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In the nation-building stakes, few people are in the league of Imtiaz Sooliman. In a country craving hope, but besieged by corruption, service delivery failures, unrest and the woeful divide between rich and poor, he is a balm for the soul.
Twenty-nine years ago the Pietermaritzburg doctor shut down three medical practices to found Gift of the Givers on the advice of his Turkish spiritual mentor. Some might have considered him crazy, but his journey has been divinely inspired.
Aged 30, Sooliman met and engaged with Sufi Sheikh Muhammed Saffer Effendi al Jerrahi who said: “My son, you will form an organisation. The name will be Waqful Waqifin, and that name is translated into ‘Gift of the Givers’. You will serve all people of all races, of all religions, of all colours, of all classes, of all political affiliations and of any geographical location. You will serve them unconditionally.”
And so, Sooliman formed a small outfit that has grown in three decades to deliver R3.8-billion in humanitarian assistance to millions in disaster zones from Bosnia to Syria.
What was warily regarded as an obscure Muslim charity is now internationally trusted for its response to trauma and desperation regardless of victim identity.
Few people could have achieved what Sooliman has. He is brutally honest and yet is feted by captains of industry, politicians, civic leaders and people wanting to contribute to his causes.
Sooliman is a trim, neatly attired man, and wears a trademark Gift of the Givers shirt with the South African flag emblazoned on the left arm. He thinks fast, talks fast and acts smartly. He carries four cell phones and yet seems unflappable – like the cell phones are hotwired to his brain?
He chuckles. One phone is for WhatsApp; another is for local staff (there are 100); another is for global staff (there are 450 outside of South Africa); and the fourth one is a backup.
Sooliman’s sanity comes from his Sufism. When he encounters problems, he says they are miraculously resolved, allowing his organisation to offer 30 services in a range of sectors solving a host of problems.
In South Africa alone it is providing water to drought-stricken areas, dealing with Covid-19 requests from multiple health facilities, supporting orphanages, old age centres, and institutions for the physically and mentally challenged. The organisation is helping upgrade state hospitals and schools, delivering fodder and nutritionally enriched pellets to animals, providing food parcels to the hungry, and it was at the forefront of a lightning-fast response to the civil unrest.
Part of Sooliman’s appeal has been to attract a diverse set of donors and to brand Gift of the Givers as patriotic, altruistic, and all-encompassing. “Our diversity should not be an impediment to development nor an instrument for conflict or disorder but rather an opportunity to draw on our strengths.”
Sooliman stresses that the hallmarks of “spirituality are caring, compassion, generosity, sharing, ethics, integrity, honesty, forgiveness, annihilation of ego”. All this might sound like it is out of a prayer book, but the piety hasn’t stopped Sooliman’s stinging criticism of state failures. His organisation brought water back to Grahamstown residents after a ridiculous struggle against government bureaucracy, for example. His persistence won the day and now cabinet ministers seek Sooliman out because his harsh words are tempered by praise and backed up by solutions, be it for victims in war zones, drought besieged farmers or impoverished shack dwellers.
Sooliman doesn’t feign modesty when asked about what seems like the organisational magic of Gift of the Givers. He says: “People come into my life in response to problems. There’s no way to explain it. It is in the hands of God Almighty.”
The successes energise Sooliman and his team. And the certainty that “spirituality never fails, it fosters good deeds and will help South Africans find one another, sincerely and permanently in harmony rather than destruction and discord”.