Dr. Hawa Abdi is a woman of many firsts, including being Somalia’s first female gynecologist and establishing one of the country’s first NGOs. Along with her daughters, Deqa and Amina Mohamed, both of whom are doctors, Abdi maintains a hospital and a feeding center in a place where international aid agencies are unable or unwilling to operate due to the presence of armed militias.
The Hawa Abdi Foundation, founded in 1983, aims to help women in Somalia, especially in the Lower Shabelle region, gain better security, health care access and education. The foundation provides food, shelter and health care for the Hawa Abdi Village’s population – 90 percent of whom are women, children and the elderly – in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. It is a sanctuary for some 90,000 internally displaced people.
Abdi and her daughter Deqa recently traveled to the United States and Canada to raise funds and awareness for their village and for the famine that is devastating their country. Vital Voices, a women’s empowerment organization based in Washington, D.C., hosted a discussion with the inspirational Somali doctors. Later, Abdi and Deqa Mohamed spoke to AllAfrica’s Trevor Ballantyne and Genet Lakew.
After traveling in Canada and the United States, what can you say about the media’s reaction to the drought, and the effect of the various fundraising initiatives that this media coverage attracts?
Mohamed: Actually we were in Canada in early July and [Canada’s press] covered it well. They had the story running every evening in early July.
The U.S. just started in mid-July and the end of July to cover all the issues, and we’re really grateful. Somalia was forgotten for 20 years and now the world is speaking up. Now the country is existing. We thought we were wiped off the map, so it’s very exciting. But it’s also very sad to see what’s happening because there’s no action; still it’s just talk in the media.
Abdi: The money being sent to Somalia now it’s a waste because it is not going inside Somalia; they are sending money through the neighboring countries only. And we don’t know how to control our money. When we were in Toronto we talked many times and the people donated 50 million Canadian dollars to Somalia. And that 50 million and the 93 million given by the European Union, is not going inside Somalia.
The aid agencies are just remaining in the port, or on the border of Somalia and they will spend the money by feeding people, giving breakfast, some food and [that is not] important for us. With that money we can rebuild all of Mogadishu; we can invest in agricultural [sectors]; we can fish in our ocean, our big ocean, to get people food. Many governments and many international organizations and the U.S. send money to Somalia but that money is lost.
We have educated people, patriotic people. We have had hard working people inside of Somalia for the past  years but [the aid agencies] do not believe it totally. Even if we only get a little help, a small amount from the aid agencies, we want to use the aid ourselves. It is very important to us because we know how to use the aid. But before the aid comes to us, it is split so that only a little bit – I don’t know maybe 10 percent will reach Somalia – and that 10 percent is not going into the right hands. We suspect that international organizations are not fair to Somalia. They do not decide to change the life of Somalia. Maybe [it’s because of] their own interests, maybe something else.
In an interview with All Africa, Dr. Rueben Brigety, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration at the U.S. State Department said, “We are grappling along with the rest of our colleagues in the international community to figure out how we can best provide humanitarian assistance expeditiously in a robust way, in a manner that is safe for the beneficiaries, safe for the aid workers, so that we can avert the worst of this crisis.” What is your reaction?
Abdi: This is dramatizing things. Everywhere there is fighting. For example, in Afghanistan there is fighting with the Taliban but there is aid going into the country. Aid and international organizations are going into Pakistan and the Taliban is there. But Somalia, I don’t know. I don’t understand. The international community maybe they are trying to empty Somalia, empty it totally.
Mohamed: It’s very funny. Of course aid and security goes hand in hand. But, in the early 90s, the IRC (International Rescue Committee) didn’t have that problem. The IRC didn’t have to pay hundreds of thousands to the guys who have guns. They were investing more in the people, and [investing money where it was needed]. But aid in Somalia became a business.
Aid workers in Somalia get paid better, they sit in their open beautiful houses and when they try to work in [Somalia], they pay more for security, their guards. And they don’t realize the damage they’re creating. When you give too much money to these guys to protect you, you’re investing for them to go to war. To deliver a small grain of rice, you’re giving the militant the power to buy guns. So maybe sometimes it’s better for the aid agencies not to deliver that grain, instead of empowering those bad guys.
The situation that Somalia has put the international aid agencies into is very complicated. I think we (the Somali people) have to take accountability for that, because if we work with the aid agencies and they teach the communities, these people they are helping, you should not ask for money from them because they’re already giving to you.
Somalis should help support aid. If the Somali society stood up on the side of aid instead of seeing aid as a business, and saying, ‘Oh you’re coming you white guy, I heard you have a lot of money, okay, I need to make money.’ That’s how Somalis deal with aid now, and that’s what we allow Somalis to do. You see, 20 years have corrupted aid in our country. It’s very difficult to fix today. It’s very hard.
You shared the story of the alarming incident last May when the militia group Hizbul-Islam invaded your camp for a week, damaged property and demanded that you hand over all operations to the group. You refused to do so and overcame that threat but how have you been able to successfully operate your camp for so long despite the uncertainty of religious extremism and lawlessness?
Mohamed: I think to understand how we were able to sustain our camp for last 20 years, I think first you must understand the people who are fighting. Al Shabaab: it’s the same warlords who were fighting in 1992. They just put wraps on their faces and they call themselves Al Shabaab. It’s the same people that have been fighting from 1991 to 2011. And we have militant leaders who are a part of the transitional government (TFG) and are also members of the militant groups.
The second reason we have been successful is when you’re transparent, you’re making a difference in the field and they see we are delivering: we’re doing this; we’re getting this medicine. And my mom is very humble in here but, when she brings medicine sometimes from Mogadishu to the camp, they stop her and she takes them to the hospital and says, ‘Here, this is why I’m bringing this medicine.’ It’s very simple. Be transparent and make a difference; that’s how it could work.
(The World Food Programme) WFP was making a difference, feeding people. It was wasting a huge amount of money and food was not going directly to the people but they were making a difference. They have been working in Somalia since 2008 when [Al Shabaab] forced them to go out but they were still functioning. And MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, has been functioning in Somalia since 2008. For example, when the people see those two groups and the groups who are working in Somalia, they don’t attack. They might attack because of the money but we don’t have money and we don’t have a big budget to show them. They know us. They know that whatever we get we share with the people. That helps us; that’s how we sustain.
As the drought continues to displace populations in the Horn of Africa, media reports focus on the growth of refugee populations in the camps along the Somali border in Kenya and Ethiopia. Is your camp also experiencing this growth?
Abdi: We are in a very difficult time because the camp is full now and people are still coming to the feeding center everyday. And they are coming to us from far away. If we can increase the land for the camp it will be good for us but we need economic aid to buy land.
Mohamed: Most of the people going to the huge Dadaab camp are coming from the Somali-Ethiopia and the Somali-Kenya sides. They have a huge drought there, and they do not have enough resources. There are also our Somalis coming from southern Somalia. So it is Somalis coming from all different parts of the Horn. You will do everything for your child so I understand the families who walk hours and miles to get there, but the camps have created a false hope – that’s why people keep going to them.
The people fleeing the drought think the camps have food. They think they will receive some kind of peace but when they arrive at the camp, there’s no food. They might only get one meal or might not get a meal at all during the day. They might get raped by the border militants in Kenya. Nobody tells them they will get raped. The militants come invade the camp and pull out the women and rape them in Kakuma and Dadaab camps. Nobody tells them the camps don’t have enough medicine because only a few organizations work there and they cannot treat the 300,000 people that are there. So it’s very sad for the people going to the camps to survive.
What kind of hospital do you run at your camp? Do you treat fighters injured in conflict?
Mohamed: We try to advertise ourselves as a mothers and children hospital. We don’t intervene with the wounded and the conflict victims.
What we discovered in the 90s was when you have wounded and one of them dies the groups that are fighting will blame you. I was held at gunpoint in 1991 when I was [helping out a fighter’s] kid and when I said, ‘He died; we cannot treat him,’ the man just asked, ‘Why? You have a white coat.’ You will receive the wounded every day, and so to avoid this we receive women and children. [The fighters] know that for the last 20 years we have taken care of women and children so they take their wounded to other hospitals. That also keeps us safe.
Can you tell us about the jail you have set up in your camp to punish men who beat their wives?
Mohamed: It’s the little prison that keeps the camp safe. It’s just the sense of a [prison]; without that, it wouldn’t be safe. We put the prisoner in there for a day or the committee decides what to do or he may have to clean up part of the camp. It’s just simple thing, it’s not like you stay more than 24 hours. But with that, everybody will know you were in prison. That gives you a bad name so nobody wants to be in the prison in the first place. That’s the unique thing we do at the camp to keep the women safe because of the civil war. The men are beating the wives so safety for the women comes first. It’s wonderfully effective. It’s the only tool that works to keep peace in the camp.