“The future is not something to look forward to out there.”
-Mohamed Elmi, local Somali refugee
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It is impossible to escape the reports: headlines, tickers and network news bring a steady stream of stories of unfathomable numbers of suffering people and images of emaciated bodies.
Recent figures show that some 10 million people or more have been affected by the drought now scorching the Horn of Africa. Somalia has been the most severely impacted, with thousands of Somalis fleeing from starvation into the bordering countries of Ethiopia and Kenya. Dadaab, in Kenya, is the largest refugee camp in the world, intended for 90,000 people. Already, nearly 400,000 refugees have made their way to the camp and resources are being depleted with 1,300 new arrivals each day.
Despite its magnitude on the African continent, this crisis can seem too distant to matter to those who are not affected, especially here in the United States. Thousands of miles separate us from that part of the world. Add in Africa’s long history of armed conflicts and food crises, and this tragedy may seem to be another typical day in Africa. This conception is not only markedly false; it is deadly. Dr. Unni Krishnan, disaster coordinator for UK-based Plan International, said in a CNN interview, “There is a feeling that, ‘those things happen in that part of the world, so what is new about it?’ But this is an unprecedented situation that has been slowly building up and has reached a flash point now.”
An MSNBC article quoted Antonio Guterres, the current UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who said, “The mortality rates we are witnessing are three times the level of emergency ceilings.” This drought is the latest in a long list of problems plaguing Somalia. Combined with continuing unrest and rising food prices, it has led to a “perfect storm” that is claiming more and more lives, most of them children’s.
Mohamed Elmi, 21, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has experienced this storm firsthand. Born in Somalia, Elmi and his family fled to Kenya when he was seven years old for “obvious” reasons.
“Living conditions, just everything,” he said. “The future is not something to look forward to out there.” Elmi and his family stayed in Kenya until they finally obtained refugee status and were resettled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2004.
“There was not a single Somali family there,” Elmi explained. “It was just us. The language was difficult, everything from transportation to just getting adjusted to the lifestyle here.” Elmi’s mother knew a Somali family in Grand Rapids that they had known in Kenya. “They told her this is a great place, there’s a good Somali community that lives here, so we decided to come here.”
When asked about his reaction to the drought hitting Somalia, Elmi said it hurts him. “It’s depressing seeing all these casualties happening,” he said. “People are starving and dying of malnutrition, no food, no healthcare. Any human being with compassion would find a place in their heart for that.”
Elmi is incredibly busy as a full time student at Grand Rapids Community College, working towards transferring to Grand Valley State University to pursue pre-law, while navigating the process of applying for citizenship. In the midst of this, he is also setting aside time to volunteer with refugee families through Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, and to raise local awareness of the problems in Somalia.
“People I know aren’t doing enough as the Somali Diaspora to help their people back home,” Elmi said. “People probably send some money out there… but they don’t really get involved as much. …It’s been at least a few decades of war, and there has been no central government, so it’s just that whole process of bringing awareness to the situation that’s happening. It’s big.”
In 2009, foreign aid groups were forced out of Somalia by Al-Shabab, a militant group that has ties to the terrorist group Al Qaeda and controls much of the country. On July 5, 2011, in light of the overwhelming need for aid, Al-Shabab lifted this ban, giving further evidence of the severity of the situation. Nearly three million Somalis from the country’s south are being hit the hardest by this drought. Predictions by some say the death toll could very well surpass that of Ethiopia’s terrible drought in the 1980s, which left 1 million dead. As the United States grapples with red tape preventing it from providing direct aid to Somalia, the problem lies in how best to get aid to those who are most in need. (Blocking the way is a federal law prohibiting any type of U.S. state support to terrorist organizations, a classification under which Somalia’s Al-Shabab falls.)
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan spoke with Mohamed Bana, president of the Somali Community of Greater Grand Rapids and a former citizen of Somalia. He said that any aid given to the Somali government, or to the unstable institution going by that name, would mostly likely not find its way to the people who need it most. Somalia has long struggled with corruption, making underhanded or shady dealings by the Somali government with aid funds and materials a very real risk. Bana instead recommends going through established charitable organizations such as UNICEF to make donations or contributions. This will ensure that those most at risk get the aid they so desperately need.
Bana also pointed out that clan loyalties and clan conflict, an inescapable reality in Somalia, could also exacerbate the problem of channeling aid to where it is most needed. When a country has been in a state of perpetual civil war as long as Somalia has, it is unlikely that even a crisis as massive and severe as this drought could unify the broken state and people of Somalia. However, hope is not lost. Although the crisis is very real and the situation on the ground dire, there is still time to prevent the worst of the predicted outcomes. Plan International’s Dr. Krishnan, along with many working with international aid agencies, are urging countries and individuals to donate or send aid immediately. Only outside help can avert what Krishnan told CNN is “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the region.”
If you would like to help, please consider donating to a charitable organization of your choice that is helping to combat this crisis. A gift of any amount will help to provide life-saving food, water, and supplies to those suffering under an unforgiving sun in the Horn of Africa.
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan thanks Mohamed Elmi and Mohamed Bana for their time and contribution to this article.