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Somali-born nurse fulfills promise to help women in war-ravaged Mogadishu

Toronto Star
Friday, May 04, 2012

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Seven months ago, on her first day volunteering at a pediatric hospital in Mogadishu, Toronto Public Health nurse Safia Nur Ahmed observed a woman moaning and lying on the ground under a tree, apparently left alone to die.

Instinctively, Ahmed went to the woman. “I touch her hand and she grabs my hand and puts it on her chest and squeezes it,” she says. Ahmed began massaging her chest. The woman, whom Ahmed would later learn had survived drought and the death of her eight-year-old son, stopped moaning and fell asleep.

“I sat there weeping. I'm still weeping,” Ahmed says of the incident and of what happened next. “All the other nurses came over and began to help massaging her,” she says. “It was as if they were waiting for permission.”

This simple but comforting act might not seem significant but, in Somalia, nursing is not a respected profession, says Ahmed, who was born in the southern part of the country but left in 1983 to study accounting in India. Families provide personal care to patients; nurses only perform basic medical tasks.

“I really see that woman as the country – dying. But when there's something good, everyone wants to participate when they see the results,” she says.

It wasn't until Ahmed came to Canada that she encountered the nurturing side of nursing.

Ahmed was nine months pregnant in 1991 when she moved to Sudbury with her husband and two-year-old son. As she adjusted to the shock of a new culture and freezing temperatures in Canada, famine and social unrest loomed in her home country as warring militias fought to gain control. Her younger sister, who suffered from epilepsy, and an orphaned, diabetic child who was under her mother's care died because of a lack of medication.

Ahmed remembers holding her newborn son while watching a news report about Baidoa, a market town approximately 250 kilometres northwest of the capital Mogadishu, ominously referred to as “death city.” The new mother was struck by the image of an orphaned child who looked so much like her own, and became overcome by a desire to take care of him.

Ahmed, who says she will never forget the nurses who comforted her during the birth of her child, made the decision to go back to school and become one herself. She graduated from Laurentian University in 1998, and a year later began working with Ontario's Healthy Families program, assisting new and at-risk mothers.

And she vowed to return to Somalia one day.

Last September, Ahmed finally got her chance as a volunteer with the U.S. non-governmental organization, American Refugee Committee. It was her first time back to Somalia since 1988 and, although she was prepared for change, Ahmed was shocked by what she witnessed during her month-long stint.

“It's your homeland, but you're so afraid to even get out of the car,” she says. “You're so afraid because every kid has a gun.”

Fear turned to heartbreak when she arrived at the hospital and encountered the solitary woman under the tree. Much of what she saw – dysentery, cholera, diarrhea – could be tackled with medication and education, but women's services were desperately lacking. In Somalia, according to UNICEF, a woman’s lifetime risk of dying from maternal causes is 1 in 14, one of the highest in the world, and second only to Afghanistan. The statistic fuels Ahmed’s passion. To date, she has helped raise $70,000 to improve the hospital’s conditions and to provide basic training for nurses.

As Ahmed prepares to return to Somalia in a few months, she says her experience has also given her a new perspective on the lives of the immigrant women she works with in Toronto, many of whom have arrived from conflict zones like Mogadishu. “I think it has made me a better nurse,” Ahmed says. “It enriched my life.”



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