You will serve them unconditionally and expect nothing in return. Serve the people with love, with kindness, with compassion and mercy — remember the dignity of man is foremost; if someone is already on the ground, don’t push them further down — hold them and lift them up.”
The transition from medical doctor to full-time humanitarian was simple for Dr. Sooliman. To him, both are driven by the same fundamental principles: mutual respect, care, professionalism and dedication. But Dr. Sooliman also speaks of a common humanity that unites us. His passion for, and belief in the goodness of mankind comes from his faith in something bigger than himself. He says, “My proudest achievement is to bring people of all cultures and religions together. It isn’t to build a hospital, or hand out food parcels — that is easy enough — but bringing people of different mindsets together, to make them respect and appreciate each other in a world that is so pulverized with conflict; that is my greatest achievement.”
Since the foundation’s beginnings in the early 1990s, Dr. Sooliman has grown Gift of the Givers into Africa’s largest disaster relief organization — raising more than ZAR 2 billion (USD 150 million) in aid for 42 countries around the world including war-ravaged countries such as Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Bosnia. His team of 200 offer emergency medical services, mobile hospitals, food and baby formula, shelter, clothing, blankets, counselling and other relief.
Even more remarkable is the organization’s cutting edge innovation and invention. The Gift of the Givers designed and invented the world’s first and only containerized hospital comprising of 28 units; they have developed the world's first groundnut-soya high energy and protein supplement to assist with severe malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, TB, cancer and other debilitating conditions; and established Africa's largest open source computer lab.
In Syria — the foundation’s main focus at the moment — they have established two hospitals where they also run a program to upgrade and transfer skills to doctors, nurses and other personnel. The Gift of the Givers has also set up refugee camps in the area. Dr. Sooliman says, “Everything that we do, we design ourselves. The housing projects that we designed and developed in Cape Town and Johannesburg (South Africa), for example, have been copied by large construction companies.”
Dr. Sooliman’s vision is to bring African non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the forefront, saying “we have the largest amount of resources in the world that we can use for the benefit of upgrading the continent. We don’t fall short in terms of resources, but we fall short in terms of our thinking. If we change the mindset, African NGOs can bring about a massive change to the development of the continent.”
In advising those that wish to follow in Dr. Sooliman’s humanitarian footsteps, he says integrity is the most important quality to have, insisting “humanitarians must be transparent and lead by example.” He adds that he has done everything in his organization from door-to-door deliveries and putting up posters, to developing projects and scouting out war zones. “When we go into a war zone, I go first to see what the risks are, what networks we can build and how I can bring my teams in.”
“People need to have an open mind. We need to respect religions and colors across the world. People have their own ways of doing things, but it doesn’t change their intrinsic personality and human emotion. We all bleed the same color and feel the same pain. Don’t put people in boxes; look at a person as a human being. In the business world we’ll identify one person as being a bad accountant based on their work, but we won’t say all accountants are bad — so why can’t we apply the same rule for religion, culture, race or society?” concludes Dr. Sooliman.