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Fri April 5, 2013
Author Interviews

In Somalia, Mother And Daughter Are 'Keeping Hope Alive'

Originally published on Fri April 5, 2013 6:04 pm

The collapse and rebirth of rebirth of Somalia have been a long battle, and women like Dr. Hawa Abdi have been on the front lines. Back in 1991, when the Somalian government collapsed, Abdi was a young doctor operating a small clinic on her farm with her family south of Mogadishu. As the conflict raged on, Abdi's clinic grew into a 400-bed hospital — and ultimately, a refugee camp. At the height of the war, 90,000 displaced Somalis made their home around Abdi's hospital.

Abdi, who has been nicknamed "the Mother Teresa of Somalia," has a new memoir called Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman, 90,000 Lives Changed. As she told NPR's Audie Cornish, her camp and hospital — dubbed Hawa Village — became an island of peace she defended from militants, and an oasis she fought to maintain for people who had lost everything.

"They are very angry and mentally not [there] when they are coming to you," Abdi says of the refugees. "Their parents or their brothers, their wives, their fathers were killed in front of them. They're coming to me. There is no government. The whole society became violent."

How did Abdi keep the peace? With the help of the community of refugees that embraced her philosophy of equality above clan loyalty. Today, the camp and hospital are run by her daughter, Deqo Mohamed, who also became a doctor — she trained in both Russia and the United States.

"The war has stopped in Somalia," Mohamed says, adding that for the past six months, she hasn't heard any gunshots at night. "You can sleep peacefully. And we're getting back to life in our village."

Still, Mohamed's days are full: "At 6 [a.m.] we do the hospital rounds, inpatient, you know, I run all the errands in the hospital, and I do managing of the camp and farm and everything else from 7 to 10. Then 10 to noon I do take care of gynecology, because I'm the only female doctor now in the hospital. ... You do work 24 hours."

Abdi says she is satisfied that her daughter is carrying on her legacy — but notes that at the height of the conflict in the early 1990s, her own days looked much different.

"At night, each clan was going to another clan's people They were attacking — some people were dying," Abdi says. "Others were wounded. I was trying to give first aid, to talk with them, just mentally to comfort. ... Even seeing their face was very painful. That moment was very difficult for me."

Because Abdi's camp took in refugees from clans that were at war with one another, Abdi kept the feuds at bay by forbidding any sort of clan allegiance.

"Necessity is mother of invention," Abdi says. "So when they come, we were informing them, if you use the clan division, or you say 'I am that clan,' you cannot stay here. You will be Somali. And you will see, we will welcome you." And, she says, the people she took in began to see how destructive those divisions were.

Mohamed, who came to the U.S. as a refugee and studied medicine during the conflict, admits that there were moments when she didn't want to return to Somalia. But a sense of responsibility drew her back.

"I was very passionate when I was in medical school [that] I need to do this in my country. ... When you're in school and you see the patient in the emergency room, they have every specialist, they have every equipment. And I wish we could have this thing in my country ... I went back because they needed me. Because I have to be there."

A generation of young people has come of age in Hawa Village. Though the camp has been a place of refuge from a collapsed society, Mohamed says she's ready for its residents to move on — and rebuild what's fallen apart.

"I want them to take part of society, to be part of society, not only in this village," she says. "My mom created a beautiful camp and village, but they're kind of isolated [from the] rest of the country. Because they get used to this peace and comfort, whenever they try to go out, they come back. Or they get 100 percent corrupted — we had young people, we lost them to the war and they become war soldiers. So for one hand, it's very difficult to move on. It was good for temporary. Now you have to move on."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The collapse and rebirth of Somalia has been a long battle, and women like Dr. Hawa Abdi have been on the front lines. Abdi has been nicknamed the Mother Teresa of Somalia, and she has a new memoir called "Keeping Hope Alive." Back in 1991, when the Somalian government collapsed, she was a young doctor operating a small clinic on her farm with her family south of Mogadishu. As the conflict raged on, Dr. Abdi's clinic grew into a 400-bed hospital and, ultimately, a refugee camp. At the height of the war, 90,000 displaced Somalis made their home around Dr. Hawa Abdi's hospital. It was an island of peace she defended from militants and, as she told us recently, an oasis she fought to maintain for people who had lost everything.

DR. HAWA ABDI: They are very angry and mentally not fit when they are coming to you. They had seen when their parent or their brothers, their wives, their fathers were killed in front of them. They are coming to me. There is no government. Whole society became violent.

CORNISH: How did she do it? With the help of the community of refugees that embraced her philosophy of equality above clan loyalty. Today, the camp and hospital are run by her daughter. She also became a doctor trained in both Russia and the U.S. Her name is Deqo Mohamed. Mother and daughter stopped by our studios while on a visit to Washington. Deqo Mohamed explained how life has changed at the camp.

DR. DEQO MOHAMED: The war has stopped in Somalia - whole Somalia. And it's the first time I have been in Somalia for last six months I haven't heard any gunshot for - at nighttime. You might hear it at daytime, but you could sleep peacefully. And we're getting back to the life in our village. The school is opening. The hospital is renovating. So it's a lot of work is going on. It's a busy life.

CORNISH: Do you feel like a mayor or a governor instead of a doctor?

MOHAMED: Yes, yes.

ABDI: She's now a governor and a doctor. And a teacher also.

CORNISH: Deqo, describe for me a typical day for you. You wake up the morning, and what do you encounter during that day?

MOHAMED: At six, we do the hospital round, inpatient. You know, I run all the errands in the hospital. And I do managing of the camp and farm and everything else from 7 to 10. Then 10 to noon, I do take care of gynecology because I'm the only female doctor now in the hospital. If there is any fight or any misunderstanding or any dispute in the camp, you have to be present sometimes. It's very fluctuating days, and you do work 24 hours.

CORNISH: Just like mom.

MOHAMED: Yeah.

ABDI: She's doing her job now. That was I once thought she would be. And I'm very satisfied now that she's working like that although I was - my time was very difficult than her time.

CORNISH: During your time, during the height of the conflict, '92, '93, what was your typical day like?

ABDI: Oh, at night, each clan was going to another clan's people. They were attacking. Some people were dying. Others were wounded. I was trying to give first aid and to talk with them, just mentally to comfort.

MOHAMED: Which is very essential.

ABDI: Very difficult. Even seeing their face was very painful. That moment was very difficult for me.

CORNISH: There were rules in the camp, in the hospital in the early days. What was it like trying to enforce a rule that people couldn't bond through clans or talk about their families? I mean, how could you really enforce that in the midst of essentially clan warfare?

ABDI: The necessity is mother of invention. So there was no other way. So when they come, we were informing them, if you use the clan division, or you said I am that clan, you cannot stay here. You will be Somali. And you will see, we will welcome you.

CORNISH: Over time, do you think people's attitudes, people who were staying with you in that community, did their attitudes change at all?

ABDI: Totally changed.

CORNISH: Really?

ABDI: Totally changed.

CORNISH: They didn't do it just because - I mean, you're giving them free food and...

ABDI: Free land.

CORNISH: ...yeah, land and medicine? I mean...

ABDI: Yeah. Your clan is not giving you what I'm giving you. Just that they are coming when you are wanted to (unintelligible) destruction or killings. We will help you. But your life, you are not helping. So they obeyed us. And we succeeded that goal.

CORNISH: Did people in the community also serve as police? They helped you with this enforcement?

ABDI: The kids are enforcing. Now they're not kids - who came to the camp when he was 10 and now he's 30 years old - grown-up man who is enforcing the rules and taking care of everything. We are very blessed, I think so.

CORNISH: Deqo, did you have moments when you're in medical school where you didn't want to come back?

MOHAMED: I did. I did had. And it's a normal nature. Even if I grew and I was very passionate when I was in medical school, I need to do this in my country, everything I have seen, like simple things. When you're in school and you see the patient in the emergency room, they have every specialist. They have every equipment and, you know, I wish we could have this thing in my country.

And the situation was deteriorating in Somalia, that's why I came to U.S. as a refugee. I came here hiding three years and studying and say, OK, I need to have my moment. Anyway, I went back because they needed me, because I have to be there.

CORNISH: At this point, you said there's a generation of young people who have been raised in your village...

MOHAMED: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...in a hospital. What are your concerns for them? What worries you about this generation that was raised during Somalia's collapse?

MOHAMED: I want them to move on. I want them to take part of society, to be part of society, not only in this village and go out and get work and have your life. And it was good my mom created a beautiful camp and village, but they're kind of isolated rest of the country. Because they get used to this peace and comfort, whenever they try to go out, they come back. Or they get 100 percent corrupted. We had young people, we lost them in the war and they become war soldiers. So for one hand, it's very difficult them to move on. It was good for temporary. Now you have to move on.

CORNISH: It sounds like your hope is that eventually there won't be a need for Hawa Village.

MOHAMED: Yes, that's what we're hoping.

CORNISH: Deqo Mohamed and Dr. Hawa Abdi, thank you so much for speaking with me.

MOHAMED: Thank you.

ABDI: Thank you.

CORNISH: Hawa Abdi's new memoir is called "Keeping Hope Alive." It was co-written by Sarah Robbins. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.