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A Local Perspective On Famine In Somalia

Aired 7/27/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Drought and famine has left children in Somali dying and displaced millions. San Diego is home to the second largest population of Somali refugees in the U.S., we'll hear about how they're working to get aid to the county.

Fatuma, 25, arrived in Dadaab, Kenya by car with her mother and her five children.  The young widow gave birth to her baby girl, Shire, on her way to the refugee camp.  Fatuma told aid workers from the International Rescue Committee that their luggage was stolen from the car in the middle of the night while they were sleeping.
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Above: Fatuma, 25, arrived in Dadaab, Kenya by car with her mother and her five children. The young widow gave birth to her baby girl, Shire, on her way to the refugee camp. Fatuma told aid workers from the International Rescue Committee that their luggage was stolen from the car in the middle of the night while they were sleeping.

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Local Fundraiser For Somali Famine

Local Fundraiser For Somali Famine

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A 10-ton shipment of peanut-butter based nutritional paste landed today in Mogadishu for famine-victims in Somalia. Thousands of starving Somalis escape from their lawless country every day in an effort to get help at refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. It's estimated at at least 18-thousand children inside Somalia are suffering from malnutrition as a result of the famine and civil war. All this is heartbreaking news for anyone, but for members of San Diego's large Somali community, it is particularly devastating. Many have come to San Diego to escape years of political upheaval and desperate poverty.

Guests

Robert Montgomery, regional resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.

Hussein Nuur, is a Somali refugee who has been living in San Diego since 1992, he is also the director of economic development for the nonprofit agency Horn of Africa.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, July†27th. Computer skills are in demand for USA.gov hack day, coming up this Friday. The website will be open for suggestions on flew ways to use it. And our annual summer of session with sharks gets an intellectual spin at the Birch aquarium at Scripps. First, in today's news, we learn that the first 10 ton shipment of nutritional paste landed today for famine victims in Somalia. Thousands of scarfing Somalis escape from their starving country every day to get help at refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. It's estimated that nearly half of Somalia's population is in need of life saving food assistance. For members of San Diego's large Somali community, it is particularly devastating. Many Somalis have come to San Diego to escape years of political upheaval and poverty. Joining me to talk about the reaction here in San Diego are my guests, Robert Montgomery is regional resettlement director for the international rescue committee, the IRC. And Bob, thanks for going in.

MONTGOMERY: It's my pleasure, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Hussein Nuur is a Somali refugee who's been living here 1992, also the director of economic development for the nonprofit agency Horn of Africa, Hussein, hello.

NUUR: Hello.

CAVANAUGH: Let me and you first, Hussein, have you been in communication with the family in Somalia?

NUUR: I am, yes. We talked to families back home, and they describe the situation in Somalia, how devastating it is, and it is completely very difficult.

CAVANAUGH: What have they'll been telling you?

NUUR: They tell me that the situation is much worse than we see on the TV, and people are dying every day. And a lot of areas still they did not reach.

CAVANAUGH: Aid hasn't reached a lot of the area?

NUUR: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Are they talking to you about perhaps leaving and trying to get to camps in other countries or staying and trying to wait for aid? What are they doing?

NUUR: They're divided. Most of them, if they could, they leave. And some of them, they cannot live because they can't travel because some of them are too weak to leave their area. And they decided if they die, not to die on the road, but to die in their own homes.

CAVANAUGH: What is the Somali community in San Diego doing to help the victims of the famine, Hussein?

NUUR: I wish we could help a lot. But we are doing what we can, at the best. We did fundraising last night for the whole Somali community in San Diego.

Q. We did what we could raise, and we are holding another event to hold the people in San Diego on August†12th.

CAVANAUGH: We just heard on NPR News there are hearings under way in Washington about what kind of threat the terrorist group in Somalia, al-Shabab, actually poses. And I know that relief efforts are more complicated because of the prohibition on sending money to Somalia because of terror groups. How do you deal with that, Hussein?

NUUR: It's very difficult. A lot of places aid cannot reach in Somalia. But we tried to contact some organizations who are working in those areas, and we see if they could drive the aid in that area.

CAVANAUGH: Bob, how does the IRC make sure money doesn't end up in the hands of the terrorist group, al-Shabab?

MONTGOMERY: Well, Maureen, IRC is not really passing money over there as much as we are providing critical relief services, including the delivery of needed food, healthcare, potable water, those types of things. However in one area of Somalia, the central area, IRC is buying live stock from certain herdsmen because they don't have enough water and resources to feed them. And we also are providing some financial assistance to some communities there, about 20, which includes about 1800 households to help them to rebuild the infrastructures of those communities that have been devastated by the drought and famine.

CAVANAUGH: I've also read that the group, al-Shabab, which actually controls areas of the country, won't allow -- won't accept relief from western countries. How does that complicate things, Bob?

MONTGOMERY: Certainly we've heard that. But IRC is not -- we're working through the world food program and the Kenyan government to try and get the necessary food, water, and other medical supplies to the areas of need. So it hasn't been a direct impact on the IRC at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Bob Montgomery, does anybody have a clear handle on how bad this situation is in Somalia and in east Africa because of the famine?

MONTGOMERY: Well, as Hussein said, more and more every day we're seeing the tremendous scope that this famine and drought has on the area. IRC has teams working in neighboring Ethiopia as well as Kenya, and as I mentioned earlier, in Somalia itself to try and do what we can to provide immediate aid to those who are suffering. Of course, there's many other nongovernmental organizations like Save the Children, Care, Oxfan, that are also taking part in this effort. But to date, the effort has not within sufficient to meet the need. And as we're learning each and every day, the need and growing. And if something is not done soon, many innocent Somali people will be perishing.

CAVANAUGH: Hussein, there must be a great deal of distress over this situation within the Somali community here in San Diego. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

NUUR: We have a lot of challenges that we have to over come as Bob mentioned. One of the difficulties is how this aid could reach some of the area in Somalia, which is much needed. And a lot of people are focusing only on the refugee camp. But the problem is much worse than that because people are traveling and dying on the road. And we should try to find out if we can create some feeding centers on the road before the people reach the refugee camp so they could get help. Because some of them are dying before they reach the refugee camp.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego, as I said earlier, Bob, is home to a very large Somali population. It's the second largest Somali refugee population in the United States. Is this a possibility because of this famine, that more Somalis will come here?

MONTGOMERY: Not as a direct result of the famine. To be a refugee, you have to be fleeing persecution. And that could be religious, political, ethnic. But in this case, people are fleeing a natural disaster. So that in and of itself is not reason to be admitted to the United States as a refugee. However, it's a complicated situation because the camp complex in northeastern Kenya near the Somali border that most people are fleeing to, called the Dob refugee camp -- there's actually three camps there, and it's been in place for over 20-year, and currently there's about 400,000 refugees living in that area. Many of those refugees who have been there for years were seeking settlement in the United States , and were fleeing conflict in their native country. Now they're mixed in with the people who are fleeing because of the drought. And some of those people that are fleeing because of the drought are fleeing because of the conflict that's there. We mentioned al-Shabab. So it's an untenable situation for them this. Specifically with the drought itself, it will not produce in the short term a lot of refugees coming to San Diego from Somalia.

CAVANAUGH: Hussein, I did mention that you came here back in 1992 as a refugee. Can you tell us why you had to leave Somalia?

NUUR: Because at that time we had a civil war in Somalia, and we just had the government collapse, and civil unrest. And that's when the situation of Somalia started deteriorating. And that's why I left Somalia.

CAVANAUGH: Was it also because of violence and the fact that perhaps you couldn't get any services? You did actually end up in a refugee camp for a brief period of time right?

NUUR: Yes, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what kind of lasting impact does is it have on people who have been in refugee camps as Bob was saying sometimes for years, waiting to come to another country perhaps here to San Diego? You've worked with people like that, right?

NUUR: I do work with people like that. And some people -- the first time when I was coming, you usually have somebody who can be your sponsor, they say you should have a family member here. But some people they don't have it. And they stay in the refugee camp for years.

CAVANAUGH: When a Somali refugee family who have been here for a number of years perhaps has done well in the United States , hears about family members perhaps in peril now in Somalia, is it -- how difficult is it to get family members from Somalia to here if indeed they can sponsor them?

NUUR: It takes a longer process, as Bob notice knows a lot. People have to wait until their turn comes, and then they have the process done, and then they might come.

CAVANAUGH: So Bob, there's no such thing as getting a phone call from someone in Somalia and saying can I come to the United States? It's not going to really happen.

MONTGOMERY: No. As Hussein mentioned, the process is long and rigorous with many refugees waiting 10, 15†years before they get an opportunity for resettlement. There's security checks, medical checks, the processing itself takes a long period of time. So because of the complications of the drought, people might come away with the impression that people could come more quickly, but unfortunately that's not going to be the case.

CAVANAUGH: If our listeners, I want to and you both, hearing this story and want to help, what would you, Bob, to start out with, recommend they do?

MONTGOMERY: Well, certainly they can go to the IRC website, rescue.org/drought, and they can get information of how they can provide financial assistance to the IRC to do work and our efforts with the famine and the drought. But there's many NGOs out there working. And I want to applaud the effort of the local Somali community and their efforts to raise money. But I want to remind the listeners that the best thing to do is to give financial support to whatever agency you choose because giving food stuffs, medicine, or clothing presents a logistic challenge and it's not always cost effective in trying to transport those things to the needed areas.

CAVANAUGH: So you would recommend let an established agency make those purchases rather than try to send anything like that yourself?

MONTGOMERY: Absolutely. Of I think that they have the logistical ability, the experience, the staff on the ground there, and it's just I more efficient and cost effective way to assist these people in need.

CAVANAUGH: And Hussein, there is another fund raiser coming up here in San Diego I believe; is that right?

NUUR: That's correct. It's going to be August†12th on Fremont avenue.

CAVANAUGH: And people again, would you agree with Bob in the sense that people perhaps should not bring blankets and clothes but should give money?

NUUR: Definitely you should bring money. And it's gonna be an bank on that night, and it's invited for everybody in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Despite what you're talking about in our local Somali community rallying, Bob does this look like another situation unfolding where the world stands by and watches in horror as these events unfold?

MONTGOMERY: I certainly hope not. I hope that as the news gets out of the scope of this disaster, that more and more people get involved. Currently about 1200 people are arriving each day to the camp complex in Kenya, about 80% of them are women and children. 50% of those people that are arriving are malnourished, and many severely malnourished. I think it's a tragedy in the making. We have the ability worldwide to intervene now and to change this and save many lives. And I would hope that people would begin to respond generously if they can.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everyone know that we're going to have the information on the up coming fundraising events for Somalia on our website at KPBS.org. I've been speaking with Robert Montgomery with the IRC, and Hussein Nuur with the nonprofit agency Horn of Africa, and I want to thank you both.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you.

NUUR: Thank you.

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