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Fighting Against the Odds

A Woman of Courage in a Ravaged Land

by Dr. CESAR CHELALA

Somalia can be considered one of the most troublesome countries in the world, one frequently called a “failed state,” ravaged by violence and instability. But in such unfavorable place a valiant woman has quietly emerged as a presence of dignity and hope. Dr. Hawa Abdi Dhiblawe has, for years, been taking care of thousands of Somalis and is a voice of peace in the war-torn land.

A physician trained in the Ukraine, the 63-year-old Dr. Abdi returned to Somalia in 1983 and opened her own one –room clinic in the outskirts of Mogadishu, a city lacking in government health facilities. Since then, that one room has grown into a huge 400-bed hospital surrounded by 1,300 acres of farmland where 90,000 now make their home.

In Somalia, fighting between rival warlords and an inadequate response to famine and disease have marked the life of this nation and led to the deaths of up to one million people in recent decades. Presently, almost a third of the population depends on food aid and the country hasn’t had an effective government since 1991.

The country, divided into clan fiefdoms, is in desperate need of a working government and the rule of law. In January of 2009, a moderate Islamist and former rebel, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was elected president of a transitional government. His government, however, only controls a few blocks of the capital with the support of the United Nations and African Union troops.

Most of the country is controlled by insurgent groups, particularly by Al-Shabab, which means “youth” in Arabic and which wants to impose a strict version of Islam throughout Somalia. Mr. Ahmed had been elected by the Somali parliament which was sitting in neighboring Djibouti to be safe from the violence back at home.

With very few exports and living mainly through remittances from Somalis living abroad (they sent an estimated 20 million dollars a month to Mogadishu alone) and a climate of lawlessness in the country it should not surprise that piracy has become a serious threat to international shipping.

In the meantime the country, with an estimated 1.2 mn displaced in South-central Mogadishu alone, is undergoing one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Added to these severe social challenges is the Somalis’ lack of access to adequate heath care. It is in this context that Dr. Hawa Abdi and her two daughters are working to address not only the health needs of tens of thousands of internal refugees in the country but also other social and educational needs.

Dr. Abdi achieved international notoriety in May of 2010 when 750 armed militias from the group Hizbul Islam surrounded her hospital, held her at gunpoint and demanded that she stop her work. They also allowed dozens of adolescents to ransack the hospital, destroy anesthesia machines, tear up medical records and destroy hospital infrastructure.

Undeterred, Dr. Abdi confronted her assailants and asked them to explain their behavior. When they threatened to kill her she calmly responded, “If you want to kill me, kill me, no problem. Someday I have to die.” When the incident was known internationally there was widespread outrage. Dozens of Somalian women stormed the hospital in a show of solidarity and insisted on the departure of the militia.

Facing strong condemnation for their actions, and after keeping her under detention for seven days, the leader of Hizbul Islam, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys ordered her release. When the militia left, Dr. Abdi was able to resume her work. She had won an important battle.

In 2010, the U.S. magazine Glamour named Dr. Abdi and her two daughters, Dr. Amina Mohamed Abdi and Dr. Deqa Mohamed Abdi “Women of the Year,” and called them the “Saints of Somalia.” As they continue their work, these valiant women represent a ray of hope in a bleak land.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.