Minneapolis Organization Overcoming Odds to Get Aid Where It's Needed

April 04, 2017 11:38 AM

The suffering under the sun ended in a small, makeshift camp in Kismayo, Somalia for a mother and her paralyzed son.

For the first time in a long time, she fed him. The famine and the drought had forced her and the dozens of other families in the makeshift camp from their rural farms and lands.


They walked 70, 80, even 100 miles to find food and water. I met them and other parents in another makeshift camp in a parking lot not far away.

A pregnant mother and her husband walked 80 miles with their three young children to escape famine and drought in Al Shabaab-controlled territories.

They told us the terrorists took what little of their land they had after their goats died from the drought. The mother delivered her baby a few hours before we saw her. The families in this camp had no clean water. They were starving.  

"We saw them, they didn't have anything," said Said Sheikh-Abdi, who traveled with me on my reporting trip to the Horn of Africa.

Said works for the American Refugee Committee (ARC) in Africa.

He said that within 24 hours of seeing the need in the camps,  he called back to ARC headquarters in Minneapolis to get immediate approval to get water, buy food from the local markets and build toilets.  

Sheikh-Abdi was able to buy the water from neighbors who had access to a well. He said this is what separates ARC from other humanitarian agencies. It's the only agency in the world with a country office in Somalia. And its 400 employees in Somalia live next to the people they serve. 

"Do the doable," said John Griffith, head of global operations for ARC.

"And what we can do is take every penny and stretch it far as we can. We are good at that."

Griffith said ARC is the David in a Goliath of bigger nonprofits.

"(ARC is) connecting everyday people in Minnesota with everyday people on the other side of the planet," he said.

The agency's work is even more important now. People in Africa have been through famine and drought before. But they've never seen anything as severe as the famine and drought ravaging Africa now.

"If we don't act, we're looking at 6.2 million people on the verge of famine, and 950,000 are children under the age of 5," Griffith said.

Delivering the aid is a logistical challenge. The Kenyan government is sending 2,000 people a week to Kismayo, a city already overpacked with suffering people.

The Kenyans said they want to shut down the world's largest refugee camp in Dadaab. The majority of the refugees in the camp are Somali. There are also security challenges for aid workers in Somalia.

The Somali government said insecurity over random terrorist attacks is one of its toughest challenges. But Sheikh-Abdi and his bosses at ARC believe the sacrifice is worth saving the lives under the African sun.

ARC's donations come from donors, the U.S. government and the United Nations. The agency operates on a shoestring to try to fund the programs it operates.

ARC said 90 percent of its donations go directly to the people they are helping. It is also the only agency accredited to deliver the food collected in an internet campaign that went viral.

Actor Ben Stiller, his friends and a Somali fashion designer decided to raise a million dollars to help famine survivors. They recruited Turkish Airlines to take the food to Somalia.

ARC will deliver that food next week to children in northern and southern Somalia. ARC is also buying food from local markets to feed people who are starving.

You can find out more about ARC's efforts online.


Farrah Fazal

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