In Minnesota, Somalis are remembering the famine that drove them away 20 years ago.
Images of starving children, pleas for help from desperate relatives and flashbacks of the horrors that sent them to the United States two decades ago have transcended regional and political divisions to unite Somali Minnesotans as never before, community leaders said Thursday.
As famine hits their east African homeland, "there's a true outpouring of support and a feeling of solidarity that people feel," said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. "It's like what happened to them 20 years ago. They are here and they are living well and their children are going to school and playing on the playground, and back in Somalia people are dying like flies."
For the United Nations to declare famine, as it did Wednesday, more than two people per 10,000 must be dying a day.
According to UNICEF, the U.N. agency focusing on children, about 3.7 million Somali children face starvation.
It's the worst African hunger crisis in 20 years, according to Rozanne Chorlton, UNICEF's representative for Somalia. The last time things were this bad in Africa was 1991. Then, as now, it was in Somalia.
Two organizations, the Amoud Foundation and American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), are sending donations through the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC), which has the contacts, experience and credibility to leverage donations and get them where they are needed, said Fahia and others.
Organizers know that in this economy, people have little money to send afar, so accountability is more important than ever, said Mahamed Cali, executive director of Somali American Community.
"A lot of people used to help Somalia, but now they don't have money to pay their bills here," he said. "We want to make sure that the money goes for people's suffering, not for somebody to get a gun."
The response already has been huge from the Somali community in the Twin Cities, said Cali, pointing to the $40,000 already raised by the mosque at the Karmel Mall in Minneapolis alone.
Over the past week, fund-raising efforts have run the gamut from youth-led car washes at the Brian Coyle Center and Karmel Mall to a benefit Friday night, at Safari Restaurant and Banquet Center in Minneapolis. There won't be live music or dancing or dinner specials. There seems to be little point in spending money on entertainment, said co-owner Sade Hashi.
"We want every dollar get to the people that need it," he said.
There will be a smaller event there on Saturday, and a dinner on Sunday; proceeds from $20 tickets will go to the ARC.
Other events have been posted on the Neighbors for Nations Facebook page.
Something has changed recently, notes Said Sheik-Abdi, ARC program director, who heads the Neighbors for Nations initiative.
"They've been sending money for 20 years, and now they're helping beyond their family members," Cali said.
He said Somali Minnesotans have watched for years as Americans responded to humanitarian crises in Japan, Haiti, Indonesia and elsewhere.
"We hope the American people will stand similarly with Somalia," he said.
But the fundraising mobilization is only a start, said Dahir Jibril, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. He wants people to demand air drops and military-protected nutrition centers for people attempting to flee the worst areas. He wants the kind of U.S. response the region got in 1992, during the worst of the civil war there.
"People are dying and they cannot reach food," he said. "They cannot reach Kenya or Ethiopia. We need safe areas where people can come and be fed, and only the U.S. can create the safe areas."
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report. Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409