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’
Abdi grew up in a time of peace in Somalia. But a shortage of doctors resulted in many women dying in childbirth, recalled Abdi, the eldest child in a large family. Her own mother died while in labor when Abdi was 12 years old.
In that moment she vowed to become a doctor. “I wanted to help children avoid the pain I felt as a child when my mother died,” she said. Abdi became one of Somalia’s first female gynecologists — and women flocked to her practice. In 1983, she opened a small clinic on ancestral land about 20 kilometers from the capital, Mogadishu.
A few years later when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s government toppled, the war between clans began. Pregnant women were running from Mogadishu to the area near the clinic, Abdi said, and sometimes they were going into labor in the middle of the road.
“I was collecting the people who were weak, who were most attacked,” Abdi said. “I was collecting in my place, defending them. I could not have weapons to fight because that is not my profession. My profession is to care and to treat the people — not to kill.”
The clinic grew into a hospital. Then the hospital grew into a de facto refugee camp with a school, clean water and free health care. News of Mama Hawa’s sanctuary spread.
That wasn’t always a good thing. In May 2010, soldiers from an insurgent group attacked the hospital with artillery shells, storming the grounds and taking Abdi hostage. Public outcry forced her captors to release her 10 hours later.
After she returned to the hospital, Abdi made history again. She demanded and received a written apology from the terrorists.
Hope for a new generation
Three years later, Abdi is still going strong. Now that Somalia has elected a president and U.S. officials have recognized the government, she encouraged Minnesota Somalis to visit and help rebuild the nation.
Her message was well received by a group of young Somali-American community leaders who crowded around Abdi during her recent visit, seeking to have their picture taken while they peppered her with questions.
“They all want to go back [and help],” Abdi said, smiling proudly.
Listening to Abdi and her daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, that day motivated Nashad Muse to think seriously about going to law school. A political science student at the University of Minnesota, she’d heard stories about Abdi and was thrilled to talk with her.
Afterward, she reflected on the conversation. “The daughter made me realize that we need to get more people in the legal field,” she said, noting the rampant lawlessness in the country.
Yusuf Ali, who joined the throngs at the ARC event hoping to meet Abdi and have her sign his copy of her book, said he admires her unwavering commitment. Ali served as the chairman of a group of young Somali-Minnesotan leaders advising the ARC on its Somalia program. Abdi, he said, has taught him the power one person can make to improve lives.
“She’s a living legend,” he said. “To me, she’s really a hero.