Dr. Hawa Abdi built medical complex, stared down militants in her lifelong quest to help her homeland, Somalia. She visits Toronto this week.
The other guests at the swanky downtown Toronto hotel do not realize they have a celebrity in their midst.
Not that Somalia’s Dr. Hawa Abdi would consider herself a celebrity, and she waves her hand as if swatting flies when reminded that Glamour magazine famously described her as “equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo.”
But travel north of the city to Rexdale, into the neighbourhood dubbed “Little Mogadishu” — where Abdi will go in the coming days — and the reaction is quite different.
She is widely known there among the Somali diaspora as “Mama Hawa.”
“She’s very admired. She’s very tough,” says Somali community activist Bashi Jibril. “Everyone appreciates her humanitarian efforts over the years.”
Doctor, lawyer, human rights activist and grandmother, Abdi has survived the rule of warlords, corrupt governments and foreign armies in Somalia, as well as the rise of an Al Qaeda group.
On Thursday morning, in Toronto’s Le Germaine hotel, she was surviving a Toronto stop on her book tour.
“I want to let the younger generation to know what has been happening to the Somali people,” she says of her book Keeping Hope Alive, which she wrote with American journalist Sarah J. Robbins.
Her biography traces her country’s history through her own: how what she started in 1983 as a one-room clinic has grown into a camp that provides shelter for 90,000, with a 400-bed hospital and a school. Book proceeds go to the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, which funds the camp.
While Abdi’s humanitarian work is well known in the Somali community, the 65-year-old’s life story is not as familiar. She grew up in a Mogadishu foreign to a generation that only knows the capital as a battleground.
“I met friends for cappuccino at a place called Caffe Nazionale, which was popular on Thursdays and Fridays — our weekend,” she writes. “We went there often; if the Italian restaurant was full, we could also go to Hotel Savoia, a Western-style hotel and restaurant in the middle of the city, or down near the seaside for ice cream.”
She shares her personal heartbreaks: losing her mother at the age of 12, being forced into marriage, losing a baby, and later, her son Ahmed in a car accident.
But she also describes how she was thrown with her daughters Deqo and Amina into the international spotlight after Eliza Griswold wrote about their compound in her book The Tenth Parallel. Then Glamour named her “Woman of the Year” in 2010 and flew the three of them first-class to New York.
“Can you imagine?” she writes in her book. “When you sat, your legs went up, and the chair became a bed.”
Her humanitarian work is legendary but the “Rambo” moniker came in 2010 when her camp was overrun by Islamic fighters. She refused to budge.
“You are an old woman . . . we are men. We are in control,” the Hizbul Islam fighters told her.
She countered: “You are a man — you have two testes. A goat also has two testes. What have you done for your society?”
As she dug in, those she had saved protested on her behalf. In the end, Hizbul Islam delivered her a signed letter of apology.
“Hizbul Islam understood that they could not kill thousands of people coming to me, and I understand that I am alive because of my people. When I think of it now,” she writes, “it still gives me life.”
Talk of hope is refreshing after the recent devastating news from Somalia. On Sunday, a team of Shabab suicide bombers attacked Mogadishu’s courthouse, killing as many as 35, including the nine militants. Sources have told the Star that Somali security forces are investigating whether a Canadian led the assault team. The Shabab has vowed the attack is the start of more to come.
Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report alleging that state security forces and armed groups have raped and beaten Somalis living in camps where they sought shelter after the 2011 famine.
“Without justice there will not be peace,” Abdi says, condemning both the Shabab and a government that failed to protect its most vulnerable.
This is also how Abdi has survived all these years, by remaining a neutral humanitarian, not beholden to clans, not taking sides. All patients are welcome in her camp.
But as she finishes her tea and readies for the next interview, she turns her attention to Canada, striking a rare political stance.
“I have big hope for the Canadian government to help Somalia with something concrete and tangible,” she said. “I haven’t seen that.
“But what am I?” she asks as she rises. “Just one woman.”
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