March 22, 2012
Despite Somalia's ruinous conflict, one woman and her two daughters have stood out as pillars of hope, optimism and peace amidst the chaos.
Mogadishu native Dr. Hawa Abdi opened her health clinic in the Afgoye corridor, 20 kilometres outside Mogadishu, before the war started, eventually transforming it into a camp to accommodate thousands of displaced persons fleeing violence.
Until recently, she catered to at least 90,000 internally displaced persons at her centre through the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF), providing shelter, healthcare services and education.
Abdi was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on February 27th, a day after al-Shabaab arrested her and forced her to close the camp, leaving thousands of women and children without shelter. The militants destroyed the refugees' temporary houses and took over part of the camp, leaving only the hospital and clinic intact.
In an exclusive interview with Sabahi in Nairobi, Abdi talks about what inspires her and gives her strength.
Sabahi: Tell us about your childhood and life in Somalia before the civil war.
Dr. Hawa Abdi: Somalia was a beautiful and peaceful place. I was born in 1947. Everything was very peaceful and quiet; people loved each other.
I finished elementary, intermediate and secondary school in Mogadishu, where I was born. In 1964, I got a scholarship from the Women's Committee of the Soviet Union. I studied in Moscow, completed my studies in 1971, and became among the first women gynaecologists and obstetricians in Somalia.
I started working in one of the biggest hospitals in Mogadishu. In 1972, I began to study law at the Somali National University. I got married in 1973, and had my first child in 1975 when there was severe drought in the country. I would also work morning hours and study law in the afternoons. In 1979, I completed law studies.
Sabahi: What was the defining moment that made you decide to devote your life to comforting the afflicted, even at your own risk?
Abdi: I was influenced by my grandmother, who educated me and advised us to love orphans and our nation, and to be honest and hardworking. It was the plight of orphans and the displaced as a result of war and my grandmother's advice that I should love my country and its people, as well as my fond childhood memories, that made me love and do good for my country.
Although my village lacked good roads, clean water and good healthcare facilities, my grandmother advised me not to leave Somalia but instead help the needy.
It was difficult when the government collapsed on January 26th, 1991, but I started a school and clinic to take care of victims of the civil war. Between 1991 and 1992, the situation was bad in Somalia. People were dying in the streets. [There was] no food. More than 1 million people died of hunger and gunshots.
But I devoted my whole life to helping, and when colleagues fled, I remained behind.
Sabahi: Tell us about your foundation's work, the camp and services you provide.
Abdi: It started as Rural Health Development Organisation in 1983 as a one-room clinic assisting women in labour, but grew to a 400-bed hospital capacity over time. Services are provided free with more than 24 women delivering daily. It is one delivery every hour. It was renamed Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation in 2007. The camp had been catering for more than 90,000 people [before services were suspended].
Sabahi: How many people do you estimate have received assistance there?
Abdi: It is difficult to estimate the number of beneficiaries -- from the feeding centre, school, hospital there have been over 2 million.
Sabahi: Tell us about your staff.
Abdi: We have about 102 staff and a team of volunteers, farmers and fishermen who number about 150. Some of the workers are of different nationalities, representing the diversity of the foundation. I am the founder, my daughter Dr. Deqo Adan is the CEO, assisted by Dr. Amina Adan, my other daughter.
Sabahi: How much money does it take to run the various relief projects undertaken by your foundation, and who is helping you fund it?
Abdi: We have no particular budget. Operations are based on what we receive as donation. The smallest project costs $50,000. Water and sanitation cost $70,000 because fuel prices fluctuate. To sustain the largest project, [the cost of] hospital medication is very high. There is no defined budget because we depend on donations we receive, but it requires about $300,000 for the supplies and to pay the staff.
Sabahi: Considering the insecurity in Somalia, how have you been able to sustain and manage the camp in the past?
Abdi: I saw my people in a bad state where they needed help badly. These people are not educated and have no contacts abroad. I felt the need to stay and help them.
It is determination and love for the afflicted people of Somalia that motivates me and my family. I want to motivate others all over the world to love and support each other.
Sometimes it is hard and I want to quit, but when you see the lives you have saved, the fear goes away. If you listen too much to what other people say, you will not succeed. You must focus on the goal to succeed.
Sabahi: Tell us about the events on February 26th that led you to suspend some of the services at the camp.
Abdi: I was arrested with some nurses and detained for more than 10 hours. February 26th was the worst day, as the militia destroyed shops and a computer lab at the centre.
Things got worse after they decided to give [part of] my land to an al-Shabaab associate. They destroyed everything and did not want to see anything good going on. They brought a bulldozer that cleared homes for poor, internally displaced persons with nowhere to go. The camp was looted and destroyed.
We are now in a crisis and life is very difficult. My team and I were threatened with death for resisting. The displaced have nowhere to go. They have been left more vulnerable without food, water or shelter.
Sabahi: Your camp has been under siege by the militia before. What was the difference this time?
Abdi: They had come to the camp before and said to me that I was too old and should give the camp to them. I told them they had no right to make such a demand as I inherited the land from my mother.
I told them I could work with them to do something useful for society. After resisting, they attacked us on May 5th, 2010, but they were forced to leave due to public protests against their move.
Unfortunately, they have no respect for women. But women are very important [to society]; they are kind, hardworking and the backbone of every society.
Sabahi: What is happening at the camp now and what do you plan to do next?
Abdi: The school is still closed, but will open as soon as security situation improves. Healthcare services should be operational next week -- people need healthcare. We plan to eventually fully resume all projects, but do not know how soon.
Sabahi: Is there anything you would like to tell al-Shabaab?
Abdi: Please stop what you are doing now. Try and be human, respect God, and be fair to Somalis and Africa. Please do not do what is contrary to life.
Sabahi: What does your family think about your work?
Abdi: They appreciate what I do and want me to continue. I have taught them to be patriotic. They are following in my footsteps. My life and mind is still in Somalia, although it is very difficult to live with the insurgents. When I think I want to stop, [my children] encourage me to surge on.
Africa is rich in natural resources; we are rich yet begging. [Through foundation], we want to change lives in the African continent and make an impact, following the example of Kwame Nkrumah, the former Ghanaian president who was among the founders of the Organisation of African Unity, [later replaced by the African Union].
My children are very supportive of my work and are dedicated to it. My dream is that my beneficiaries will one day change Somalia and impact the rest of Africa. Keeping hope alive is my motto.
Sabahi: Where do you draw your strength to care for the thousands of people in need?
Abdi: From the respect and support I have received from the international community for my role in helping people in critical situations. When I appeal for help, I get instant support. The support has given me hope and strength and the power to help, with the help of God and the international community who gives us support.
I consider myself among the rich by helping others. That is my happiness.
Sabahi: At your camp you are known as "Mama Hawa". Tell us what it is like to be a woman and a mother in war-torn Somalia.
Abdi: I am a mother. Motherhood is a major responsibility. My family is Somalia. I am proud to be called "Mama Hawa" and not "Dr. Hawa". I give advice as a parent and as a role model, a responsible person.
I hope [the situation in] Somalia will one day change. I hope this time around the international community will help Somalia. Somalis should also defend their integrity and their country on their own.
The government and international community should invest in training and equipping Somali soldiers to bring peace. Only Somalis can bring peace, not foreigners, regardless of how many they are. It is [also] cheaper for Somalis to do it. The Somali military knows the terrain and the culture and are patriotic.
Sabahi: If you were to sum up your life’s achievements, what would you say was your greatest achievement?
Abdi: There are 90,000 people in my camp; I feel that is a good achievement. Everyone can be a good doctor, but not everyone can take 90,000 people to supervise and give them a modest life and [help them] gain integrity.
Seeing different clans united and happy, that makes me happy. They share literally everything to ensure none of them goes hungry. I risked my life, but achieved the best. When I was arrested [by al-Shabaab], the community demanded my release due to the respect they have for me.
Sabahi: You have been nominated for the Nobel Prize. What is your reaction? If you won, how would it change your work and the work of your foundation?
Abdi: I am happy for the nomination; it came at the right time. It gives me hope and encouragement. I would [continue my work to] empower women economically and help the homeless by giving them a home. I would continue to supporting fishing and farming projects. I would open a secondary school and expand projects.
Sabahi: What does the future hold for the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation and Mama Hawa?
Abdi: I wish and feel Somalia will one day be the peaceful and beautiful place as it used to be. Somalis are very active and know how to make money. They can rebuild Somalia within the shortest time.
My foundation will continue to be active. I hope [future] Somali generations will continue in my footsteps to develop the nation socially, economically and also make food security a priority. Europe harvests once a year, but Africa, Somalia included, has three planting seasons. Yet hunger still afflicts the continent. We have good weather, yet we cannot take advantage of God-given circumstances. Our marine resources have been exploited and riches given away. We know how to fish and can protect our land. Somalia's riches are being robbed.
As for Mama Hawa, this is my golden time. I have done everything I ought to have done for humanity. My future is in Somalia, it is Golden Jubilee for me.
Sabahi: What would you like Somalis and the public at large to know?
Abdi: I would like all Somalis to unite and defend their rights against poverty and war, to avoid being exploited, and help to understand each other.
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