What did it take to put this book together? Long, long hours! Fortunately, I’d interviewed Sooliman regularly on radio for years and had accompanied him on several of his missions, so I had a good sense of Gift of the Givers’ ethos, which helped a lot.
But I still had to sift through two decades of Gift of the Givers press clippings, Internet material and interviews, and talk to numerous role players. I discovered that the organisation is like an ever-growing octopus. It has a reach in so many different places. The challenge was to fit it all in.
Sooliman was very trusting and left me to write the first draft without hindrance. His corrections were always constructive. There was never any ego. He is an insanely busy man and we used to contact each other by SMS.
Louise Grantham and her team at Bookstorm were incredibly supportive, as was my wife, Nur, and that made the long hours and late nights less daunting.
Is the work of Gift of the Givers ever hindered by religion or politics? The answer is no. Sooliman’s approach has never been sectarian or political. His aid missions have always included people of all shades and persuasions. He has always helped people with regard to their needs, rather than their politics. Sooliman is a practising Muslim, but he is not dogmatic.
Also, to be successful in aid work you can’t entertain agendas, or be aligned. If your focus is to help people, you have to do it unconditionally. In Haiti he worked with the Catholic and Anglican missions; in the Gujrat earthquake he worked with a Hindu agency, and so on. My experience with Gift of the Givers is that if you treat people with dignity and without agenda, doors open.
Please share an anecdote showing what Sooliman and Gift of the Givers are about. We’re in Mogadishu during the 2011 famine. Gift of the Givers’ doctors are exhausted, having set up clinics and theatres at three hospitals in eight days and having seen hundreds and hundreds of patients. Then a call comes. Another hospital, San Martino, needs orthopaedic surgeons urgently. There are people with injuries from the conflict. Sooliman starts working the phones. In 48 hours another medical team lands in Mogadishu with more supplies. It happened so seamlessly and without any fuss.
On that same mission I woke up in the middle of the night to hear Sooliman’s phones going crazy. It was 3am in the morning and he was still working!
Another time is Sooliman actually scolding Pierre Korkie’s kidnappers for not respecting human dignity. Only he could get away with something like that. Sooliman is an optimist and is convinced Korkie will be released.
What do you hope to achieve with the book? As I’ve said, it’s the first time the Gift of the Givers’ story has been told. And it’s an amazing story. It’s a tale of adventure, compassion, humour and optimism, in spite of the subject matter. In a world full of challenges it’s the story of what can be done, as opposed to what can’t be done. It’s an account of the achievements of an extraordinary person who can only inspire us.