Minnesota residents, businesses and nonprofits are frantically working to raise money to help cover the estimated $4.4 billion in international aid needed to stave off a catastrophic famine in Somalia and two other African nations.
More than 20 million people are at risk in what the United Nations is calling the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. The stakes are high: During the 2011 drought, help came too late, and 260,000 Somalis died — half of them children under the age of 5.
More than 60 local restaurant owners, acknowledging the somber paradox of being able to eat out as millions face starvation, will donate part of their earnings on April 7 to the Dine Out for Somalia campaign.
“We are deeply touched by people dying for lack of food and water,” said Afro Deli owner Abdirahman Kahin, who lobbied business owners. “As restaurant and coffee shop owners, it’s a way for us to give back to the community. We’re socially responsible for what’s happening in the world.”
Time is short. Minnesotans, many of whom have family in the affected regions, and other benefactors may have less than two months to help save millions of lives, with the crisis affecting Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, as well as Yemen across the Red Sea.
Feed My Starving Children, an international charity in Coon Rapids, so far has committed to provide 10 million meals to Somalia this year, up from 1.6 million last year.
The nonprofit now is trying to raise $2.2 million to cover the costs and recruit the thousands of volunteers needed to help package the meals, said spokeswoman Allison Schwartz.
Each dried meal, formulated for individuals suffering from malnutrition, costs 22 cents. The nonprofit has packaging warehouses in Minnesota, Illinois and Arizona.
Feed My Starving Children delivered a million meals to South Sudan in 2015, but the safety and logistics of shipping to South Sudan have grown increasingly difficult, and many feeding programs have been suspended. Schwartz said the charity now is working to re-establish safe distribution network there.
In the meantime, it’s providing meals to some of the estimated 750,000 South Sudanese in refugee camps in Uganda.
The American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), based in Columbia Heights, is aiming to raise $500,000 to help dig new wells and distribute food baskets filled with rice, maize, cooking oil and sugar for families suffering from the drought. Last year, ARAHA dug 93 new wells and fed 130,000 people.
“The children are the most vulnerable during these famines. Always children become the victims,” said Mohamed Idris, ARAHA executive director.
A crisis close to home
ARAHA, which has a $1.5 million annual budget, was formed by African immigrants living in Minnesota during the 2000 famine. They helped send aid during the 2011 famine as well.
“We are blessed to be in the U.S.,” Idris said. “Our kids are in school. We are not worried about our next meal but we know where we came from. There is a moral obligation to help.”
Idris said that horror stories from the two previous famines, which many believe were fueled by global climate change, are seared into the community’s collective memory.
He recounted the story of a mother walking with her three starving children to a refugee camp. She carried two and one walked beside her. When the latter collapsed, she made the agonizing decision to leave the child propped against a tree and continue with the other two.
“Everybody is scared that will happen again,” Idris said. “Our system that helps us predict famine is very good. The problem is always the response — the lack of early intervention. People wait until the last minute. People want to see images on CNN and BBC. By that time, it’s too late.”
The goal is to take action before people, weakened by hunger and desperate for help, start to leave their homes and move to refugee camps. Early intervention not only saves lives, he said, “it’s three times less expensive.”
It also allows farmers to return to their livelihood. In refugee camps, people go “from being productive to being idle recipients of aid,” Idris said.
Philanthropic advisor Hamse Warfa is pushing mainstream organizations, such as the Minneapolis Foundation, to help spread the word. The foundation is promoting Dine Out for Somalia on its Facebook page, and is looking for other ways to engage the broader community.
“The Somali community has done a lot to respond to the famine crisis,” Warfa said. “We’re now asking our Minnesota neighbors to also do their part to help save lives.”
The crisis hits close to home for many in Minnesota. Khalid Mohamed, a student at Hamline University in St. Paul, recalled his frantic mother’s voice on the phone.
“The neighbors are starving. Relatives are hungry,” she told him, describing how several seasons of drought had created famine conditions in Somalia.
Mohamed and his friends jumped on social media to mobilize people. In less than 10 days, the group raised more than $60,000.
“I’m happy that people are paying attention right now,” he said. “But I’m upset because we could have saved a lot of people.”