Black History Month: Hawa Abdi

Hawa Abdi

(May 17, 1947  – Currently Living)

11th - Hawa Abdi 2


[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts [su_list icon_color=”#191f17″]
  • Somalia’s 1st Female Gynecologist
  • Somali Human Rights Activist
  • Founder and Chairperson of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) – one of the largest camps and medical facilities for internally displaced people in the war-torn country
  • Fought off the Islamic Militia with her words; made the Leader give her a letter of apology publicly
  • Teaches the refugees self-sustainability
  • Opened a school on the compound
  • Opened a tiny jail for the men who beat their wives
  • Provides aid to 90,000 people in a 400-bed facility

The Decision to Go Into Medicine

Hawa was born on May 17, 1947 in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her mother passed away when she was just 13, from complications during her pregnancy. Being the eldest, she was tasked with the responsibility of helping raise her younger siblings and take care of the household. Her father was an educated man, whom ensured that Hawa made the most of herself. However, it was her mother’s passing which helped her determine what she wanted to do with her life – she decided to become a gynecologist.

In 1964, Hawa received a scholarship from the Woman’s Committee of the Soviet Union, and went on to study medicine at Kiev institution; she graduated in 1971. The following year she studied law at Mogadishu’s Somali National University. There she became an Assistant Professor of medicine at the University, practiced medicine in the morning, took classes in the evenings on her time, and later earned her Law degree in 1979.

Hawa’s Got a Brand New Practice!

In 1983, she opened the Rural Health Development Organization (RHDO) on family-owned land in the Afgooye Corridor, using the profits obtained from her family land to provide free health care to all of her countrymen. It began as a one-room clinic where she would offer free OB/GYN (obstetrician/gynecological) services to approximately 24 women per day; it has since evolved into a 400 bed hospital. The RHDO was renamed in 2007 to the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF). 

The First Strike – Civil War 1990’s

In 1991, the government collapsed, the army disappeared, and Somalia descended into civil war. Most international assistance vanished. The famine set in and it was a hard time for everyone. Hawa had to sell her family’s gold to buy enough food to sustain the vulnerable children and give the grave diggers enough strength to work. 

“Even when we were burying 50 people per day, I was still able to provide free land, security, and medical treatment. We clung to one another and we survived, but the fighting continued.”

Over a million Somalis fled the country, and another million were internally displaced. Hawa stayed behind at the request of her grandmother who advised her to use her abilities to assist the vulernable citizens of the war-torn country. Hawa began housing her employees on her land, feeding them and caring for them. Soon their friends and relatives came seeking shelter, then their friends, friends and family, and so on and so forth. Eventually, the number of people housed at the camp grew to 90,000, whom were mostly women, children, and the elderly.

“I welcomed them. It was not planned. It just happened,” she says. “It became a big camp which reached 90,000 people.”

This was the catalyst that grew her one-room clinic into a compound which includes a hospital, a school and a refugee camp – a community that she held together at the worst of times.

“The situation was critical. People were suffering, women were delivering in the road. It was a danger for the mother’s life and the child’s life. So people came to me. I thought I could be useful,” she says. “Every day I was burying bodies because of gunshot wounds and hunger — 50 bodies a day. But I felt that I could do something for the people who need me. So I stayed with them.”

The Showdown w/ the Islamic Militia

11th - Hawa Abdi guns

In 2010, at the height of the Islamic insurgency in Southern Somalia, militants had invaded her compound, took her and her nurses hostage, and attempted to force her to shut down. They did not like the fact that she was a woman practicing medicine and owning her own establishment; feeling that women “shouldn’t run anything substantial.”

“I ignored their call, so they came to my gate unannounced: six members of the Somali insurgent group Hizbul Islam, with a request to speak with me in person. Their militia had controlled our area for the past year—the latest in an endless line of transitional leaders, warlords, and regimes I’d seen since the collapse of Somalia’s government. I was examining a severely malnourished child, who hadn’t eaten for at least four days, when I heard the news; I was not willing to abandon my patient for a conversation with people whose only clear goals were to rob, to take over, or to kill.”

The militia still at the door, informed her that they really needed to speak with her. So she invited them for lunch. After they ate her food, they demanded that she hand over the hospital, but she wasn’t having it! She refused, and when she did, they attacked the hospital with 750 soldiers and took over!

“I may be a woman, but I’m a doctor. What have you done for society?”

The militia hung their black flags outside of the emergency room and viciously beat the guards, and the elders – clubbing them with guns. They thoroughly destroyed the hospital, destroying all of her family pictures, shredding documents, shattered CDs, and tore through the furniture. 

Before the militia were able to seize the phones, Hawa spoke with BBC and told them what was happening. When the militia found out they immediately confiscated the phones! BBC played Hawa’s voice over the news and the world found out that the hospital had been taken. The people of Somalia were outraged, and the militia backed down, offering to let Hawa keep the hospital, but run it under their orders. She refused. For a week they were there trying to convince her, she would not budge. 

“I was begging her, ‘Just give in,’ ” recalled Deqo Mohamed, her daughter, a doctor in Atlanta who spoke regularly to her mother by telephone. “She was saying, ‘No! I will die with dignity.’ ”

Finally, the militia backed all the way down. They told her that the people of Somalia want you to reopen the hospital (though it had been thoroughly destroyed). However, Hawa knew if she were to open it that day, the militia would have the power to come back the next day and try and force her to close it. So to ensure they knew she meant business, she told them she would NOT reopen the hospital until she received a written letter of apology. Seven days later, a second-in-command came to her with a letter of apology written in both Somali and English.

“I am Somali,” I told him. “I am a mother, I am a doctor, and I deserve to be respected. I care for so many people around you—this was a tragedy you could have prevented.”

The Foundation Today

Hawa currently runs the DHAF with her two daughters, Deqo Adan, and Amina Adan. They both are OB/GYN specialist just like their mother. As of 2012, the organization has a multinational staff of 102 workers. The compound includes a hospital, school, nutritional center, and a small jail where men who beat their wives are kept. It provides shelter, the only source of free fresh water in the region, and medical care to mostly women and children. Although the services are free of charge, Hawa operates several fishing and agricultural projects within the compound to teach self-sustainability. She feels that handouts breed dependency, so she instills these self sustaining goals within the community. 

11th - Hawa Abdi and daughters

The compound also contains a small plot of land where vegetables and maize are grown and in part, sold to cover some of the facility maintenance costs. Funding for the equipment and medical supplies are mainly secured through remittances from Somali expatriates, as well as general contributions to the DHAF. The foundation has also been receiving support from the Women in the World Foundation since 2011.

Since the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation began in the 1980’s, it has served an estimated 2 million people.


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