Boston Somalis Help Famine At Home, Hoping For More Support

By Phillip Martin

Aug. 10, 2011

Somali refugees wait for their flour ration at a UNHCR screening center on the outskirts of Ifo camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya near the Somali border on Monday. (AP)

BOSTON — According to aid agencies, 30,000 children under the age of five have died from a famine that is spreading across sections of East Africa. Although it has been in the news in recent weeks, this is not a new crisis. The famine affecting southern Somalia and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya has been building for three years. Some Somalis in Boston say they had been trying for a long time to turn public attention to this looming catastrophe but without success. Some have concluded that they'll simply have to go it alone.

At the Butterfly Café in Roxbury, Abdul Lahe Abdul Rahman, who came here from Somalia 30 years ago, is collecting money to send home. He says most of the funds come not from non-governmental organizations but from fellow Somalis, many of whom are underpaid teachers, parking-lot attendants, security guards or struggling students.

"People helping their people. Most of the families, they get help from the family members or relatives who is outside the country," Rahman said. "So they send money every month to live on that. My mom, I send her money every month. She went to Mogadishu just to help, to feed the people," Rahman said.

Somali communities from Boston to Lewiston, Maine to Minneapolis and Denver have mobilized to raise money for and public awareness of the famine. Extreme drought precipitated conditions for the famine, which were exacerbated by civil war between government and fundamentalist Islamic fighters, the al-Shabab.

One of the most visible efforts of Somalis helping Somalis is being led by the Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist, K’Naan , who joined recently with U2’s Bono on behalf of the Somali people.

After prayer at the Islamic Cultural Center in Roxbury, Hirsi Hassan and other young Somalis discuss the crisis in the Horn of Africa. Hassan, a student, is one of as many as 10,000 Somalis who live in Massachusetts. Although he's spent most of his 21 years in Boston, he feels a strong kinship to the people in Somalia and is dismayed that the public outpouring is not more widespread.

"The famine, it has affected all Somalians. I feel like they are my people, you know. That where I'm from," Hassan said. "I wish I could have done more but I just feel that the world has not reacted to what’s happening in Somalia. I feel like the world should be doing more."

Twenty-one year old Mohammed Mohammed agrees, but also says that he understands why the response has not been as enthusiastic as he would hope.

"Some people here are really struggling. So you can imagine somebody who's losing his mortgage or his car or whatever, his family's scattered around because of the recession they can't do anything for anybody else because at this moment they're stuck," Mohammed said.

Still, a quick survey of NGOs shows robust donations from the public for on-the-ground work in East Africa by groups that include Save The Children, World Vision and Oxfam America, based in Boston.

"Oxfam is trying to reach 3 million people and the overall number is 12 million," said Mike Delaney, Oxfam's humanitarian director. "In Kenya we're in the camps. The camps were receiving 1,500 people a day. A day!"

Development experts agree that the situation would be far worse if not for intervention by Africans themselves working with groups like Oxfam.

"The amount of people on the ground that are Ethiopian, Somalian, Keyan that are helping other Ethiopians, Somalians and Kenyans — there's a lot of local organizations doing huge amounts of work and we're trying to support them because that's the real sustainable solution," Delaney said.

And helping themselves is a major priority for Rahman. But he knows Somalis cannot do it alone.

Back at the Butterfly Café in Roxbury, he is preparing to send out a general mailing soliciting funds for famine victims. He says he knows that a lot of people are tired of hearing about starving children around the world, including those in Somalia, but he hopes that Americans will put the crisis in perspective.

"People are tired of giving but at the same time we are blessed. Look at us. We have a choice — I'll say I don't want an orange juice. I want an apple juice. You know––I want an ice coffee. I don't want a hot coffee. But there's people that don't have that choice, today."

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