The drought in East Africa is taking a tragic toll on people, animals, and crops. The United Nations estimates that it has affected 21 million people. South Sudan, Somalia, parts of Kenya and parts of Ethiopia are on the brink of famine.
Locally, the non-profit agency ARAHA (American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa) is raising money and public awareness about the crisis. ARAHA Executive Director Mohamed Idris said, “For two consecutive seasons, there has either been no rain or a poor amount of rain. Crops have failed twice. There is no grass. Some areas have lost 60 percent of their livestock.’’
The livestock deaths are devastating, he added, because “for rural areas, this is their wealth. If people do not intervene, we will see worse conditions than we saw in the 2011 famine in Somalia, when we lost 260,000 people. Half of those who died were under five years old.”
A group of East African immigrants founded ARAHA in Northeast Minneapolis 17 years ago. Now based in Columbia Heights at 3900 Jackson Street NE, the agency has a small staff and more than 100 volunteers. In addition to the Heights branch, it has another branch and field offices in the Horn of Africa, which includes the countries of Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.
In its early years, ARAHA focused on education, health, and helping African villagers attain self-reliance. The group has funded water wells and distributed food, medical supplies, books and school supplies. More than 2,000 families have benefited from ARAHA’s dairy cow and goat projects.
ARAHA is now devoting its efforts to providing relief for drought victims.
“ARAHA has years of experience in dealing with drought and famine,” Idris said. “As an organization, we are advocating intervention. The international community has developed monitoring tools and is very good at predicting conditions, sometimes six months ahead.
“The problem in the past has been in the response. It comes when people [in other countries] see images of thousands of people dying, and the death toll is already high. This is a dangerous delay. By that time, it is already too late.
“When people are forced to leave home, their situation worsens, he added. “When crops fail and livestock dies, people have to flee. When they move, sometimes they have to walk for days. During that transition, they have lost everything. They have left their homes. Their children may not survive the journey. Some families start with seven members and end up with four or five by the end of the journey. Sometimes even when these children reach camps where there is aid, they still die. Their severe malnutrition has reached a level that cannot be reversed.”
“It is always good to intervene early to help people. Maybe they just need help for a month or two, and the rain comes,” Idris said. “Early intervention is more cost effective. Once people leave their homes, they need shelter and food. They have health issues. If they cross the border and come to an isolated camp, they cannot farm. Their lifestyle changes. They go from being farmers and producers to recipients. They become idle, waiting for foreign aid to come.”
(Idris, who emigrated to the United States in 1999, himself experienced life as a refugee. He was born in Eritrea during a civil war; when he was nine years old, his family fled for their lives across the border to Sudan.)
Idris said that refugee camps are not temporary anymore. “One of them, Dadaab Camp in Kenya, is 25 years old. It is the largest refugee camp in the world, with half a million people. It’s from the 1990s. Another in Sudan started in 1967.
“When people live in refugee camps, their situation does not get better. Whenever there is a new crisis, countries build refugee camps. But the best approach always is to help people in their homes. When they have to migrate, they are either internally displaced, with people within a country going from rural to urban areas, or they cross the border to another country. They are then in a whole different system. They are locked in. They are foreigners. Somalians go either to Ethiopia or Kenya; right now parts of both of those countries are experiencing drought.
“Life in a refugee camp is not somewhere you’d wish anyone to live,” Idris said. “They live in tents, with other families very close by. It is not an appropriate place to be. There are people born there and raised there who get married there. It’s been two generations of people in camps.”
Idris said, “We are asking people to help. The best way is through a monetary donation. Staff members from our field offices in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan buy food and supplies from the closest large city.”
He said that East Africa has many challenges, including no irrigation systems. “Africa’s population is increasing. There is no real help coming to them. If there is no rain, there is famine. Because of climate change, the country is growing hotter and drier and deforestation is going faster,” Idris added. “Africa is paying a price for something they did not contribute to; it is the major industrial countries such as China and the United States that have caused the problems.”
The Lifesaver Campaign
ARAHA has adopted a donation system known as the Lifesaver Campaign, which allows individuals or groups to choose a project and raise money toward their goal. “People can initiate a project, such as ‘dig one water well,’ or ‘build a classroom’ and a dollar amount,” Idris said.
“They come together and create a website page by the name of their campaign. People like the idea. Different groups are taking it on. When they reach their goal, they want us to implement the project and we ask our field offices to do it. We share photos, and they share them with all the donors. We’ve been doing this since last year. It’s another fundraising tool we need to implement projects. We have had success with this. People like to see tangible things that they did,” he said.
Many people would like to help, he added, but they don’t know how to start. ARAHA members have been getting the word out to mosques, schools, churches and restaurants. Their contacts have included Global Academy in Columbia Heights, Heights Church, and Holy Land restaurant in Northeast.
Pastor Dan Thompson of Heights Church in Columbia Heights said that a church board member has been working with ARAHA. “We are looking at ways to host a fundraiser at the [Community Grounds] coffee shop. Also, we may set up an informational meeting to help make people aware of the drought situation,” Thompson said.
Idris said he is interested in talking to students as well as adults. “We need to let kids know that when they grow up, there are big issues. They need to start now, learning about what is happening in the world.”