A doctor some call the “Mother Teresa of Somalia” is inspiring Minnesota Somalis to help their homeland.
First the government collapsed in Somalia, leading to a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor and left a trail of death in its wake. The doctor stayed to treat and comfort the wounded.
Then disease and starvation struck. She stayed to heal the sick.
When terrorists with guns came, bombing her hospital and kidnapping her at gunpoint — even then, she stayed.
“There were too many people in need. I could not leave them,” said Dr. Hawa Abdi, whose 400-bed hospital and 60 acres of land in southern Somalia have served as a sanctuary for up to 90,000 people — mostly women and children — displaced by war and famine.
The 66-year-old’s determination to stay and help her countrymen, surviving 22 years of whatever landed on her doorstep, earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination last year and admirers from around the globe.
Among her biggest fans are Somalis living in Minnesota — the heart and soul of the Somali-American diaspora. After the civil war erupted in 1991, tens of thousands fled the East African country and started anew in Minnesota, home to the nation’s largest Somali population. Stories of Abdi’s humanitarian work have galvanized the local Somali community to raise money, volunteer and even travel back to Somalia to help the most vulnerable.
During the recent crisis, Minnesota Somalis were at the forefront of efforts to aid famine victims there, organizing car washes and drives to send food and medical supplies overseas.
“Because of her, many Somalis were inspired to play a humanitarian role back in Somalia,” explained Said Sheik-Abdi, program manager for the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee’s (ARC)
initiative in Somalia. “She’s been there 20 years. It taught us that something can be done.”
This month the woman many call “equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo” visited the Twin Cities for only the second time. Community members flocked to see her at ARC headquarters, where she signed copies of her new memoir, “Keeping Hope Alive,” co-written with journalist Sarah Robbins.
“Nobody has done what she’s done,” said Dr. Saharla Jama, a dentist from Edina who is originally from Somalia. “She just wouldn’t close the doors.”
Promoting her cause
Abdi’s influence is far-reaching in Minnesota. The ARC has given financial support to her hospital and operates an office inside Somalia, providing shelter and health care to displaced families.
Jama belongs to a local nonprofit called Somali Union, which has worked with Abdi’s daughter, also a physician, to recruit Somali doctors from Minnesota to help train medical professionals in the war-torn country. The nonprofit has raised money for Abdi’s foundation, too.
“We wanted to shed light on her work,” Jama said. In 2009 they went stall to stall through the local Somali malls, raising nearly $10,000.
During Abdi’s recent visit, the moderator asked if anyone in the crowd had been trained by Abdi. A man in the back rose to his feet and smiled as the audience clapped. Hennepin County Medical Center’s Dr. Abdirahman Madar graduated from Somali National University’s medical school, where Abdi was a faculty member. He is one of a small number of licensed physicians originally from Somalia working in the Twin Cities.
In November 2011, Madar traveled to Somalia to volunteer for the Abdi Foundation’s training program for doctors. “When they came here, I wanted to support her work,” he said of “Mama Hawa,” as she is called.
Becoming ‘Mama Hawa’