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Somalian born, Hodan Ali stands outside the Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, where she works as a nurse, after a 12 hour shift on Aug 16, 2011. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail/Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)
Somalian born, Hodan Ali stands outside the Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, where she works as a nurse, after a 12 hour shift on Aug 16, 2011. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail/Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

Hamilton nurse returns to Somalia to help refugees Add to ...

Hodan Ali didn’t have time to give thought to her surroundings as hundreds of refugees waited in line for treatment last week at the clinic in the aging Mogadishu building where her small medical team had set up shop.

But there was something familiar about the place to the 34-year-old nurse from Hamilton, Ont. There was a picture on an inside wall that she had seen before.

And then, just as she and the two doctors from Canada whom she had accompanied on an aid mission were leaving, it dawned on her: This was her old primary school.

Ms. Ali and her family had come to Canada from Somalia as refugees when she was 12 years old.

“I didn’t recognize the whole area because it was just total destruction,” she said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “All of the major landmarks have been destroyed. It’s a war zone in every sense of the word.”

Ms. Ali’s three-person team was sent to Mogadishu by Islamic Relief Canada, part of the biggest Muslim charitable organization in the world and one of very few aid agencies working inside Somalia where millions have been displaced by drought and famine.

She was born in the Banaadir hospital where they helped some of the most critically ill patients in a country that is one of the most dangerous and desperate places on earth.

Ms. Ali is back home now, having been on the ground in Somalia for about a week. But she remains anxious about the precarious state of her homeland and the toll the drought is predicted to take as summer turns to fall.

“Inside Somalia you can’t even put it into words, how bad it is in terms of access to food and medical supplies and medical staff,” she said. “Because of the situation, international agencies are not willing to go. So you have a million people facing starvation and dying of basic illnesses.”

Ms. Ali’s return to the city of her childhood began when she and other Hamiltonians raised funds for drought victims and donated them to Islamic Relief. Through her contact with the agency, she learned that a medical team from Canada was being sent to assist Somalis displaced by the crisis.

“I said perfect, I speak the language, I’m from there, I know the culture, I have a medical background, so it was the perfect fit,” she said. She also had the support of her husband, who was left to look after their two children.

“I have family living there still so I know the situation, ” Ms. Ali said. “The safety was an issue but I put my trust in God and whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.”

The hospital in Mogadishu was a disaster zone of its own kind.

“It has been destroyed from the 22 years of war and has no real equipment or resources to deal with such a crisis,” she said. “Infection control is really something foreign because they are just trying to keep up with the influx of patients that they are getting on a day-to-day basis. And they are really sick people. It’s not your routine admissions. These are children on the verge of death and adults with diarrhea and all kinds of infections.”

The team spent the days putting infection protocols in place and training staff.

“You could hear the frustration in people’s voices but also a sense of hope,” Ms. Ali said. “They were saying we don’t want you just coming in and doing a little bit of whatever and then leaving us without any support.”

Fortunately, another team of doctors from Saudi Arabia arrived last Saturday with two planeloads of supplies and ready to take over management of the hospital.

“While we were there, a little one-and-a-half-year-old came in with complicated measles and ended up having blood disorders and was actually bleeding to death from inside. It’s heartbreaking and it’s basic blood transfusions that would have helped him,” Ms. Ali said. “When you lack the resources it just kills you.”

But despite the frustration and the danger, she said she is hopeful of going back, perhaps as soon as September.

“The job’s not done,” she said. “The job’s just beginning because the situation is getting worse. We haven’t seen the peak of this crisis.”

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