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A doctor bound by humanity

Countless Somalis have found help and refuge at Hawa Abdi's clinic. She dreams of escape, but says, `How can I leave?'

August 01, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Hawa Abdi, Somalia — FROM the second-floor balcony of her modest hospital, Dr. Hawa Abdi scans the wind-swept bluffs that lured her here a quarter of a century ago. The landscape is dotted with thousands of stick huts, draped in bright-colored plastic, leaves and anything else the refugees could scrape together.

Downstairs, the stream of patients never ceases. A dozen malaria cases a day. Bloated babies with diarrhea.

The miscarriages are hardest to bear, says Abdi, a gynecologist. She counted 1,111 in four months early this year, when gunfire and shelling between government troops and insurgents were the heaviest.

Abdi opened her private clinic for women and children in 1983. But when the government collapsed eight years later, she threw open her doors to all, treating victims of shootings, malnutrition and a string of epidemics.

As word of her generosity spread, the needy flocked here. More than 20,000 people currently live on her land. She offers treatment, clean water and whatever food she can spare. Nowadays, few can pay, but no one is turned away.

Abdi acknowledges that after 25 years, she dreams of escaping this place, of selling everything and joining one of her daughters, who is in Atlanta.

"I'm tired," she says, sighing. "Sometimes you lose hope, you feel depressed. I've been here so long."

But Abdi, 60, has become a hostage of her own humanity.

"How can I leave now?" she asks, walking past dozens of patients sitting on the ground around the whitewashed building and lining the halls outside her office. "What would I say to the people who have been living here for 16 years? If I could get 20,000 green cards, I'd take everyone to the U.S. But who will take my place?"

Her reputation has spread throughout the nation. Here, Abdi is a nearly mythic figure. The hospital is named after her. Even the surrounding village is called Hawa Abdi.

"She's a queen," says Hamdi Nur Mire, 45, a mother of nine who fled Mogadishu four months ago for this place 12 miles to the west.

MIRE and thousands of others have found security on the 60 acres around Abdi's hospital. Every day, new families settle on the tree-covered terrain, constructing dome-shaped huts from branches.

Abdi used to try to personally welcome every new family, but that has grown harder now that she oversees one of Somalia's biggest displacement camps.

"We wouldn't survive without her," Mire says. "She is doing what the government should be doing."

Abdi may feel weary, but she shows no sign of it as she makes her daily rounds. Her purse under one arm, Abdi caresses cheeks and strokes heads with a mother's tenderness. Patients beam and struggle to sit up as she gently prods and pokes.

Despite limited funds, Abdi tries to keep the compound cheerful. Fresh orange and pink paint decorate the walls. Pots of flowers brighten the halls.

In contrast with the desperation around her, Abdi, wearing a shimmering green dress and dangling gold earrings, exudes calm and courteousness. A squinty grin rarely leaves her face.

Abdi stops at the makeshift pediatric unit, in a patio covered by flimsy plastic sheeting to keep the rain out. Here some of the sickest babies lie limply in their mothers' arms. Diarrhea and dehydration are the biggest risks, but Abdi has only a limited supply of IV bags. That sometimes requires painful choices.

She presses her thin fingers against a baby's stomach.

"This one needs an infusion immediately or he won't make it," she tells a nurse.

Sometimes there is little she can offer besides comfort and hope.

A middle-aged patient removes her veil to reveal a cancer that has nearly eaten away her lips. With no access to chemotherapy or radiation, Abdi can give her only a traditional African therapy involving tree bark.

"It's all I have," she says.

Born in Mogadishu, Abdi came of age in an era when the seaside capital boasted thriving coffeehouses and ornate Italian-style mansions. Thanks to Somalia's strategic importance in the Cold War, the economy boomed.

Her father ran the city's port. Her mother died when she was 12. As the eldest, she might have been forced to raise her siblings and take care of the house.

"But my father was an educated man," she recalls. He ensured that she pursued her dream of becoming a doctor.

Abdi received her medical training in Kiev, Ukraine, during the 1960s with the help of a Soviet scholarship. At the time, Somalia was allied with the Soviet Union, while its archrival and neighbor Ethiopia was a partner of the United States. (In an abrupt Cold War reversal, a Marxist regime came to power in Ethiopia in 1974 and Somalian dictator Mohamed Siad Barre switched loyalties to the U.S.)

After completing her studies, Abdi returned and opened her clinic; soon the practice drew clients from all over the country, and even abroad. She was one of Somalia's first female gynecologists.

She married, raised three children, invested in hundreds of acres of farmland and had enough left over to purchase a beach getaway.

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