By Abigail Pesta
She’s a doctor, a newlywed, a fighter of terrorists in Somalia, and a lover of American showerheads. Dr. Deqo Mohamed tells Abigail Pesta about her surreal life.
Relaxing in the beige-toned lobby of the Empire Hotel in Manhattan, a world away from her native Somalia, Dr. Deqo Mohamed is talking calmly about how she helped save thousands of people from getting bombed by terrorists.
She and her sister, both doctors, work in Somalia with their trailblazing mother, also a doctor, who runs a hospital and camp that houses some 90,000 displaced people, mostly women and children, in the embattled country. Earlier this year, Mohamed says, the camp ended up smack in the middle of a fight between the government and the Islamist militant group Al-Shabab, which aligns itself with al Qaeda.
“The hospital was shaking from the shelling,” says the 37-year-old Mohamed, who is in New York this month to pick up awards from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and BET on behalf of her mother, Dr. Hawa Abdi. “People thought they would die.”
Somalia, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been embroiled in conflict ever since militants toppled the government in 1991. Warring factions have continued to fight since then, despite the formation of an internationally backed transitional government in 2004 and the appointing of a new government and president this year.
Amid the shelling this past spring, Mohamed says, “I called the government. They said, ‘We can’t help you. It’s a war. They’re shelling us, and we can’t stop. What do we do?'” Her answer: “Get the cars.” In other words, send vehicles to evacuate the residents. A fleet of trucks and buses arrived as shells rained down, whisking people away to tents outside Mogadishu.
Government soldiers won the fight, she says, and now people want to go back to her mother’s camp, known as Hawa Abdi Village. But the grounds are badly damaged. A crucial water pump has been decimated, its copper parts stolen. The electricity generator is also in disrepair. Soldiers “took all the pillows and mattresses from the hospital and brought them home,” Mohamed says, explaining that most people don’t have the luxury of a mattress, sleeping instead on mats on the floor.
Mohamed and her mother and sister, Amina, are accustomed to chaos at their camp, which runs on donations through the family’s charity, the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation. Angelina Jolie spoke passionately about the operation this year at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Summit. Mohamed says she and her family are ready to rebuild. “We’ll fix the well. We’ll give the people the water, get the generator going,” she says matter-of-factly. “One day, we’ll get a mattress; another day, we’ll get another mattress.”
“In Somalia, you’re making a difference. Being a doctor in the U.S., you’re dealing with laws, regulations. In Somalia, you’re not—how should I say—a money-making machine.”
It seems there’s always a disaster, she says. “You get a break for two or three months, and then there’s another crisis.” Indeed, before the shelling, the camp had fended off threats including a devastating drought last year and an attempted land grab at the start of this year. In the latter case, a local businessman created a fake deed and sold the camp’s land to someone else, Mohamed says. As she speaks, she sketches a little map on a pad of paper, explaining that the land is near a road, and therefore valuable. Mohamed took the thief to court this summer—and won. He was sentenced to five years in jail.
“It was so amazing. It was so moving,” she says. “I cried. You don’t expect this to happen there. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like it. The Somali justice system—they’re doing an amazing job. These people hardly leave their building,” she says, noting that it’s dangerous for the legislators to go outside. “They have their books there and the laws. They respected my mother deeply.”
Mohamed’s mother, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year, began her operation as a small health clinic for women on a farm in 1983. Mohamed remembers her mother being disciplined and extremely driven during those early years, as the clinic eventually grew to a hospital, then a massive camp.
“In seventh grade,” Mohamed recalls, “she gave me some money to buy shoes. I had to wait a week until there was a need to go the city for hospital supplies. I couldn’t take a car just for the shoes—we didn’t have that luxury.” When she got to Mogadishu, she found a pair of “sports shoes, yellow and black—maybe Nike,” she says. “I loved those shoes.” But she couldn’t afford them, and an aunt lent her some money from the hospital budget. “When my mom found out, she said the shoes are going back. I had to get a different pair I could afford.” She adds with a laugh, “I don’t remember the color of those shoes.”
Mohamed and her sister both went to college and medical school in Russia, with her sister returning to Somalia. Mohamed went on to the U.S., working in labs in Grand Forks, N.D., and Atlanta. She remembers being alarmed by the fact that she would need to go into debt to buy a car. It would be the first time she had ever owed money—a concept her mother had always warned against. “I bought a used car and was $7,000 in debt,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep at night.”
She moved back to her mother’s camp last year to help with the hospital. This year, Mohamed had two very personal milestones, one tragic, one joyful. She lost her beloved father earlier in the year—a man she describes as supportive and loving—and she married a physician from the hospital this fall. Weddings in Somalia aren’t the same as in the U.S., she says, smiling. “You don’t plan for a year. We were married two weeks after we announced we would marry.”
Dressed in a red headscarf, glasses, and a long black skirt, she jokes that she is low-maintenance, saying her beauty routine generally consists of “just a little eyeliner.” She has a calm, warm presence, and laughs easily. She says she plans to stay in Somalia for the next few years. She and her family are hoping to start a business with thousands of lemon trees on the property, extracting oils from the blossoms to be used in high-end perfume.
She laughs about how she has a foot in two worlds, in Atlanta and Somalia. She plans to visit the U.S. on occasion for events, such as the launch of a biography about her mother, Keeping Hope Alive. “God bless America for its showers,” she says. “I take hours of showers here. We have showers at home, but the water disconnects sometimes. You’ll be shampooing your head, and then no water.”
Then she turns serious, saying of her homeland, “When you’re there, you’re making a difference. Being a doctor in the U.S., you’re dealing with laws, regulations. In Somalia, you’re not—how should I say—a money-making machine. You have a purpose of life.”
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Abigail Pesta is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked around the world, from New York to London to Hong Kong. Currently she is the editorial director of Women in the World at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She is a former editor-at-large of Marie Claire magazine, and a former news editor at The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. She also has worked as an articles editor at Glamour, where she launched Mariane Pearl’s popular column about women changing the world. Abby writes short stories for her website, Fine Words Butter No Parsnips.
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