Image: New Somali doctors
Mohamed Sheikh Nor  /  AP
Newly qualified Somali doctors hold their certificates during a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu on Thursday.
updated 12/4/2008 6:35:02 PM ET 2008-12-04T23:35:02

They dodged firefights on their way to school, maneuvering through one of the world's most violent cities. Yet on Thursday, 20 men and women accomplished something that nobody in Somalia has done in nearly two decades: They graduated from medical school.

The graduation ceremony for 12 men and eight women was held inside the barricaded walls of the Shamo Hotel in Mogadishu, the bullet-scarred capital of a country that has not had an effective central government since 1991.

"The graduation of these students shows something that nobody outside Somalia can believe — that students can still learn despite violence and anarchy," said Mohamed Malim Muse, president of Mogadishu's Benadir University.

The new doctors are graduating at a time when Somalis desperately need medical care. The current government was formed in 2004, but has failed to assert any control as an increasingly powerful Islamic insurgency has taken over much of the country.

Civilians have taken the brunt of the violence — thousands have been caught in the crossfire, killed or maimed by mortar shells, machine-gun fire and grenades. Two classmates of the new doctors were gunned down recently in the street.

Earlier this week, Mogadishu got its first public ambulance system in 18 years, raising hopes residents will no longer have to resort to wheelbarrows to transport their wounded.

Studying under fire
"Every morning I was risking my life to reach the university, and about seven times I was trapped under crossfire," said 19-year-old Hafsa Abdirahman Mohamed, whose mother lives in London and helped her pay the $1,500 annual tuition.

"But that did not stop me, and now my dream is real," said Mohamed, who like the other graduates will work at local hospitals, busy but poorly equipped institutions in a city that sees mortar attacks and gunfights nearly every day.

The United Nations says there are 300,000 acutely malnourished children in Somalia.

"The level of malnutrition in Somalia is higher than anywhere in the world, even higher than in Darfur," Christian Balslev-Olesen, the head of UNICEF for Somalia, said Thursday.

But attacks and kidnappings of aid workers have shut down many humanitarian projects.

"If we get a good and functioning government we can be a leader among African universities, regardless of security, because we know how to survive in anarchy," said Abdirizak Yusuf, 25, head of the medical students' association at Benadir.

With the men wearing suits and ties and the women in Muslim headscarves, the graduates smiled for a portrait and hoisted their diplomas in the air after a six-year program. Given Somalia's chaos, it is likely the medical degrees will be recognized only in Somalia, not overseas.

'Dedication and resilience'
Somalia is notorious for its violence and poverty. But through nearly two decades of violent anarchy, life has carried on in this gun-riddled country, where militiamen rule the streets and piracy flourishes off the lawless coast.

Despite the lack of a functioning government, there is electricity for those who can afford it, wireless Internet access — even a university education, some five years after the education ministry made a push to reopen some schools.

There are about 500 students at Benadir University, studying a variety of subjects, including medicine and teaching. The teachers at the school became doctors during the regime of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who was overthrown in 1991 by warlords who quickly turned on each other.

Since then, the country has plunged into chaos and public institutions have crumbled, transforming this once-beautiful seaside capital into a looted shantytown.

Somali's deputy foreign minister, Abdikarin Ahmed Ali, also saluted those who made Thursday's graduation possible.

"I am very grateful for the teachers and parents who have shown dedication and resilience to educate and produce qualified doctors and teachers, despite the insecurity and lack of funds," he said.

More on Somalia | medical school

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