A Minnesota nonprofit has shipped the entire contents of a hospital — from bandages to beds to dialysis machines — to a hospital in Mogadishu in a move to create “the best-equipped hospital in Somalia.”
The final shipment to Mogadishu was sent last week by the St. Louis Park-based nonprofit Matter, working with the Minnesota Community of African People With Disabilities. If all goes as planned, the equipment will be moved into the vacant Bahrain Public General Hospital in July.
While Minnesota nonprofit organizations have sent medical supplies to developing countries across the globe, this is one of the first large-scale medical-aid deliveries to Somalia, organizers said. The political instability and violence there has kept local relief groups away.
The project is coordinated with the Somali Ministry of Health.
“We’ve done work in about 30 countries, and I’ve never seen a situation like Somalia,” said Jeremy Newhouse, senior vice president of operations for Matter, formerly known as Hope for the City. “You find there are no hospital beds in a room; people are lying on the floor. In an operating theater, there is no operating table, just some table. They are doing surgery without anesthesia. The lab is covered in flies.”
Mahad Hassan, a leader of the Community of African People With Disabilities, said he was shocked by the filthy bandages, the cries of pain and the “lack of dignity” in medical care when he returned to his home country after 26 years away. His organization, formed in 2014, works to support disabled Somali-Americans in Minnesota and also hopes to bring quality medical care to Somali citizens back home.
“I almost had tears in my eyes,” said Hassan.
Leaders of the two nonprofits discussed the hospital shipment recently in Matter’s sprawling warehouse. The building is packed with medical supplies big and small, donated by some of Minnesota’s major medical providers such as Allina Health, HealthPartners and the University of Minnesota.
On the loading dock next to the warehouse, workers had packed five sea containers with ultrasound equipment, operating tables, incubators, wheelchairs and much more. Mike Muelken, Matter’s vice president of international programs, and two members of the Africans with disabilities group plan to fly to Mogadishu in July to oversee the setup.
Taking a ‘calculated risk’
Matter is no stranger to working in African nations. With Minnesota’s Somali-American population the largest in the U.S., estimated in the tens of thousands, turning an eye toward Somalia was a logical move, Newhouse said.
It also was a potentially dangerous one, as the country remains in the grip of a civil war. Hassan recalls touring a hospital when a jeep pulled up and a man shot in the leg was brought in.
Muelken called it a “calculated risk that we are willing to take.”
“We need to have armed Somali forces at all times to protect us,” said Muelken. “And they provide that.”
But Muelken, like other observers, believes the groundwork has been laid for humanitarian investments in Somalia.
“There are many parts of the country that are safe,” said Abdi Samatar, a U geography professor and Somali native. “Now is the time.”
To date, humanitarian aid in Somalia has been provided mostly by large international nonprofits, such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent and the United Nations’ World Food Programme, said Muelken. The American Refugee Committee (ARC), based in Minneapolis, also has a working office in Mogadishu, providing medical staff at clinics and supporting job and shelter creation, said Chris Kindler, an ARC director.
The medical needs are astronomical. Average life expectancy in Somalia is just 53 years, according to the World Health Organization. The top two causes of death are respiratory infections and diarrhea, both of which can be treated or prevented with proper care.
Likewise, the percentage of women dying from pregnancy-related complications — 1 in 12 — is one of the worst in the world, according to United Nations figures. Only 9 percent of births were attended by a skilled health care provider, WHO reports say.
This is of particular concern to Isuroon, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that supports Somali women’s health.
The small nonprofit also has been talking with Matter about co-sponsoring shipments of maternity and neonatal equipment to Somalia, said Fartun Weli, the group’s executive director.
Sending equipment isn’t enough, said Samatar and Weli. Somali health care professionals, in short supply, need to be trained how to use it. Equipment must be repaired as needed, and parts must be available.
Muelken says those issues are being addressed. For example, the entire hospital in Mogadishu was wired with a U.S.-compatible electrical system to facilitate installation of the current and any future medical shipments, he said.
With medical needs so urgent, Matter hopes that its Mogadishu hospital will be followed by other initiatives it can provide to the country.
Said Newhouse: “We’re small, but we’re trying to be mighty by going to places that other groups find difficult to work.”