August 19th, 2011
07:36 PM ET

Minnesota Somalis help feed famine victims

From Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent

It's a Monday evening in Minneapolis, and 162 volunteers are taking their seats in the hall at the office of the Christian charity Feed My Starving Children. Minnesotans in jeans and T-shirts. Somali-Americans, the women dressed in traditional brightly colored robes and head coverings.

All of them have seen the pictures on TV: emaciated refugees streaming out of the famine zone that has laid waste to much of the Horn of Africa. But for the Somalis in this hall, it's personal; most of them still have family back in Somalia."It's heartbreaking," said Saciido Shaie, mother of three and a student. She hopes her family will be helped, but, she adds, "I'm glad that, you know, anybody is getting the food."

"Tonight, we'll be working with this." Team leader Judy Watke holds up a seal-tight plastic packet. "This is our rice manna pack. Six one-cup servings. Chicken, veggie, soy, rice."

Within minutes, the group is transformed into a well-oiled assembly line, filling, sealing, boxing and carting off the packets for shipment to a huge international refugee camp in Kenya.

Sultan Aliyoow has been in the U.S. for 14 years, but he, too, lived in a refugee camp for a while. "Now, when I look back, I just see myself there. Sometimes when I would get up, I didn't know whether there was breakfast or lunch."

But the situation is worse now, he says, mostly because of the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabaab. Just this week, militants burst into a hospital in Mogadishu and kidnapped three aid workers treating civilians injured by the fighting.

"The people who have the guns - that's the ones in charge," he said.

Fardousa Yussuf wastes no time filling the plastic bags. "Every morning, we wake up, we pray for Somalia because Somalia is suffering so much. You can't imagine."

Eileen Hammerbeck, a teacher for 40 years, is here with her daughter Lindsay.

"I have a passion for children," she said. "Every child needs a chance to have a life. I mean, Jesus said, 'feed the starving, the poor and the hungry,' and that's why I'm here. My kids are fortunate. They've never been hungry, so it's just a way to give back."

Mark Crea, Feed My Starving Children's executive director, says the rice mixture is prepared by simply boiling it for 20 minutes. "This is the perfect food for a child that's starving. Designed by food scientists here in Minnesota, it has all of the nutrients to rebuild that child."

Rice is the main ingredient. There's soy as a protein source and dehydrated vegetables for color and flavor.

"The powerhouse is a vegetarian chicken flavor with 20 vitamins and minerals," Crea said. "For a child, if this is the only food they have, they will thrive, not just survive."

The famine has galvanized Minneapolis' Somalis. Officials estimate that there are 50,000 to 70,000 of them, the largest group in the U.S. They began settling here in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war.

In the neighborhoods where they live, many in public housing, people have been sending remittances back home to support their families for years. But because of the war and al-Shabaab, some of the money never made it to the people who needed it.

Halima Sheikh owns a shop at the Karmel Mall, where many Somali-Americans shop for the kind of products and clothes they remember from home. She has relatives in Mogadishu and says "everybody's hungry."

To make sure her money is handled safely, Halima is donating to the American Refugee Committee, a non-governmental organization that partners with the U.S. State Department.

At the East African Women's Center, Ambassador Don Yamamoto of the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs sits in a circle with 20 women, most of them from Somalia. Half are new immigrants. Some do not speak English.

The famine, he says, has galvanized this community, often divided by clan loyalties. "Many of the youth have never been to Somalia, so it's bridged the generational gap. It's also brought communities together. Not only the youth, but the youth with their parents and elders."

At the American Refugee Committee, staff members are holding a Skype conference call with the team in Somalia. It ends with the usual caution: "Thanks, guys, take care in the field."

Eric James, the group's emergencies director, just returned from Mogadishu and the refugee camps along the border with Kenya.

"I've been doing this for about 15 years, and it was the absolute worst I've ever seen," he said. "Just horrendous conditions that people are living under. Not only the drought they're facing but also the ongoing conflict. There's more aid that we're able to do, but conditions are not improving yet. It's going to take many months before we can say things have improved."

"Never before has a diaspora community been so desperately needed," said the group's president and CEO, Daniel Wordsworth. "Normally, if we were responding to a crisis like this, we would mobilize an international team of 15 aid workers from France and Canada and Germany and Kenya, and we would roll that in like the Marines to save the day. But we can't send those people there.

"It's too dangerous, it's too insecure, and the situation is far too fluid, so we actually need the Somali community. Those very same people who have been educated in the U.S. in Italy and in Germany. We can take those doctors in; we can take those nurses in; we can take managers in. The bulk of what's going to happen in that country's going to be done by the Somali community."

The famine has hit home with Somali-American students, even if they have never seen their parents' country. The Somali Student Association at the University of Minnesota raised more than $7,600 in three weeks.

'We came up with tons of ideas," said Shukri Abdinur, who graduated in May. "We've done car washes; we've done picnics; we've done grocery bagging; we've done a basketball tournament for the boys to be involved as well."

The association's vice president, Faduma Abdulle, says she never stops thinking about people who are going hungry, especially during Ramadan.

"This is the month of giving, and it's the month where you get to feel how people who are hungry and less fortunate than you feel. The only difference is, at the end of the day when the sun sets, you get to eat a bountiful meal ... and you realize that people in other places, especially in the famine of Somalia, people don't get to eat at night, people don't get to eat at all. They're lucky if they even get to have a drink."

At Feed My Starving Children, the staffers count the boxes: In just an hour an a half, 162 people packed 72 boxes of food totaling 15,552 meals, enough to feed 43 children for an entire year. The group breaks out in applause.

Some move to the store room to say a prayer over the boxes before they are shipped off to the refugee camps in Kenya.

"Good and gracious God, we thank you so much that you provide so much for us. We thank you for the love that is in each of these boxes. ... We also think about those kids around the world, the ones who need this food the most. ... We ask that you will bless them and keep them safe until this food arrives to them."

For donations to the American Refugee Committee:

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Filed under: Al-Shabaab • Somalia
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Marie

    FMSC has been wonderful community service opportunity for people from ALL walks of life! We have had the opportunity here in the western suburbs of Chicago- Aurora, to participate in this life giving event! It is so rewarding and encouraging to know you are helping save peoples lives around the world. We have been blessed in being a part of this organization! My husband is a teacher in our community and has organized several events to give his students and parents the opportunity to participate in FMSC! If you are looking for a way to give, here is a wonderful way to do it!

    August 22, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply

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