Gleitsman Award Celebrates Somali Humanitarians Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman

By: Quinn Mulholland

When Fartuun Adan’s husband was killed by terrorists in Somalia, she knew she had to leave, so she fled with her family to Canada. But while she was safe in Canada, she felt an obligation to return to Somalia and help those who weren’t lucky enough to escape. “They always told me, ‘Mama, don’t go, you’ll be second. You’re going to get killed.’” Adan said. “I know I’m going to die when I’m supposed to die, but the work [my husband] was doing and I was doing in that time with him, it was lost when I was in Canada.”

On November 19, Adan and her daughter, Ilwad Elman, received the 2015 Gleitsman International Activist Award from the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) for their efforts to help women in Somalia. The mother-daughter duo lead the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center and Sister Somalia, organizations dedicated to ending gender-based violence and rehabilitating child soldiers in Somalia. The award and $125,000 prize were presented to them at a ceremony in the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

CPL Executive Director Patricia Bellinger spoke about the moment she told Elman that she and her mother had won the award. “We tried to get her to say that she would let us tell her mother ourselves but by the time we got to Fartuun it was clear that Ilwad had already been doing dances around and had already shared the wonderful news,” Bellinger said.

Playwright, V-Day founder, and women’s advocate Eve Ensler introduced Adan and Elman. She stressed the importance of welcoming refugees to the United States with open arms, using the example of Canada’s acceptance of Adan. “Had she not had that refuge, she would not have been able to restore and anchor herself and build another life and build another life force inside her,” Ensler said, “which enabled her, through her own generosity and bravery, to return to Somalia.”

Ensler also praised Adan and Elman for making the decision to return to Somalia. “They have chosen life and love over comfort, and by doing so, they have launched a movement that is inclusive, powerful, and unstoppable,” Ensler said. Elman said the decision was difficult at first, but she had to see why her mother decided to go back. “All we knew about Somalia is what we saw in the media. We hear about an explosion, we hear about an attack, and we would not have contact with her,” Elman said. “So when I first went back to Somalia it was to first understand the conditions which were compelling her to stay there.”

Elman also recognized the work fellow activist Lisa Shannon was doing in Somalia alongside her and her mother, telling her, “No one thought about the human suffering that is happening in Somalia, and you made a bold sacrifice to come, and to lobby and fundraise and throw house parties in your house, and look where we are today.”

Adan emphasized the role that everyone has to play in combating violence around the world. “So many people are getting killed everyday. But if we just sit somewhere and say, ‘I’m safe,’ I don’t think that’s right,” Adan said. “We all have a responsibility to contribute and to be part of it.” Elman echoed her mother’s sentiment: “Because she was with me in the most difficult of circumstances, I know that anything that comes our way we can handle it.”