Zohra Sooliman, co-founder of Gift of the Givers, is a silent hero. [Picture: Abhi Indrarajan]
Imtiaz Sooliman has become a household name in South Africa and abroad. While many may instantly recognise the kind-hearted humanitarian who most recently helped relief efforts in Turkey and Syria, few might recognise the woman behind the man: Zohra Sooliman.
Born in Cape Town and raised in the KwaZulu-Natal city of Pietermaritzburg as one of seven siblings, Sooliman has had a rough lot come her way all these years. She recalls how she had to juggle between her responsibilities as a mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, student and preschool teacher.
All the while, Sooliman and her husband unofficially operated what was to become known as the Gift of the Givers organisation from their two-bedroom home.
“As individuals, we were already very involved in community work and lots of social engagement. We started a lot of projects unofficially, not then under the name of Gift of the Givers. That took a lot of time from Imtiaz’s practice, my study schedule and being a full-time mum and having a job.”
Humanitarian work was something the pair were deeply involved in from a young age. Both of them had been exposed to charitable work as children.
Her first attempts to study backfired several times over, and she eventually only completed her studies – as a psychologist – in 2022.
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The couple is one of the most dedicated you can get in the field. But despite their childhood experiences, she said, neither of them expected it would become their primary occupation.
“We never thought that relief work or disaster intervention would become our full-time occupation,” she said, adding, “It was just something we did because that was our background. Our families were charitable and, as children, we were always [involved] in those charitable events.”
The first major project was in the aftermath of the deadly Bosnian War (1992-95) that killed around 100 000 civilians. Over the span of three years, operating from their home office, they supplied 620 tons of food aid in 39 containers, 160 tons of blankets, warm clothes and sleeping bags.
Later, they worked on projects like the Iraq Relief Fund, Bangladesh Relief Fund and the Mozambique Relief Fund. This ultimately bit a chunk of time from Sooliman’s other work.
“Eventually, I had to close my pre-school and had to become the administrator because at that point we didn’t have a formal structure where we could run the Gift of the Givers from. We basically ran it from my home,” said Sooliman.
By 1995, Sooliman said, their responsibilities overlapped and created a toxic environment, convincing them it was time to open their first office.
“Everything was all over the place. All we had was one dining room table to work at and two bedrooms, a lounge and a kitchen and that was not enough space to run an office which was now becoming a fulltime thing.”
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After matriculating, Zohra worked in the family business for a year before getting engaged to Imtiaz. Her plan was to get married and then continue with her studies, but it was no more than seven weeks later that she had to deregister to take care of her mother-in-law who succumbed to her illness just months later.
“It’s been a constant juggling act,” she said. But after numerous setbacks over the years, Sooliman returned to university when her daughter herself had enrolled. Although her dream was to become a teacher, her humanitarian work guided her to psychology.
She qualified in an undergraduate degree with three majors and later pursued Honours and Masters in Social Science. “I’m open to what comes my way and I surrender to that because I trust that Allah has a plan for me,” she said.
“Having opened the careline by 1997, I felt that I needed to constantly upgrade my knowledge and skills. So I decided to go for the Honours degree in 2014. When I finished my Honours, I said ‘no, I want more. I want to be the best in my field. I need to be the most qualified.’ That’s when I enrolled for my Masters.”
Sacrifices needed to be made along the way and the obstacles were all part of Allah’s plan, she said.
“If your focus is spread out with your studies, your work, your children, your family life, you can’t give everything your best. Something is going to give. For me, my children were the most important because they were in their early developing years.”
“The journey was mapped out by Allah and He put these issues in front of me and that is how I have come to this point,” she added.
Watch the full discussion here.