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Foreign-Educated Somalis Give Up Lucrative Incomes Abroad to Serve Homeland - 2004-02-18

In Somalia, the collapse of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's government in 1991, and the United Nations' pullout four years later, have left the country's seven million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Some of that need is being met by foreign-educated Somalis, who have given up lucrative careers abroad to return to their war-devastated homeland.

At first glance, Arafat Hospital in Mogadishu can hardly be called modern.

Inside a dilapidated building, rows of dimly-lit rooms, with a single bed in each, serve as the emergency and in-patient wards. In the middle of the hospital compound, another run-down building houses several small offices, examination rooms and the main reception area.

The facilities of Arafat Hospital may not inspire much confidence in some foreigners who comes here, but to long-suffering Somalis in this city, it is nothing short of a dream come true.

Three years ago, two Somali doctors gave up their lucrative practices and comfortable lives in Persian Gulf states, and returned to Mogadishu to set up the hospital.

The two doctors brought with them much-needed skills to treat widespread illnesses, such as tuberculosis, malaria, and respiratory diseases.

The doctors could not afford to build a new hospital. But, working with friends, they pooled enough money to purchase some high-tech diagnostic equipment to support their work in gynecology, urology, obstetrics, and other key medical specialties.

They charge patients $1 per visit, and the price includes 10 days of follow-up care. But that is as much as many Somalis earn for a full day of work. So, on Thursdays, consultations and treatments are free.

A 30-year-old mother, Kale Nur Ahmed, says the two founding doctors, and three other physicians who work at the hospital, have saved numerous lives, including the life of her diabetic son.

Ms. Ahmed says, for years, there were no Somali doctors in Mogadishu, because all of them fled the country when civil war broke out in 1991. Then, all of the foreign doctors left when the international relief organizations closed their operations. She says, "All of us suffered so much. Thank God some of them have come back to help us."

The two doctors at Arafat Hospital now earn less than a quarter of the money they used to earn in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. But one of them, pediatrician Abdullahi Farah Asseyr, says the sacrifice has been worth it.

"The life and luxury that we had, it does not have value, if your country is burning," said Dr. Asseyr. "Now, we work for society, and this is our duty."

These doctors are not the only educated Somalis who feel that way.

Several kilometers away, at the office of Hormuud Telecom Company in Mogadishu's commercial district, Canadian-Somali Mohamed Ali speaks to an irate customer, who is complaining about a broken telephone line in her home.

Mr. Ali, who grew up in Toronto and is now working as a marketing manager for Hormuud, says the fact that there are any working telephone lines in Mogadishu is a testimony to the efforts of Somali professionals like himself, who have returned to set up private companies. He says many of the companies are not aiming to make a profit, but are only working to restore basic services.

"Because there is no government, obviously, there has to be something done," he explained. "So, that is the reason why these private companies came into the picture, to cover that area. We basically act like a government should. We regulate, we set rules, we take responsibilities for how much we need to put back into the people. And it is really worked."

It is estimated that since 2000, as many as 1,000 Somalis, mostly from North America and Europe, have returned to help fill Somalia's need for skilled professionals.

In addition to hospitals and telecommunication companies, returnees have set up radio stations and factories. In Mogadishu, a new Coca-Cola bottling plant has been built near the edge of town. Its owner, a Somali from Sweden, says he hopes to train and employ several hundred local people before the plant opens for production later this year.

But life for those who have returned is not easy in a lawless country awash in guns. Because they are relatively wealthy, the returnees are targets for kidnappings and robberies. In cities like Mogadishu, most returnees live in heavily-guarded compounds, and never travel without an armed security force.

Still, at Arafat Hospital, Dr. Mohamud Zaher Mohamud says he is always encouraging Somali colleagues and friends to come back and help rebuild the country.

"It is very important they come back, because the country is suffering," said Dr. Mohamud. "We are suffering from brain drain. People have gone outside the country and the country needs them."

That need is enormous. Experts say thousands more educated Somalis would have to return to make a significant difference in the lives of most people here. And with little progress toward improving the political or security situation, they say that will likely take a long time.