The recent visit to the Somali refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, by Dr. Jill Biden and several high-level U.S. officials highlighted the United States’ commitment to working with the famine-struck people of the region. From the camps, however, it was likely impossible for Biden to witness the depth of the suffering the ethnic Somali population is enduring inside Somalia and in the neighboring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia.
As I write from inside Kenya, my mind is replaying images I have witnessed here – images that Biden and the rest of the world likely do not have the opportunity to see: Thousands of exhausted people arriving at camps after they walked hundreds of miles across the hot, dry land in search of food and away from conflict. A child’s horror on seeing his parent drop dead in the middle of the semi-arid desert, due to heat and starving. A father’s grief on seeing his daughter passing away in front of his eyes because her body was so malnourished and dehydrated that medical support could no longer save her life. A mother’s heartbreaking decision of choosing which child to continue carrying in the journey, and which child to leave by the roadside with the hope that some stranger will pick him up before he dies. A child so severely malnourished and starving that his body could no longer accept nourishment while he lives camouflaged within the local population as an unregistered refugee.
Each survivor has a story; each grave has a story.
While traveling with colleagues around East Africa for several weeks, I have come across innumerable cases of grief and suffering caused by the most severe drought to hit the region in the last six decades. This natural disaster has been further complicated by conflict in certain regions of Somalia. The conflict has magnified the effect of the drought, to leave millions suffering from acute malnutrition, disease outbreaks and human rights violations. In addition, the interference of local authorities and warlords in the delivery of relief efforts has prolonged the people’s agony.
In these situations, faith-based groups like the Islamic Relief family of organizations can play significant support roles.
Islamic Relief Somalia has been implementing humanitarian assistance programs in the country since 2006, before the world’s attention was turned toward either the drought or the conflict.
The inexhaustible aid efforts and consistent humanitarian service put in over the years by Islamic Relief staff members have gained them the trust of local stakeholders. They have earned the reputation of unconditionally caring for all humans, and thus the programs have continued without interruption. As an example, while riots at certain food distribution sites have resulted in deaths, potential problems at Islamic Relief sites in Mogadishu have been peacefully resolved because of Islamic Relief Somalia’s respected status in the region.
Because local stakeholders respect Islamic Relief’s integrity and neutrality, Islamic Relief teams have been able to accomplish humanitarian work without interruption, even when other NGOs have had to evacuate conflict zones. In addition, Islamic Relief has a policy of refusing to pay “taxes” for the right to distribute desperately needed humanitarian relief supplies, and, because it has been able to build trust in the local communities, has never been asked.
The trust we have earned is an asset that serves as a strong protective shield, and it is our primary strength in regions like the Horn of Africa. This trust can also be leveraged by other major international players to provide the maximum relief to the suffering people of Somalia. I propose a two-pronged approach:
First, in the short term, I invite other organizations to leverage the opportunities that are open to us to directly reach the people in the greatest need, and to work with Islamic Relief to distribute assistance. We have worked with major entities including United Nations agencies, and we welcome more partnerships in a joint effort to save the most innocent lives possible.
And secondly, for a long-term improvement, we invite peacemaking organizations to work alongside humanitarian relief efforts like Islamic Relief’s, to strive to achieve a lasting resolution to this conflict, which has caused such profound suffering. Islamic Relief workers may have unique perspectives to offer on how to best broker peace in the region and would welcome dialogue to that end.
Providing stability in the region would be the best way to help Somalis build livelihoods that are more secure against shocks like droughts; this would lower both the death toll and the need for the kind of humanitarian assistance Biden is advocating. Such assistance is desperately needed, but removing or at least reducing the need for it would be infinitely better.
Adnan Ansari is the Vice President of Programs at Islamic Relief USA, based in Alexandria, Va. He can be reached at 703-370-7202 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Islamic Relief USA and Islamic Relief Somalia are independent affiliates of Islamic Relief Worldwide. For more information, visit irusa.org.