Somalia's Mama Hawa Creates Safe Haven for 90,000

VIDEO: Our Person of the Week stands in the face of death to protect her people.
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Dr. Hawa Abdi's makeshift town in Somalia is surrounded by so much danger that no cameras ever have seen it.

Charity workers stopped coming to the country years ago because it's so dire and so deadly. The Horn of Africa nation has been at war for two decades; the U.N.-backed government controls only a few blocks in the capital of Mogadishu. Residents often fall victim to clashes between troops and insurgents.

And yet daily, frightened families make a daring pilgrimage from their rural villages around Mogadishu -- past savage warlords and chains of armed gangs -- to Abdi's nameless community hoping to find peace and an oasis cocooned from chaos.

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Abdi, 64, is the mayor, caregiver, teacher and landowner of this city 15 miles from Mogadishu.

The town has grown significantly from the private women's clinic Abdi first opened in 1983. She is now called "Mama Hawa."

"Our camp is big," she said. "It is peaceful for 20 years. We ... never get any disturbance."

That is astounding for a community of 90,000 refugees -- enough to fill more than two Major League Baseball stadiums -- living in huts made of plastic sheeting and sticks. Each family that arrives gets a little plot of land and a tent.

At the city's hospital, hundreds of mothers and their children wait patiently to be seen by just a handful of doctors.

The school houses nearly 900 children dressed in clean, crisp uniforms. They are a sea of blue and white.

While all of this is free -- the community is funded by donations -- there are rules at Mama Hawa's safe haven. No man may hit his wife and each person must earn his keep.

"We are against handouts," said her Abdi's daughter, Dr. Deqa Mohamed. "We want development."

"[We] don't give fish to person. Better to teach how to fish," Mama Hawa said. "It's better to teach them and give them facilities [that teach] how to work on to be self-sustainable."

'I Will Lead My Society'

The city has some security guards, which were needed on May 5, 2010, when 750 armed militia arrived.

Mohamed said they were dumbfounded.

"You are woman leading. It's impossible to do this," she said the militants told her mother. "This is not your role. You have to hand over to us this wonderful estate you have created."

They took Mama Hawa hostage at gunpoint and ransacked the two-story hospital. After one week, Mama Hawa had had enough.

"I will lead my society," she said she told them. "But you a man, you are young. What you have now for your society? Tell me!"

Then something extraordinary happened. The militants -- from one of Somalia's most feared groups of looters, rapists and murderers -- backed down and left.

"They have nothing," she said. "They were destroying [Somalia for] 20 years. So, anyhow, that was the end."

Mama Hawa saved her town, and she went a step further. She demanded a written apology from the outlaws and she got it.

"This is history," her daughter said. "First time in my country they wrote it."

The letter read, in part: "We apologize to every hospital patient who suffered from the attack. We apologize to the entire Somali community."

Mohamed said she was amazed by her mother's courage.

"I think she's the bravest person I ever known or meet in my life," she said.

Mama Hawa, who watched her mother die during childbirth, said women were the strongest human beings.

"She can resist every situation," she said. "The woman can forgive. [The] woman is, I realize, the woman is the leader of the community."

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