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South African Imtiaz Sooliman launched the Gift of the Givers Foundation in 1992
The aid agency is the biggest disaster relief group of African origin
It has delivered aid to 32 countries, including Haiti, Pakistan and Somalia
Sooliman says the group proves that Africa can make a positive contribution to the world
A week after a powerful 7.0 tremor ripped through Haiti in January 2010, time was running out for Ena Zizi. The 64-year-old woman was trapped, without food and water, eight meters under the rubble of Port-au-Prince’s ruined cathedral.
A team of rescuers from South Africa worked against the clock to rescue her, with the stench of decomposing bodies in their nostrils. After two-and-a-half hours, the rescuers from the Gift of the Givers Foundation managed to pull Zizi out of the debris of the once-imposing building.
The South African team, working alongside a Mexican group, made headlines around the world and became front-page news back home. Imtiaz Sooliman, who founded Gift of the Givers, says the rescue mission marked the first time rescuers from an African country pulled someone out of earthquake rubble alive in another part of the world.
“We achieved a world first for the African continent,” he says. Sooliman added that the rescue is proof of his continent’s ability to make a positive contribution to the rest of the world.
“Africa is always viewed as people receiving aid, here Africa went across another part of the world and saved somebody in another land, how much greater can it be?” he says proudly.
“That was an achievement for Africa: This time, we are not asking, this time we are saying, ‘We are going to give,’ that is a step in the right direction,” the South African doctor-turned-aid worker adds.
But, it wasn’t the first time Sooliman’s organization made a big difference in disaster-hit areas outside Africa.
Launched in 1992, Sooliman’s Gift of the Givers has so far delivered aid to 32 countries – from deploying the world’s first containerized mobile hospital in war-torn Bosnia and delivering food and water in flood-hit Pakistan, to helping Zimbabwe tackle its cholera outbreak and saving lives in Haiti. It is now the largest disaster relief group of African origin.
Sooliman’s foundation has been providing life-saving aid for almost two decades now and he says it has been shattering stereotypes about Africa along the way.
“When I was in Pakistan in 2005 and some other countries were getting together for the earthquake, and when we came they got confused and they said, ‘Who are you people?’” recalls Sooliman.
“‘I said we’re from South Africa,’ ‘Oh, you’re from Africa, did you come to ask something here?’ I said ‘No, I didn’t come to ask something, I brought something,’” he adds.
More recently, Sooliman’s group was among the first to respond to the devastating famine in Somalia. Gift of the Givers say they have flown 180 tons of emergency aid from South Africa to the east African country’s capital, Mogadishu and delivered a further 2,000 tons by sea.
Sooliman, a household name in South Africa, credits the media for encouraging his compatriots to give generously.
“South Africa sent a very strong statement: They said we are African and Somalia is African and we’re going to respond to our brothers and sisters in Africa – even to the point people told me that poor people in South Africa refuse to receive donations that they normally receive.
“They said ‘Give these donations to the people of Somalia, they need it more than we need it.’ It was an amazing spirit, in South Africa we call it Ubuntu: The spirit of sharing, of goodwill, of compassion,” he says.
Sooliman has personally traveled twice to famine-ravaged Somalia to deliver, not only food, but also medical expertise and equipment . In what is the group’s biggest project ever, Gift of the Givers doctors have also treated thousands of people and performed surgical operations.
In recognition of his humanitarian work, Sooliman has been presented with numerous accolades over for the years by several governments and organizations across the world, including the PMB civic commendation award in 1997 from Nelson Mandela.
The celebrated philanthropist says he often invites the media to join him in his missions to make his group’s operation transparent and to be accountable for what he is given by South Africans.
“I tell the media, ‘Come – no restriction, no telling you what to say, speak or write, you report what you see, what you observe and what you perceive,’ and they’ve been traveling with us for many missions.”
Sooliman says his aid agency, which has three warehouses in South Africa packed with supplies, would be able to feed tens of thousands of people if a disaster struck now.
A tireless worker, he is always ready to give his time to respond to the world’s next crisis.
“You cannot turn a blind eye and say ‘I can’t do it, I don’t want to do it because I’m tired,’ because one day somebody may be too tired to help you, how will that feel?”