For years, I have lived a life that most will only ever read about in a newspaper.
Faced with violence in my hometown of Luuq in southwestern Somalia, I was forced to flee my home and leave behind all that I had ever known. I sought refuge at the infamous Dadaab camp in Kenya, where I, along with 100,000 other Somalis, was given aid in the form of water, food and shelter. Life was better, but there was still immense hardship. I’ll never forget the day I learned that I was among the lucky individuals granted admission to the United States.
When I speak to the transformative power of American generosity, I am not just saying the words, I am living them. Earlier this year, I traveled to Capitol Hill as a member of The ONE Campaign to tell my story and to urge Minnesota’s leaders to continue U.S. leadership in the fight against global extreme poverty.
My visit to Washington couldn’t have come at a more important time. In February, President Donald Trump released his 2019 budget proposal, which calls for a roughly 30 percent cut to the international affairs budget.
A leading group of humanitarian, development and global health organizations recently released new data that further illustrate how the president’s budget would hurt the world’s poorest people who need our help the most. All told, the budget would cut $424 million (31 percent) from the Global Fund, an organization that works to combat epidemics like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It would result in 454,000 fewer people being put on antiretroviral therapy, 131,000 fewer women being placed on treatment to prevent the passing of HIV to their babies and 650,000 fewer people getting tuberculosis treatment and care — in just one year.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Before the U.S. joined the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, 5,000 people were dying from the disease every day and another 7,000 were being infected. Since the U.S. created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), more than 13 million lives have been saved and AIDS-related deaths have been cut in half from their peak. Most unfortunately, Trump’s budget would cut PEPFAR by nearly 11 percent, putting our hard-fought gains in jeopardy.
American aid not only saves lives, lifts people out of poverty, promotes stability and brings us closer to the day in which foreign aid is no longer needed; American leadership also has the power to spur economic growth in developing countries, and by modernizing the private-sector engagement tools at our disposal, we have the potential to do even more good. Although not a replacement for foreign aid, efforts to build infrastructure, start businesses and expand energy access in developing countries could bring tens of billions of dollars in new investment — and the ingenuity, expertise and resourcefulness of the private sector — to the fight against extreme poverty.
While I was in Washington earlier this year, a bipartisan bill was introduced in both chambers of Congress that would help facilitate these outcomes. The Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act would give the U.S. government new tools for partnering with entrepreneurs and leveraging nontaxpayer dollars, while making it easier for American businesses to operate in emerging markets. The bill is a good idea and one that Minnesota’s elected leaders, including U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, should cosponsor and help advance through Congress. We in Minnesota care about our neighbors, both at home and abroad. And we will support our elected leaders if they are willing to extend a helping hand to others.
Five years ago, the United States welcomed me as a stranger from a distant shore. I feel an obligation to pay that generosity forward by advocating for those who do not have a voice. My life has taught me many hard lessons. Through it all, I’ve seen firsthand how our complex global challenges, like extreme poverty and disease, require a multifaceted approach. America is a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. However, America’s position as a global leader is built not just on muscle and might alone, but on compassion and generosity. Our leaders would be wise to remember that fact and act accordingly.
Suud Olat is a Somali refugee and St. Cloud-based volunteer with The ONE Campaign, a policy and advocacy organization taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.