Saint Louis University

Biochemistry major Sarah McNitt works in the lab at the Center for World Health and Medicine.  

 Thinking back on her experience as an undergraduate, biochemistry major Sarah McNitt describes last year's visit by Somali doctor Hawa Abdi as one of the most meaningful parts of her time here at SLU.

Moved by the doctor's message and motivated to help Dr. Abdi's refugee camp, Sarah says that the visit inspired her commitment to "live the mission" and assist with efforts to solve the health and education crises the refugees face.

With some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, and a lack of permanent and stable government, Somalia faces challenges economically and politically. Coupling these issues with severe droughts in some areas of the country, devastating floods in other regions, and internal conflicts that have displaced an estimated 375,000 people has held the country in a position of extreme poverty and volatility. 

In the face of such adversity, however, certain humanitarian activists have risen to face the challenge of initiating positive and lasting changes in the country. Among the most notable is Dr. Hawa Abdi. She is a great leader whose acts of courage in the face of conflict and dedication to promoting the well-being of Somalis (especially women and children) contributed to her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. As the founder of a refugee camp that contains a hospital, a school, and houses over 90,000 people displaced by the war in Somalia, she has had to face challenges beyond what most could comprehend.

Just over a year ago, Dr. Abdi personally shared some of her experiences in dealing with these challenges when she came to speak at Saint Louis University. Her visit was largely made possible by the efforts and involvement of the Center for World Health and Medicine (CWHM) here at SLU, which partnered with the Great Issues Committee to bring Dr. Abdi to campus.

As a biochemistry major, for the past few semesters I have been able to work on an undergraduate research project at the CWHM, and it was through the Center that I was privileged to personally, albeit very briefly, meet Dr. Abdi.

During their time in St. Louis, she and her daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, spoke at SLU on a couple occasions, attended a meeting with the CWHM and took a tour of the labs at the Doisy Research Center on the medical campus. From listening to her talks and attending a meeting with her and others from the CWHM team, I was greatly impacted, and there were a few points that especially resonated with me.

Firstly, and perhaps the thing that struck me most about Dr. Abdi was that she came to SLU not seeking a hand-out but rather ideas and novel solutions to promote self-sustainability within her country.

While her stories of triumph in the face of adversity were inspiring, it was her approach to seeking solutions to her country’s problems, in my opinion, that set her apart from other activists. By emphasizing the importance of self-sustainability, her organization and others who take a similar approach have set an exemplary model for humanitarian efforts in other economically and politically precarious countries.

Secondly, I was made to realize how much in life I take for granted (running water for instance). As Dr. Abdi pointed out, one of the main problems in finding support is that the situation is “just too far from [our own] personal experiences.” Unfortunately, it is easy to hesitate in helping because it’s something that we don’t see as really affecting us.

Lastly, I could well relate to Dr. Deqo as she has a great passion for the education of the children in the refugee camp. I thoroughly agreed when she stated that, “Education is the key. Without it, there is no progress, no development.”

During discussions she mentioned that technology is one tool that could be utilized in a number of ways to help their situation. For instance, at the time of her visit in 2012, Dr. Hawa Abdi discussed some of the demands placed upon the 5 doctors in her camp (yes, 5 doctors for 90,000 refugees, most of whom require medical care).

In exchanging a few words with her daughter, I remember her saying that “these doctors are not specialists, and as such, need technology to be able to assist in some of the procedures they are forced to do in order to save lives.”

If provided with webcams, they could utilize skype to communicate with specialists around the world, and with computers and internet access they may research some of the less common conditions with which they are faced. Computers or tablets may also be used in providing online courses to help train potential nursing students, assist teachers, or facilitate the administrative processes involved with running the camp’s hospital.

As a graduating senior, after applying to medical schools, I plan on traveling to Nairobi, Kenya to participate in a medically-oriented volunteer program. Following that time, I am hoping to re-join efforts proposed during Dr. Abdi’s visit a year ago to search for solutions for the camp.

In helping Dr. Abdi’s organization, I think Saint Louis University has a great opportunity to make a very positive impact on a multitude of lives. I truly believe that if we all come together, we can change the future for people who live in this Somali refugee camp.

In summary, from hearing lectures by guest speakers like Dr. Patch Adams, to participating in school-wide events like “make-a-difference” day, every day offers some new opportunity to learn more about the world through the lens of compassion, as is integral to the Jesuit mission here at SLU.

But I have come to realize that there exist more than just opportunities for learning, but for doing as well. Additionally, it is in translating a worthwhile desire into an action that really makes a difference.

--Sarah McNitt