THROUGH THE FIRE: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THREE HEROIC SOMALI WOMEN

The article below appeared in the latest issue of the Anglo-Somali Journal.  It gives some insights into the life changing experience that was the making of this documentary and why we wholeheartedly believe in the work of the three organisations supported.

As a journalist, in 2011 Arthur Nazaryan documented the lives of refugees residing in a camp on the Kenya-Somalia border.  Their remarkable strength and resilience left a deep impression, sowing the seed for Through the Fire, a documentary film project recently launched in the UK.  Together with director Eunice Lau, Arthur returned to the Horn of Africa in 2012 to tell a different kind of story.  The goal was, and remains, to try to help change the script of the all-too-familiar news reports by showing a side of Somalia and Somaliland that mainstream media rarely capture.

Through the Fire is a film about three incredible Somali women, Edna Adan Ismail, Dr Hawa Abdi and Ilwad Elman, who have each led groundbreaking initiatives that have sustained their communities for years.  The work of these women in laying the foundations for educational, health and social welfare in Somalia and Somaliland is no doubt familiar to many readers. Nevertheless, we want to share a brief account of just some of the many developments documented at each of the foundations during production.  What we witnessed in Hargeisa and Mogadishu last year moved us deeply; we are eager to share the inspiration.   

 

Edna Adan Ismail: Edna Adan University Hospital of Somaliland

Edna Adan (1)
“Anybody can knock this wall down.  Anybody can break my instruments.  Anybody can steal my equipment… But what nobody can take away is the knowledge, the gifts and the skills that I leave for my trainees, for my nurses, for my midwives.  That is what I have dedicated myself to do.”  –  Edna Adan Ismail

In Hargeisa, we visited the University Hospital of Somaliland where the founder and director, Edna Adan Ismail, gave us a guided tour.  More than a decade has passed since this, the first non-profit hospital in Hargeisa, was opened.  Today, it is a thriving centre for healthcare and education.  Established as a maternity hospital, over the past decade more than 14,000 babies have been delivered and more than 140,000 patients treated.  From the outset, the hospital has provided lifesaving medical care to people suffering from all manner of illness, many of whom travel hundreds of kilometres to receive treatment.

These incredible achievements are undoubtedly a reflection of Edna Adan Ismail’s extraordinary zeal and dedication.  Recently named among the 100 most influential Africans, Edna, a lady who no deluges of cold water could deter, is a pioneer and activist for reproductive health, education and welfare in Somaliland.  In a region that has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, figures in Somaliland are now a quarter of the Somali average.  Experts give much of the credit for this to the trailblazing work of Edna and her hospital.

Yet the hospital is also a centre of education and has set itself the goal of training 1,000 midwives, a generation of women from all parts of Somaliland.  During our stay, the first cohort of student nurses graduated from the hospital faculty to receive Bachelor of Science degrees in midwifery from Hargeisa University.  These 21 graduates would return home to apply their newly acquired skills in their local communities. While making Through the Fire Edna took us to a health post run by one such trainee on the Ethiopian border.  There we witnessed for ourselves the invaluable roles they are playing in the far-flung villages of Somaliland where resources are scarce.

When asked about what Edna meant to her, this young midwife broke down in tears.  Choked up with emotion, she replied, “She’s like my mother.”  This simple statement was loaded with meaning, spoken as it was from the heart.  After years of unimaginable suffering during the long civil war, Edna had believed in her and given her hope at a time of despair.  The training received has transformed her life, engendering a sense of purpose and growing confidence in her own abilities.  Barely 18 when she first joined the hospital as a student nurse, she returned to her province to use her skills for the benefit of her community.

Working with Edna has inspired so many women with a belief that they too can be strong and make a contribution to society just as well as men.  In addition to training midwives, Edna has taken a pioneering role in the fight against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and was the first person to speak out in public against the practice.  Almost four decades later, the campaign is still going strong with much progress having been made through education, research and counselling.  In Edna’s own words, “…with persistence, insistence, and with determination, we will overcome it…  We must not give up.”

With scholars and nurses from all over the world sharing knowledge and vital clinical skills with students, and physicians carrying out life changing surgery, the Edna Adan University Hospital has become an international hub, a beacon of hope and source of pride to the many who have witnessed its growth and development over the years.  What Edna has given to Somaliland is thus more than healthcare.  Edna has instilled a belief and a confidence in the future that will propel the rising generation forward as they seek to build on the foundations now being laid.

 

Dr Hawa Abdi: Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF)

Hawa Abdi (6)
“I feel happy, I risked my life, I was not working for myself, I was working for others, to give them life.  But now I feel happy, when I see how they grew up, how they became different than other young people in the area…  How they respect, how they understand each other, that makes me happy.”  –  Dr Hawa Abdi

Dr Hawa Abdi welcomed us to her clinic in Mogadishu where she and her daughter, Dr Deqo Aden Mohamed, now CEO of DHAF, were attending to patients.  As a bustling medical centre, the clinic serves the needs of about 300 patients per day.  When we arrived, a long line of people suffering from all manner of sickness and disease had formed outside.  The majority of them were women and children, who, Dr Hawa observed, often suffer the most in times of conflict.  And so it was that during the civil war the majority of the 90,000 displaced persons who found refuge on her family’s ancestral land in Afgooye were women.  It was the women who carried the burden of caring for their families alone.

Even as thousands fled the ruins of war, Dr Hawa refused to give up or walk away.  Instead, she risked her life to help where the need was greatest, supporting thousands of people irrespective of clan affiliation. As an obstetrics/gynaecology specialist in a country where it is estimated that every two hours a woman dies from pregnancy-related complications, Dr Hawa and her team have saved countless lives over the years.  Little wonder that last year’s Nobel Peace Prize nominee is affectionately known as Mama Hawa.  What few are aware of, though, is the pain that she has endured since the loss of her son.  In spite of the grief, her faith in humanity has not diminished and she continues to spearhead efforts towards peace and renewal.

During production, it was very evident just how much Dr Hawa has touched the lives of all those around her.  Ismail Ahmed Hussein, an auxiliary nurse at the clinic, remarked that if she had not been there for him and his peers they would have been forced to join a militia.  Instead, he says, “We came out of the dark and into the light.”  We watched how he and his colleagues faithfully followed her around the clinic day after day, tenderly caring for their patients.  It was the small gestures that demonstrated how these young men that Dr Hawa had nurtured like her own children, loved her.  Their self-sacrificing approach, generosity of spirit and goodness of heart are her legacy.

Ismail, like thousands of others, grew up in the Hawa Abdi Village which now includes a school as well as a 400-bed hospital.  Since 2009, hundreds of children, half of whom are girls, have been given access to basic education at the Waqaf-Dhiblawe School. More recently, the Foundation has been investing in a new agricultural system that uses low-tech, innovative and sustainable agricultural practices to suit Somalia’s climate.  Through initiatives such as these, Dr Hawa hopes that this new generation will lead the country back into an era of peace and independence.

For many years, through her extraordinary zeal, courage and compassion, Dr Hawa has kept a candle of hope burning for thousands of Somalis across the world.  Keeping Hope Alive, appropriately enough, is the title of her autobiography, published in April 2013. In our documentary, Dr Hawa gives an intimate account of her life, a story that moves and inspires in equal measure.

 

Ilwad Elman: Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre

Ilwad Elman (1)
“My father was the first pioneer human rights activist in Somalia… I feel like I have an obligation to finish what he started… I know I could never fill his shoes, but when people look at me they look at me sometimes as a beacon of hope.”  –  Ilwad Elman

Raised in Canada, Ilwad Elman was 7 years old when her father, a pioneering human rights activist, was assassinated in the busy streets of Mogadishu.  In 2009, barely 19 years of age, Ilwad returned to Somalia while the conflict was still raging to join her mother, Fartuun Adan, in continuing the work of her father.  Known throughout Somalia for his motto, ‘Drop the gun, pick up the pen’, Elman Ali Ahmed was a peacemaker in a time of brutal sectarian warfare.  With Fartuun, he ran community initiatives that cared for orphans and instilled a spirit of reconciliation through football and other team activities.  Today, Ilwad and her mother manage the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, a vocational training facility that provides rehabilitation programmes for former child soldiers.

In Through the Fire, Ilwad reveals how returning to Somalia changed her priorities and gave her a real sense of purpose.  Yet the transition into this new role has not been an entirely smooth one.  As a woman in a position of responsibility, Ilwad talks about the hostility she has encountered from youths in her charge, youths conditioned to be the ‘antibodies’ to women taking a more proactive role in society.  Although Mogadishu is no longer a war zone, security remains an issue and certain precautions, such as travelling by foot where possible, are taken because of this.  Nevertheless, Ilwad’s work at the Centre is very hands on, and her vibrant personality and courageous approach were striking from the moment we met.

As she took us on a tour of the Centre, Ilwad pointed out the brightly painted classrooms where mechanics, auto electrics, carpentry and other skills are taught.  Every class is filled with youths from different backgrounds; some were recruited by al-Shabaab, others worked for the government, and still others fall into the ‘at-risk’ category.  The rehabilitation dimension of the programmes also includes counselling sessions.  Ilwad noted that when a counsellor first asks the children to draw, in most cases the pictures are associated with violence – weapons, armed vehicles and scenes of bloodshed.  In time, though, gratuitous violence is replaced with more hopeful images that reflect a shift in outlook, or, as Ilwad says, “a new vision.”

We spoke to several youths who had enrolled on programmes and are now applying the skills learned at a social enterprise established by the Centre.  One boy told us that the programme had given him a sense of ambition, something he lacked when a soldier.  Another spoke of the sense of brotherhood that he feels towards peers who were previously fighting on opposing sides of the battle line: “There is no problem and I have no suspicion.  He is my Somali brother, and I am not scared of him…  We will do our jobs well.”  When asked about what he would do if he were elected President of Somalia his friend says, “I would bring peace, stability and honour to all 18 regions. And restore the respect our country used to have a long time ago.”

Mohammed, a 12 year old former gun wielding child soldier, told us that he had nothing – no mother, no father, no future, no hope.  “Then,” he said, “God sent Ilwad to me” and everything changed.  The incredible work that Ilwad is doing at the Elman Peace Centre is reflective of the positive contributions that the returning diaspora can make at this pivotal time.  To witness the will to survive and the will to recreate is a profound and humbling experience. The tremendous work that we were privileged to document in Hargeisa and Mogadishu has made a deep and lasting impression.  We have more zeal for this project than any other and hope that it will contribute in some way to the mission of the three foundations.

WINFIELD, S. J. & LAU, E. (2014) ‘Through the Fire: a documentary about three heroic Somali women’ in Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society (55)

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