Somalia is an unlikely place to go looking for inspiration. It is the dictionary definition of a “fragile state,” where an estimated 500,000 people have died in a civil war that’s been underway for 30 years, and where famine and poverty often claim even more lives than armed combat.
The country is also home to a vicious jihadist terrorist movement called Al-Shabaab, whose barbarism made Somalia the second most dangerous nation in the world for Christians in 2014, behind only North Korea, according to the Protestant watchdog group Open Doors.
Yet Somalia is also the setting for the dramatic story of a Catholic nun named Sister Leonella Sgorbati and her Muslim driver and close friend, Mahamud Mohammed Osman, who died together in September 2006.
Born Rosa Maria Sgorbati in the Italian town of Gazzola on Dec. 9, 1940, Sgorbati changed her name to Leonella upon entering the Consolata Sisters at the age of 20. She studied nursing and then served in a series of hospitals in Kenya, before heading to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in 2001 to open a training center for nurses. She would shuttle back and forth between Kenya and Somalia for the next few years.
Just before her death, she had gone to Kenya with three of her nurse candidates to register them for further training, and had returned to Mogadishu on Sept. 13. At the time, she was believed to be one of only two Westerners remaining in the entire city.
Sgorbati’s plan was to deploy her nurse-trainees to deliver medical care to the victims of the country’s violence, Muslim and Christian alike.
She was gunned down at the age of 65 on Sept. 17, 2006. Many observers believe the attack came in retribution for a controversial speech by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg, Germany, six days before, which incited Muslim outrage by appearing to link Mohammed with a legacy of violence.
Osman, a father of four and a devout Muslim, was standing next to Sgorbati when militants believed to be linked to Al-Shabaab staged their ambush. The two were both shot as they walked 30 feet from the Mogadishu hospital to the sister’s home, where three other nuns were waiting to have lunch with them.
Osman tried to shield Sgorbati’s body with his own, and took the first bullet himself.
They died together, with other Consolata sisters later reporting that their blood had mingled on the hospital floor. Sgorbati’s dying words reportedly were “perdono, perdono, perdono,” meaning “I forgive.”
Today, the small cross that Sgorbati wore as part of her religious habit is preserved in Rome’s Basilica of St. Bartholomew, which houses several chapels dedicated to the memory of new Christian martyrs.
In a 2008 ceremony at the basilica, Sister Gabriella Bono, superior of the Consolata order, said the bond between Sgorbarti and Osman offers a compelling example of the way things could be.
“Sister Leonella and Mohamed gave their lives together,” Bono said. “She offered hers for her Somalian children, he in an extreme effort to save her life.”