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Thursday, August 20, 2020


Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somali Physician and Humanitarian, Remembered for Lifetime of Service

Dr. Hawa Abdi Diblaawe

Dr. Hawa Abdi in 2013, courtesy of Vital Voices and the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation.

Dr. Hawa Abdi Dhiblawe, the noted humanitarian and physician, died on August 5, 2020. She was 73. Known as ‘Mama Hawa’ by Somalis around the world, Dr. Abdi dedicated her life to providing hundreds of thousands of Somalis with life-saving care, even in times of war, famine, and drought. In New Haven, she is remembered for the inspiring work she and her daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, pursued in partnership with the Schell Center for International Human Rights and other parts of Yale University.

Dr. Hawa Abdi and Dr. Deqo Mohamed delivering the 2017 Chubb Lecture at Yale University. Photo by Mike Marsland

Dr. Abdi received many awards and recognitions for her work, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, honorary degrees from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, and the prestigious Chubb Fellowship from Timothy Dwight College at Yale. In 2016, she received the Clinton Global Initiative’s Leadership in Civil Society award. Hillary Clinton called Dr. Abdi “a perfect example of the kind of woman who inspires me.”

Dr. Abdi decided to become a doctor after her own mother died in childbirth. After studying medicine in Ukraine, she returned to Somalia and became the country’s first female obstetrician. She then completed a law degree at Somali National University in Mogadishu, where she later became an Assistant Professor of Medicine.

From the beginning of her career in medicine, Dr. Abdi worked to address the lack of viable healthcare for women in Somalia’s rural areas. She founded a women’s clinic on her family’s ancestral farmland close to Mogadishu, in the Afgooye Corridor. For years, she would wake up very early to tend to the farm, then travel to Mogadishu, where she worked as a full-time doctor and professor of medicine, and finally return home in the evenings to see the long line of women waiting outside her clinic. She only took payment from those who had the means. Even so, she managed to save up and grow the clinic into a 400-bed hospital.

Following the outbreak of civil war in Somalia in 1991, Dr. Abdi started housing her employees on her land, then their friends and relatives. Soon, her farmland became home to 90,000 people displaced by the conflict. Dr. Abdi, her family and their volunteer staff renamed the de facto IDP camp Hawa Abdi Hope Village. Dr. Abdi founded the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF), which supported Hope Village’s efforts to create a sustainable agricultural program, sanitation facilities, a women’s education center, and primary and high schools.

Dr. Abdi, who has been described as “equal parts Rambo and Mother Teresa,” put her own life on the line to protect the residents of Hope Village. In 2010, militants attacked her hospital. Claiming that she, as a woman, had no right to manage the Village, they demanded that she cede control of the hospital and surrounding land to them. She refused, and the militants placed her under house arrest. With her daughters’ help, Dr. Abdi was able to communicate her plight to the media, and the militants released her after a few days. Dr. Abdi was not content: she insisted that the militants issue a formal apology to her and the Village, for the damage they had caused. And they did.

Dr. Deqo Mohamed and her sister, Amina, who is also a doctor, have always shared their mother’s vision. Both began assisting in their mother’s hospital when they were teenagers. They later became doctors and took over operations of the Village from Dr. Abdi. They continue to work to expand access to women’s healthcare in Somalia. In recent months, Dr. Mohamed, who also runs DHAF, has helped to lead Somalia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Deqo Mohamed at the Schell Center with Yale students involved in drafting human rights and conflict resolution curriculum

In the past several years, DHAF has developed strong partnerships with Yale faculty, students, and the Schell Center. In 2015, Dr. Mohamed, who is a Gruber Fellow and Greenberg World Fellow, commissioned the Schell Center to create a curricular program on human rights and conflict resolution for Hope Village’s high school. Over four years, more than 10 Yale students developed a curriculum, which has now been piloted in Hope Village and at Somali National University. Kelsey Annu-Essuman (YC '16), who worked on the curriculum, said, “‘Inspirational’ does not begin to capture the influence Dr. Abdi's vision had on the communities and individuals who were fortunate enough to encounter her.”

Dr. Abdi’s mission for Hope Village exemplified the essence of what it means to believe in human rights for all.” Charlotte Finegold (YC ’17), who ran the curriculum project during her time as the Schell Center Community Fellow and volunteered for DHAF, reflected, “Working for and learning from Dr. Abdi and Dr. Mohamed has been the greatest privilege of my life. They have inspired me and so many others to emulate their resolve, fearlessness, and commitment to upholding human rights and gender equality, no matter the circumstances.” 

“For the Schell Center, hosting and working with Dr. Abdi and Dr. Mohamed was not only a great honor, but a gift to everyone who contributed to the human rights curriculum, heard them speak, or met them — a gift of inspiration and of learning,” said Jim Silk ’89, Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights and Co-Director of the Schell Center. “Dr. Abdi’s courage, practical creativity, and patient persistence were heroic but can remind the rest of us of the hard work needed to achieve human rights at a time when traditional approaches often seem too feeble for the task.”

Additionally, Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood at the Yale School of Public Health is leading a team of students to support Dr. Mohamed’s work on maternal health and healthcare workforce development in Somalia. Currently, they are tracking the needs of people displaced by conflict in Somalia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Abdi visited New Haven in April 2017 to deliver the Chubb Fellowship lecture. The Office of General Counsel at Yale and Harvard, which had selected Dr. Abdi as an honorary degree recipient for that year's commencement, worked around the clock to ensure that Dr. Abdi could enter the U.S. after President Trump announced Executive Order 13769, which included Somalia on a list of seven countries from which migration to the U.S. would be severely limited.

On April 18, 2017, Dr. Abdi and her daughter, Dr. Mohamed, spoke to a full crowd at Sterling-Strathcona Auditorium, which included university faculty and students, as well as community activists and resettled refugees. Dr. Abdi discussed her difficult work of building and sustaining Hope Village for the displaced people of Somalia despite ongoing political instability and violence throughout the region.

“To this day,” Timothy Dwight Head Mary Lui said, “the Dr. Abdi event has remained one of our most meaningful in the college because of the importance of Dr. Abdi’s work and the strong connection we built with Dr. Deqo Mohamed who is now a TD fellow. We are honored and enriched by the strong friendship we have built with Dr. Mohamed and we look forward to hosting her regularly on her visits to New Haven as she continues her collaborations with Yale faculty to improve the delivery of public health services in her country.”