Local Somalis help with famine relief in home country

Car wash
Volunteers for Neighbors for Nations, an organization that provides humanitarian relief for Somalia, washed cars at the oldest Somali Mall in Minneapolis, Minn. on Saturday, July 15, 2011 to raise money for victims of a severe drought in Somalia.
Courtesy Neighbors for Nations

The United Nations is expected today to declare a famine in parts of southern Somalia, where nearly 3 million Somalis are suffering from acute malnutrition.

Minnesota's Somali community and local organizations are responding to what they are calling a dire situation.

The American Refugee Committee, a humanitarian organization based in Minneapolis, sent its Somali team into Mogadishu last week. By Wednesday, the team expects to be distributing food aid inside two camps in government-controlled areas of the Somali capital.

ARC President Daniel Wordsworth said the daily reports from his team describe conditions that are "as dire as a thing can be."

"We have felt for a long time that Somalia really is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. And that was before the drought," he said.

Wordsworth describes Somalia as a slow-onset disaster, with a civil war so dangerous it's been largely inaccessible to aid groups and the media.

Two years ago, during an MPR News interview, Wordsworth was asked what country ARC should be working in, but wasn't. His answer: Somalia. After that interview, Said Sheik-Abdi, then a public housing worker and journalist, contacted Wordsworth. He wanted action in Somalia.

Somali famine
Women from southern Somalia holding babies stand in a line to receive aid at a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Saturday, July 16, 2011. Thousands of people have arrived in Mogadishu over the past two weeks seeking assistance due to lack of water and food. The worst drought in the Horn of Africa has sparked a severe food crisis and high malnutrition rates.
Farah Abdi Warsameh/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wordsworth said ARC would only go in to the country with help from the local Somali community. So for two years, 11 Somali community members advised ARC. The organization hired Somali staff and launched a "Neighbors for Nations" program.

Wordsworth said working with local Somalis and a partner organization, the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa, has made it possible to be one of the very few international aid groups now operating inside Somalia.

"They know the country better. They know the key actors better," Wordsworth said. "They have family members on the ground that they're talking to every single day. Many of these people have been here more than 10 years, so they're trained doctors, they're trained engineers, they're trained nurses, they're trained carpenters. They have skills that can be taken back to their country to make a difference."

Wordsworth said the Somali field team's priorities will be providing emergency food, therapeutic feeding for malnourished children, vaccines, water, sanitary systems, shelter and supplies.

The Somali community is providing not only staff and expertise, but also cash.

Daniel Wordsworth
Daniel Wordsworth, president of the American Refugee Committee, says the daily reports he's hearing from Somalia describe famine conditions that are "as dire as a thing can be."
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Said Sheik-Abdi, who once prodded Wordsworth to make good on his desire to work in Somalia, now runs ARC's Neighbors for Nations program.

Sheik-Abdi said Somali immigrants are used to wiring money to relatives back home, but this is a broader effort to reach more people.

"The Somali community have been generous in sending and supporting their family members — immediate family members — but now trying to reach out beyond that to people who don't have relatives outside Somalia," he said. "This is legitimate organizations. This is how we want to see it happen."

Fundraising efforts are springing up. Somali youth held a car wash at a Somali mall in Minneapolis on Saturday. The airport cab drivers have formed a "drought committee" and are planning their own car wash.

Another Minnesota aid group, Feed My Starving Children, has delivered 270,000 meals to southern Somalia, according to spokesman Mark Crea. He said the agency is working on logistics for a second shipment containing thousands of more instant meals for its local partners in Somalia to distribute.

Said Sheik-Abdi
Said Sheik-Abdi runs the American Refugee Committee's Neighbors for Nations program, which is raising money to assist people in Somalia who are affected by drought and famine in that country.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

The humanitarian crisis unfolding in the horn of Africa feels very near to many in the Somali community. Imam Hassan Mohamud from the Minnesota Dawah Institute, a St. Paul mosque, has a younger brother in his early 20s moving through Mogadishu with his wife, in search of food and shelter.

"My younger brother just talked to me yesterday. He had a baby. The baby just died," he said.

Mohamud says the infant boy was the couple's second child to die in the famine.

Mohamud is putting all of his energy into planning a fundraiser at 6 p.m. Friday at the Safari restaurant at 3010 4th Ave. S. in Minneapolis. Proceeds will go to the famine relief effort.