An Unlikely Utopia: Dr. Hawa Abdi's Somali Haven

The heroic, 63-year-old doctor started a one-room medical clinic in 1983 that morphed into a home for 90,000 Somalians.

03.10.11 6:25 PM ET

In one of the day's final events, Dr. Hawa Abdi sharing her extraordinary story: The heroic, 63-year-old Somalian doctor started a one-room medical clinic in 1983 that has since morphed into a hospital and home for 90,000 Somalians, all displaced from their homes by the chaos and violence of the country. The residents live peacefully on Abdi’s 1300 acres of property, despite the country’s endemic problem of inter-clan strife.

Eliza Griswold, Daily Beast writer and author of The Tenth Parallel, who first spent time with Abdi in 2007 and has written about her extensively since, shared the stage with Dr. Abdi. “When you arrive, you see a sign written on a board and you enter a virtual utopia, run by women,” Griswold said of the utopian space.

Delving into how Abdi has managed to achieve what she has, Tina Brown commented, “You don’t seem like a very scary woman,” Tina Brown remarks. “How do you do this?” In other words: how do you keep the peace?

In her response, Abdi was nonchalant and matter-of-fact. Her daughter, also a doctor and seated to her right, chimed in: “If you don’t follow our rules, you lose your piece of land.” As proof of the policy's efficacy, Abdi’s daughter also said that “the boys who grew up in the camp are today the camp guards.  . . We raised a whole generation of police.”

Still, the community hasn't been without its truly difficult moments. Last May, the Party of Islam dispatched a militia—750 soldiers strong—to seize the hospital and demand that Abdi cease her work. In the face of this threat, Abdi was characteristically undaunted. She refused to budge, despite a full week of heavy shelling. “I will die with my dignity,” she said.

Because international media organizations picked up on the story, the world learned about the attack—and outrage spread. Somalian women stormed Abdi’s property, surrounding it to signal their solidarity, and to insist on the departure of the occupying soldiers. The militia eventually left, and Abdi resumed her hospital’s services.