The story of the “Mother Theresa of Somalia” Dr. Hawa Abdi

1st Nov 2013
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When talking about Somalia, the first thing which comes to the mind is a country that is torn apart by civil war, famine, drought and pirates. But amidst all these, there is a lady who is toiling and working hard with her family to provide better healthcare for the refugees of war in Somalia. Meet Dr. Hawa Abdi, who was nominated for Nobel peace prize in 2012 for recognition of her efforts in providing free healthcare to countless number of people.

Dr. Abdi is the founder of Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation, which is run by Dr. Abdi and her two daughters Dr. Deqo Adan (CEO – DHAF) and Dr Amina Adan.

Currently DHAF is home to over 90,000 refugees in Somalia, As of 2012, the organization has a multinational staff of 102 workers, augmented by a 150-member team comprising volunteers, fishermen and farmers and had served over 2 million people since its establishment.

Early Days and Challenges

Dr. Hawa Abdi started her journey with Rural Health Development Foundation (now DHAF) in 1983, which started as a one room clinic. There were many women dying in rural areas from easily curable diseases, including Dr. Abdi’s mother. When Dr. Abdi was just 12 years old her mother passed away from birth complications that could have easily been treated with the right medication and procedure. She was motivated to become a doctor after her mother passed away, and was inspired to go back to the rural community and help the same women.

But again just like with every social initiative Dr. Hawa also had to face a lot of challenges in getting accepted into the community. When she first started the organization, they had to face a lot of skepticism and people would be afraid to be treated, but as she started treating people one by one and the word spread as the treatment was really effective and people were getting cured. As time passed, Dr. Abdi gained their trust and respect.

“The biggest challenge then was to gain the trust of the people. I think Mama did this by approaching people with respect and respecting traditional ways of healing. By showing them the effectiveness of the new method she eventually won the hearts of the people she aimed to help. It takes time, but with patience you will develop relationships and form a bond that would be difficult to forget.”, recounts Dr Deqo.

Dr. Hawa Abdi (centre) with her daughters, Dr. Deqo Adan (left) and Dr. Amina Adan (right)
Dr. Hawa Abdi (centre) with her daughters, Dr. Deqo Adan (left) and Dr. Amina Adan (right)

Breaking the popular perception about Somalia and talking about her childhood Dr. Deqo says,

“When I was a young girl, I used to accompany my mother to go from village to village, helping my mother with small things such as assisting with bandages and taking down records. I loved every moment of it. The feeling of helping someone and seeing them smile made me happy too. Growing up, it became an innate value to help others in need and never to turn anyone away. Somalis are very warm and hospitable people. They will invite you into their house, offer you a cup of chai (tea), and chat with you all afternoon. Each village is a community, and in every place she visited, my mother was warmly received and welcomed.”

Culture at DHAF

The culture at DHAF is very progressive and youth-driven. Dr Hawa was one of Somalia’s first gynecologists, this was a time when women were told to stay home and take care of their children. The majority of the staff members are under 30, and we are always welcoming new ideas that come on board.

“I am a firm believer of my mother’s work- both myself and my sister, Dr. Amina, have followed in her footsteps to carry her legacy forward. My mother has given her life to service her Somali brothers and sisters, and having grown up watching her commit herself to save hundreds and thousands of lives has inspired me to continue the incredible work she has started,” says Dr. Deqo proudly.

Talking about what drives her, this is what Dr.Deqo had to say: “I love my job. Being able to save a life, watching a mother’s happiness when they hold their child for the first time. Those are all the moments that make my job meaningful. Also, knowing that, without myself and the whole medical team being at the hospital, there would be absolutely no access to medical care for this most vulnerable population. Our hospital continues to serve as the only point of free healthcare in a 31-km radius. When the civil war raged on during the two decades, my mother, sister, and myself were the only three doctors seeing up to 300 patients a day. There are countless times when I am woken up at 3 am to treat emergency cases- but you know that the people need you, and that is what drives me.”

Lessons for Entrepreneurs in Social Sector

To conclude Dr. Deqo shares her key lessons for entrepreneurs to learn from and make the most out of her journey.

1. For anyone looking to startup in the social sector, you must first be passionate about the work and love the work that you are doing. Then, I would recommend them to spend time to identify what the needs are locally, then what are the services that are already currently available in the community in order to find out what the gap is. There are many organizations that are already doing great work, which means that new organizations don’t always need to be built from scratch; rather, a partnership with existing local organizations could be very fruitful.

2. Secondly, you must respect the local population and come from a place of service, rather than imposition. The people you set out to help are highly resilient and smart- these are the people who are survivors. The IDPs that we serve at the Hawa Abdi Village are mothers and children who have trekked for miles with barely any food or water, but they are the strongest people I have met who have refused to succumb even at the most trying times.

3. Lastly, you should be flexible in your approach. There are new ideas sprouting all the time, old ideas being refuted. You need to be open and flexible to new methods and situations. We are in a dynamic world today where technology is rapidly evolving and ideas are being spread across boundaries. While this can also bring on a slew of challenges, they are also opportunities worth examining to see how they can better your operations.

You can visit the Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation here.

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