Somalian humanitarian Mama Hawa visits UTA on book tour

Posted Monday, Apr. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- Not many people would single-handedly stare down a heavily armed militia and live to tell about it.

Few small, soft-spoken, older women might care to even try.

But that is exactly what Dr. Hawa Abdi did in May 2010, when gunmen from one of Somalia's most fearsome Islamist groups put her under house arrest for five days and shut down the 400-bed hospital she had established on her family farm in 1983.

It had become one of the few places where refugees from the east African country's two-decade civil war could find medical care, and a camp with almost 100,000 displaced residents had formed around it about 12 miles south of Mogadishu.

Abdi, whom Glamour magazine later described as "equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo," visited the University of Texas at Arlington on Monday to promote her new memoir, Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman, 90,000 Lives Changed. She was accompanied by a daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, who now runs the hospital, and journalist Sarah J. Robbins, who helped with the book.

"My self-confidence and my belief in my God helped keep me calm," Abdi said of the 2010 siege during an interview at the Fort Worth Omni Hotel.

Although the hospital and its equipment were badly damaged, Abdi steadfastly refused to leave, telling the militants -- many of them teenage boys -- that if she died, it would be with dignity.

In the end, The New York Times reported, hundreds of women from the refugee camp dared to protest, adding to a flood of condemnation from Somalis abroad that forced the militants to back down. Abdi even got the gunmen to apologize in writing.

Abdi's camp and hospital came to be known as Hawa Village. Those who came had lost nearly everything, and Abdi welcomed them with motherly love and stern rules: Nobody could identify with clans, and husbands could not beat their wives. If they did, a storeroom could be utilized as a jail.

"We have to support each other," Abdi said Monday of her philosophy. "We have to help each other."

Mogadishu attack

Although Sunday was a bloody day in Mogadishu, the fighting has largely stopped, said Mohamed, who received her medical education in part in the United States. Explosions and gunfire are no longer common sounds.

"We are calling it a village now," she said of the site where about 40,000 people still live. "You can't camp for 22 years."

Somalia's prime minister said Monday that several experienced foreign fighters took part Sunday in the most serious Islamic extremist attack on Mogadishu in years. Other officials indicated that the explosive devices were more advanced than normal, a possible indication of greater involvement by al Qaeda.

Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon said the presence of foreign fighters during Sunday's two-hour assault on the Supreme Court complex showed that the attack was international in nature. The attack included six suicide bombings and two car bombs.

The Somali militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the two-hour barrage.

Abdirashid Hashi, the deputy director of the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, said the attack shows that al-Shabab can strike the government at will and that the group can come quite close to "decapitating" a vital government arm.

The Supreme Court was in session when the attack occurred.

The attack "will force the government to revisit its priorities," Hashi said by email. "Because if it fails to provide security to the citizens in the capital, it will have difficulties justifying its demands in extending its writ to other parts of the country."

A woman's voice

Abdi got her medical degree in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, which was then allied with Somalia. She became one of the country's first foreign-trained female doctors. Then famine and civil war engulfed Somalia, and Abdi opened her farm to refugees from the fighting. She believes some 10,000 famine victims are buried on her farm.

Even when the rebels moved onto her land, Abdi continued to work, turning aside threats with a smile or an admonishment from the Quran.

"I told them the Quran says you cannot enter someone's house without their permission, and I did not give you permission to be in my house," she recalled in January 2011.

Mohamed said the book has two main messages: that women often don't know their own power and that Somalia, a beautiful, peaceful place before the war broke out, can become so again.

"All it takes is for one woman to say no," she said.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and Star-Telegram archives.

Patrick M. Walker,

682-232-4674

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

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