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Brave Thinkers 2011: Hawa Abdi

As her country suffers historic famine, a doctor confronts militant thugs to keep thousands of Somalis alive.
November 2011 |
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On any given morning, Dr. Hawa Abdi wakes at 5 o’clock, ties a cloth over the scar where a brain tumor was removed several years ago, and walks a few hundred feet to the 400-bed hospital she started more than 25 years ago near Mogadishu. Since opening as a one-room clinic, the hospital has grown into a camp for 90,000 displaced Somalis, most of them women and children. They’ve fled to Mama Hawa, as Abdi is called, seeking haven from decades of war and, now, the worst famine in 60 years. She offers the beleaguered what little she has: mainly a place to stay rent-free, and also fresh water when one of the three electric pumps is working.

In May of last year, Abdi woke to find her hospital surrounded by heavily armed Islamist militants. Mostly teenagers, they were among the thugs who have battled for control of Somalia, which carries the dubious distinction of being the world’s longest-running failed state. In one of the horrific twists of Somalia’s wartime economy, refugees are pawns in a larger play for power. When Abdi, now in her early 60s, went out to meet them, the young fighters demanded that she hand the camp over to them. No woman was fit for such a powerful job, they told her.

“I may be a woman,” she shot back at the thugs. “But I’ve been working for this country for the past 20 years. What have you done?”

Enraged, the teenagers brandished their automatic rifles, took Abdi hostage, and then broke or stole everything of value in the hospital. Though they released Abdi the next day, the militants kept the camp and hospital under armed guard for nearly a week, until Abdi persuaded them to leave. Then she demanded—and ultimately earned—a public apology from their leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who has been on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist watch list for a decade. Forcing the militants to back down demonstrated Abdi’s gritty strong will, as well as the influence she has over a country that needs her now more than ever.

Over the past several years, as international aid groups have pulled out of Somalia, simply keeping the refugee camp operational has become an impressive accomplishment. With no food to offer, Abdi is encouraging new arrivals to farm an open plot, or even to fish from a fleet of small rowboats she’s procured.

For Abdi, the tragedy of the current famine comes as no surprise. First, she watched the cattle die; now, the children. Before things get better, they will get worse, she says. So she’ll continue to make room for Somalis fleeing starvation born of climate change and war. She has two simple rules: First, no one is allowed to talk about clan or family, the most divisive issue in Somalia. Second, men are not allowed to beat their wives—an important beginning step in reshaping a troubled country’s future.