Pitching in for Somalia

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2011 - 11:59 PM

A food drive in a Minneapolis parking lot took one step against famine in Africa.

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Shoppers passing through the parking lot outside the bustling Karmel Mall in Minneapolis stopped and stared at the large truck trailer packed to the brim with cardboard boxes Friday afternoon.

It was exactly the kind of attention Abdiaziz Maahaay was hoping to attract with the truck, loaded with food and medical supplies for famine victims in his native Somalia.

Bound for the Horn of Africa, which is suffering its worst drought in 60 years, the trailer contains the equivalent of 250,000 meals.

The shipment was made possible through the work of a handful of Minnesota charities and donations from local Somali-Americans.

"I don't know how I'm to express my feelings," said Maahaay, who appeared grim when speaking to the crowd about the latest development -- an outbreak of cholera is now threatening lives in Somalia, on top of the famine. "We are working to do a food drive. Anyone who can help, please come."

Since United Nations officials first declared a famine in southern Somalia on July 20, there has been an outpouring of fundraising among Minnesota's large Somali community to aid relief efforts overseas.

Food drives, such as the one highlighted at Friday's event at the oldest Somali mall in the state, are the latest effort.

Maahaay is founder of SomCare, a Rochester-based nonprofit that takes medical supplies from Minnesota to Somalia and also helps severely disabled people in East Africa come to the Mayo Clinic for treatment.

Through a mutual friend at the Mayo Clinic, Maahaay met Mike Muelken, international program manager for Hope for the City.

The pair then joined forces with two other local charities -- Feed My Starving Children and Impact Lives -- to supply the meal kits.

It took about a week to fill the 40-foot-long container, and organizers hope to fill more.

Megan Doyle, founder of Hope for the City, said this is the first time her charity has worked with a Somali charity.

She said she hopes to do more to help famine victims and encourage others to get involved.

"If everybody reaches out to do something, you can start to make an impact," she said. "To address a big need, you have to start somewhere."

Maahaay and other speakers outside the mall on Friday urged people to start their own food drives for Africa, giving whatever they can spare, such as a bag of rice or a few dollars.

The container is expected to travel from Minnesota to Maryland and then follow a route along the southern and eastern coasts of Africa before eventually arriving in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

Meanwhile, groups of Somali-Americans in Kansas and Texas are also shipping containers full of food to East Africa as part of the coordinated multi-state aid effort.

As for Maahaay, he says he plans to fly to Somalia next week to meet the shipment that began in a Minnesota parking lot.

He says he will travel with a nurse and a doctor. Their mission: to volunteer in the hospitals in Mogadishu and see what conditions are like on the ground for famine victims who have fled to refugee camps in the capital.

Yusuf Ali, a Roseville man and leader of a Somali-American advisory group to the American Refugee Committee, has just returned from a month-long visit to Mogadishu.

His return to Somalia after more than 20 years away reflects the deep longing that many who have resettled in Minnesota have to help their former home.

"It's that guilty feeling Somalis have here in Minnesota," Ali said. "That feeling of, 'I'm comfortable here -- what can I do?'"

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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