The Mother Teresa of Baghdad

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

Madhiha Hassan al-Mosuwi, an aid worker with the Iraqi government, distributes supplies at a refugee settlement in southern Baghdad

Correction Appended: April 2, 2008

The tens of thousands of homeless in Baghdad find shelter wherever they can in the most dangerous city in the world. Just outside the Karada district, there is an abandoned Iraqi military base from the Saddam Hussein era that looters had reduced to little more than piles of rubble strewn around the cement slabs in the ground. Displaced from other parts of Iraq, these people have taken up shelter in makeshift houses on the otherwise deserted grounds. Among them is Hadi Shaker Hamadi and his clan, cobbling together a shelter of cinderblocks, scrap wood and cardboard. They and the 70 or so other families here take charity whenever it comes. And only one person seems to deliver it regularly. Says Hamadi, "It's just Madeeha who comes and visits us."

Madeeha Hasan Odhaib is a diminutive, 37-year-old seamstress whom some people have begun calling the Mother Teresa of Baghdad. She's devoted her energies to helping Iraq's internally displaced people, particularly in the Karada district where she lives. She organizes periodic supply convoys to various camps for the displaced. The Iraqi army in the area helps her distribute basics such as rice, tea, sugar, cooking oil and blankets. The supplies come from different nongovernmental organizations, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent and an Iraqi aid group called Hands of Mercy. But aside from logistical support from security forces, Hassan gets no help from the Iraqi government.

Nevertheless, she overflows with energy when speaking about her cause or talking with the families she visits. "I got threat letters twice because I'm involved in this," says Odhaib, who wore a small golden medallion in the shape of Iraq around her neck on a recent day of handing out aid in makeshifts camps for the displaced. "But I will never stop helping whoever is in need, even if it is going to cost my life, because I know I'm doing the right thing." While she is Shi'ite, as is most of Karada, she describes herself as secular, not sectarian, and as an Iraqi first and foremost.

She got started on the job because of her willingness to put her life on the line — with 12 stitches in her heard as proof of it. In late 2003, as lawlessness gripped the city in the wake of the U.S. invasion, five burglars broker into her home late one night and demanded to know where the money was. Odhaib fought. Amid the initial struggle she managed to edge her husband and two children out of the room and alone faced the intruders. Odhaib clawed the masks off three before they managed to get her by the hair and bludgeon her with the butt of a pistol. She remembers how the blood splattered with each blow. But in the end, the attackers walked away with nothing, even though a large amount of cash was stashed in the house. That story made her a local legend. Soon after, Odhaib was asked to run for a seat on the Karada District Council. She won and has since focused on helping the destitute and the homeless.

An estimated 2.4 million people are still adrift throughout Iraq after being uprooted by violence; roughly another 2 million live as refugees in Jordan, Syria and other neighboring countries. Odhaib's neighborhood is home to about 30,000 internally displaced people. Though violence is down in Iraq, few refugees or internally displaced have been able to piece together their lives again. Some Iraqis have ventured home from havens found in other countries or elsewhere in Iraq. But those returning to Baghdad, where more than half of the displaced once lived, account for just 3% of those who fled. Meanwhile, ongoing violence in places like Diyala Province and Mosul continues to leave thousands of Iraqis on the move every month. Few of Iraq's internally displaced can hold out hope for aid of any kind. Only a handful of international nongovernmental organizations operate in Iraq because of the dangers. And the Iraqi government's efforts to help the displaced fall woefully short. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 80% of the internally displaced do not have regular access to government food rations.

That means tens of thousands of people like Hadi Shaker Hamadi are left to fend for themselves in what remains one of the world biggest humanitarian crises. A Shi'ite, Hamadi was working as a farmhand in Samarra four years ago when he began getting threats from Sunni militants in the area. Several of his friends had already been murdered in sectarian violence, he said. So he decided to move his wife and seven children out. They headed to Baghdad, where they had no family who might help them. Arriving in the city, they looked around for areas where they might settle as squatters. "The best thing for them is to [get] back to their homes as soon as possible," Odhaib says of the displaced. But at present there are no plans to resettle any of the displaced people Odhaib aids, and many of the sites where they live have begun to look more like emerging slums than temporary tent cities.

Odhaib recently decided to help them help themselves. She has taken her aid for the displaced one step further with an employment initiative. She managed to get 60 sewing machines through donations and set up a small workshop, which employs 100 women from displaced families. Odhaib sees the program as a way to help the families earn a lilttle income and find some dignity until a better solution emerges. She knows firsthand it can work. When Odhaib's husband wound up jobless in the early 1990s, she supported the family by opening a small tailoring shop in Baghdad. At first she made clothes to order by herself using three machines she bought with savings. As the business grew she was able to bring on two female employees.

Odhaib opened her new workshop Feb. 23, and it's been busy. She managed to procure a contract with the Ministry of Health to make hospital gowns and bed sheets. And Odhaib says she is close to getting another sewing project from the government, this one for 1,000 new Iraqi flags.

The original version of this story referred to its main subject as Madhiha Hassan. Her married and legal name is Madeeha Hasan Odhaib.