One Woman. 90,000 Lives Changed.

Dr. Deqo Mohamed and Sarah J. Robbins share about the process of researching and writing Dr. Hawa’s autobiography.

Dr. Hawa Abdi, the ‘Mother Teresa of Somalia,’ visits Chicago

“She is a real heroine in the truest sense of the word,” says Alisa Roadcup about a special guest whom Heshima Kenya, the organization for which Ms. Roadcup serves as Director of US Advocacy and Development, recently hosted for an intimate discussion in Chicago.

That guest was Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and author of Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman: 90,000 Lives Changed. The 90,000 lives referenced in the subhead are the displaced people, primarily women and children, whom have been sheltered by the rural camp founded by Dr. Abdi in Somalia in the early 1990s. One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises serves as the backdrop Dr. Hawa’s work; that camp encompasses a hospital (originally founded in 1983 before the collapse of the Somali government) with over 400 beds, a school and 1,300 acres of farmland.

On a spring afternoon in a serene condo on Lake Shore Drive, Dr. Hawa shared her story while framed on either side by two important players in her story. On her right sat her daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed; while Dr. Hawa was one of the first women in Somalia to become a gynecologist, both of her daughters have since become doctors themselves to aid in the now cross-generational work. On her left sat Sarah Robbins, the co-author of Keeping Hope Alive. Ms. Robbins first met Dr. Hawa while her story was being covered for Glamour magazine’s 2010 Woman of the Year Awards.

Together, the three women recounted the tale not just of Dr. Hawa’s incredible journey, but also the process of coaxing out the details from a woman whom, they recounted with laughter, initially hung up the phone on the Glamour editor who called to tell her about the 2010 award.

While Dr. Hawa and her daughters are often asked how they achieved something so massive in scale, they never thought about the numbers, the future growth, their long-term strategy; they were too immersed in the work and moving to meet the needs directly in front of them to either look ahead or reflect back. The process of reflecting on her journey with Ms. Robbins for the book – a give-and-take relationship that required her to sometimes tell a piece of her story multiple times – was emotional and overwhelming. In the end, though, she noted that she now considers Ms. Robbins a third daughter, a beautiful testament to the bond formed between the women over the writing process.

All of which is good news for the public, who can now read about Dr. Hawa’s incredible strength and resolve for themselves in the long-form format it deserves. 

“Dr. Hawa has literally stared down the barrels of militia guns and still refused to surrender her camp to militants, claiming they must take her life first,” notes Ms. Roadcup. “Her visit was important for Chicagoans so that we can remain well-informed and engaged on the issues affecting women and girls around the world.” She continues, “Dr. Hawa’s story inspires me because she beautifully balances the tension of being traditional and subversive at the same time. Deeply devout about her Muslim faith, she exudes humility and an ethic of service to her people. Yet much of her life has been spent overturning traditional gender roles, speaking truth to power and breaking through educational barriers.”

Pictured: Dr. Deqo Mohamed, Dr. Hawa Abdi and Sarah Robbins


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."