East Africa Food Crisis

by Save the Children Federation
East Africa Food Crisis
Negassa is a survivor
Negassa is a survivor

Thank you for your generous support of Save the Children's efforts in East Africa. Much progress has been made and we wanted to share a story of hope for the future. Here's Negass's story, a young boy in Ethiopia who survived the hunger crisis and is now thriving in our education program. 

One look at six-year-old Negassa Bekana and it's obvious that he is an active and curious learner. In the early childhood development classroom at the Save the Children supported Jemjem Community-based School in Jemjem, Ethiopia, Negassa chats away with his classmates and gets to work on solving colorful hand-painted wooden puzzles featuring common household animals like roosters, hens and baby chicks.

Negassa's mom, Abeblech, agrees saying, "Negassa is an extrovert and is very inquisitive. He asks his older brothers many, many questions, often causing them to laugh as they try to answer him." Like many young boys his age, Negassa is incredibly energetic. He also is quite a character, with a quick grin and opinions of his own. His mother says that "he loves playing with neighborhood children and often tells them that they should play like him."

When asked about his favorite school activities, Negassa says "I like school. And my favorite thing to do [at school] is counting." And Negassa is a great counter. He quickly counts to 100 in Oromo, the local language he speaks at home and school.

Negassa, 6, with his mother, Abeblech, is learning the alphabet with a chart provided by Save the Children's early childhood development program. Photo by Susan Warner

Negassa, 6, with his mother, Abeblech, is learning the alphabet with a chart provided by Save the Children's early childhood development program. Photo by Susan Warner

This little boy can count until the cows come home, and at his house that number is three. But there's no shortage of things for Negassa to count around his family's home, including nine chickens, four goats, three cattle and two dogs.

Even for charismatic kids like Negassa, early childhood development program help children learn outside of the classroom and parents are encouraged to help their children practice basic skills and stay healthy at home.

Negassa's mom, Abeblech explains, "every Friday, Negassa reminds me that he needs to have his clothes washed before he goes back to school on Monday." And Negassa doesn't stop there, he also spreads the word to kids in the neighborhood, reminding them to arrive at school in clean clothes and having bathed.

Abeblech also received an alphabet chart from Save the Children that she regularly reviews with Negassa at home. "In the 10 months since he has been enrolled in the early childhood development program, Negassa now recognizes his letters," she says.

Negassa, 6, with his mother, Abeblech, counts the cows and other farm animals as a way to help develop his basic math skills. Photo by Susan Warner

Negassa, 6, with his mother, Abeblech, counts the cows and other farm animals as a way to help develop his basic math skills. Photo by Susan Warner

Parents like Abeblech, and others, are doing their part to help parents in the rural farming community of Jemjem, many who are illiterate or have received little education, ensure their children are learning. About six months ago, Abeblech was elected by her community to represent them on the School Management Committee, and has embraced her role in mobilizing local parents to send their children to school and take an active role in their education.

Not to be left out, Negassa is doing his part too. Although he usually walks the 30 minutes home from school, today the journey home is a special one as he rides in a Save the Children jeep, which bumps over fields and cattle paths to Negassa's home. His face can barely contain his smile as he experiences his very first ride in a car. Almost as soon as he arrives at his family's home, he is off like a gold-medal sprinter to tell his friends about his adventure home and to show them the jeep that is parked on the opposite side of the dry riverbed.

Negassa's news spreads quickly, and soon a crowd of curious children stands next to the jeep. Here's hoping that Negassa's love of learning is just as infectious as he grows up!

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Save the Children reached over 3 million people across Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The crisis may have slipped out of the headlines, but it is far from over. We are still there.

Save the Children works in some of the most dangerous areas of east Africa including Mogadishu and the Dadaab refugee camp. Our staff put their lives on the line daily. We cannot and will not stop our lifesaving work until we are no longer needed.  

 In Somalia we have fed over 150,000 young children and mothers, and providing clean water and food to thousands more. We cannot stop supporting these families, but we must also ensure our work is sustainable, and that we are not simply responding to one crsis after another. We must help children to gain an education, to help them fulfil their potential. This is essential in countries like Somalia, where the education system doesn’t function in many areas. We are working with communities to ensure that livelihoods are sustainable by themselves, and not reliant on food aid.  

 In Kenya, we’ve reached over 250,000 people with vital, life-saving health work. We’ve also worked hard to strengthen the government’s health system, by training local community health workers, and providing them with mobiles and solar panel chargers. We’re working with children in the Dadaab refugee camp who have been deeply affected by the ongoing civil war in Somalia, to ensure our legacy in Kenya and across the region is more than simply an emergency response.

In Ethiopia, we’ve reached over 2 million people - distributing hundreds of tonnes of food and water, and at the same time delivering high quality education to over 60,000 children. We're working closely with the government to help communities prepare for future droughts - building community resilience, creating drought reserve grazing areas for livestock and working with women to create cereal banking co-operatives. 

Thank you for your support of this project. 

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Refugee boy from Somalia receives a meal
Refugee boy from Somalia receives a meal

As new figures reveal that 130,000 children under the age of five died in 2011's Somali famine and its aftermath, Save the Children has warned that the humanitarian situation for children in the country remains extremely serious.

Despite an improvement in food security since the peak of the famine, children continue to die because they don't have enough to eat. Save the Children is calling on the international community to maintain focus on combatting hunger in the war-torn country.

"These figures clearly show how children bear brunt of hunger crises. 130,000 children under the age of five lost their lives in a crisis that was predicted months in advance. We must never let that happen again, and we must recommit to helping the 2.7 million Somalis who remain in crisis," said Carolyn Miles, president & CEO of Save the Children. "While conditions in Somalia have improved in recent months, the country still has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition and infant mortality in the world."

"With next week's London Conference on Somalia, this is a timely reminder to the international community of the urgent need to refocus on the humanitarian situation in Somalia."

Last year, Save the Children and Oxfam launched A Dangerous Delay, a report that showed how the international community's slow response to the famine cost tens of thousands of lives. Save the Children continues to work across Somalia, providing life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable and helping families to strengthen their resistance to future shocks.

Your generous donations have helped  us provide food, water, education, child care and so much more for children and families affected by the food crisis in East Africa.

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Abdul Rashid and his little girl
Abdul Rashid and his little girl

Most mornings, before the heat of the day sets in and the dust isn’t too bad, a stout Somali man with gentle eyes ambles through the alleys of this refugee camp. He ducks into tents and sits on the edges of beds and just listens.  

He listens to girls like Leila, a stick-thin 15 year old who tells him what it’s like to raise her four siblings since her mother disappeared and her grandmother died.

He listens to old men, like the one who is squatting in the dirt, washing his wife and children’s clothes – a job no Somali man usually does. He listens to the man tell him his wife is sick and he’s out of money and options.

Abdul Rashid Adan Ibrahim is a spectacular listener. He does more than listen, he absorbs. When he sits down next to them, they let go some of their pain and he takes it on.  They know they can trust him. They know he’s like them, stuck in the same God forsaken camp they are.

What they don’t know is that this middle-aged man who spends all his time patching up the shattered lives of others, has one of his own.

Like everyone here, Abdul Rashid never dreamed he’d be a refugee. He grew up in Merca, Somalia, a white-washed city that leans out over the Somali coastline. In its heyday, Merca attracted tourists who curled their toes into the white-sand beaches and sipped Italian coffee at the city cafes.

Abdul Rashid’s father owned a fruit farm outside of town. The irrigated farm with its advanced canal system produced bananas that his father exported to Italy.  As a boy, he traveled to Rome with his father, where he dined in fine restaurants and tasted life in a cosmopolitan capital.

Abdul Rashid followed in his father’s footsteps and studied agriculture at Afoole University in the 1970s, a time when Mogadishu was in its salad days.  In the capital, spotless, palm-lined streets and public gardens bloomed with bougainvillea under which friends strolled. Women dressed modestly, but weren’t veiled like today. Back then, you could drink a beer at the Jazeera Club and then catch a taxi over to Cinema Super to catch Clint Eastwood in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, dubbed in Italian.

The future looked bright for Abdul Rashid. He married a woman with a big smile and kind heart named Maimoua. They started their family as Abdul Rashid found work as a contractor for the World Food Program while consulting for international NGOs on the side. They had a nice house in Merca and, he says proudly, he owned a boat.

But in the 1980s, political cracks started to fracture Somalia’s peaceful façade. Frustrated with a military government, armed opposition groups started to appear.  In 1991, after President Siad Barre was overthrown, clan ties became politicized more than ever.  That’s when Somalia began its slow slide toward chaos.

Throughout the fighting and the rise and fall of governments, Abdul Rashid persisted. He was respected and a go-to negotiator in Merca. While working for humanitarian organizations, he knew how to joke and cajole and make the armed groups happy. A sack of millet here, a little cash there.

During the early 2000s, he started working for an American NGO, directing their food distributions to 28 villages near Merca. For eight years, he and his right hand man, Abdul, a calm, articulate man who had worked with him for years, received shipments of World Food Program food at the port in Merca. They transported the food to the warehouse and then distributed them to Somalis in need.

But a few years ago, things took a turn for the worse when an armed group refused to let them distribute the food themselves. Everything, they said, had to go through them.

Abdul Rashid was worried.

Not long after, someone showed him a video. It was Abdul; someone was holding his head up by the ears. He’d been beheaded.

Abdul Rashid was beside himself. He’d known Abdul for years and considered him a close friend. He knew his wife and 11 children. He also knew he was next. He left Merca immediately, walking out of town on the trails farmers used for livestock. He fell in with some nomads and walked with them for through the night more than 30 miles – not easy for Abdul Rashid who rarely missed a meal. As he walked under the stars, he wondered if he’d ever see his children again. He wondered if the thugs would go after his family, after Maimouna. He eventually got cell phone service and called a relative who sent a vehicle to pick him up and he headed for Badare, a town in Western Somalia.

Back in Merca, the thugs who killed Abdul hit the airwaves: Abdul Rashid is ours. If you see him, bring him to us. They rolled up to his house, guns at the ready. Where is he, they demanded. “He left yesterday, and he didn’t come back to us,” Maimouna said. They loosed off a few rounds above her head, then started rifling through the house, turning the place upside down. They looked under the bed. They looked in the latrine and in the cupboards. When he didn’t turn up, they trashed the place. Then they went outside and waited for him to return, holding the house under siege. They set up roadblocks and searched vehicles to make sure he didn’t sneak back.

Maimouna knew she had to get the kids out. Six of their children were at home at the time, including Saman, who Abdul Rashid had dug out of the rubble 12 years earlier after her parents house was attacked in a bout of fighting. Her parents dead, Abdul Rashid and Maimouna took her in and she’s been their daughter ever since.  

To smuggle the kids out, it was a family affair. Relatives mustered up their courage and approached the men ringing the house. Grandmothers took the girls out one by one, saying they needed to get their skin decorated with henna. Old men took boys to the mosque. One by one, Abdul Rashid’s kids escaped. Eventually, Maimouna did too. They paid for a vehicle and drove to meet Abdul Rashid in Bardere, Somalia.  

Abdul Rashid and the family made their way to Doolwo, Somalia, a place near the Ethiopian border where he thought they could wait things out. A few days later, a text message arrived. “Wherever you go, we will find you. Even if you go to Kenya, we’ll find you.”

Get your clothes, he told the kids, We’re leaving.

That’s how he ended up here, in Bolkomanyo, a 44,000 person refugee camp in Ethiopia. His wife was shocked. A wind as hot as a hair dryer never stopped blowing. The tarpaulin they lived under was a far cry from their comfortable house in Merca. Everything about the camp bothered her – the scorpions, the bland food, the kids coated in dust, the mosque made of sticks, the wrinkly vegetables, the idea of being a refugee. She was inconsolable.

She didn’t utter a word, Abdul Rashid said, for three months.

For days, he and the kids took turns watching people come and go from the water pump, waiting to see someone they knew. Surely, someone from their former life, one of Abdul Rashid’s many friends or colleagues, had ended up here. For a week days, they waited.

They didn’t recognize a soul.

It all became too much for Abdul Rashid. Maybe out of embarrassment, maybe out of shock, he did the mostly unSomali thing: He became a recluse. He didn’t talk much with others, he kept to himself. For a year, he drew his cocoon tighter around himself and didn’t let anyone in.

Then something changed. He must, he decided, make the best of this. He can’t sit and stew in his own worries. His children look up to him, he needs to be there for them, no matter the circumstances.

He started volunteering for Save the Children’s child protection program in the camp. He quickly became the head of a child protection committee, one of 25 in the camp. He supervises 23 volunteers who document cases of child protection issues and work with families to educate them about the dangers of child marriage and the importance of education. It’s everything from talking to parents about bathing their children to dealing with issues of domestic violence.

As one of the best English speaking refugees, as a college graduate, Abdul Rashid has a lot to offer. He put up a blackboard in his tent – by now a two room shanty that now has a garden in back where he has planted trees – and he reached out to idle teenagers in the camp. He’s broken the teenagers into three classes by their abilities. He sends them home with worksheets to study.  If they pass his quizzes, they will advance to the next level. Students know that English could help them get a job with one of the many NGOs in the camp.

Nobody pays Abdul Rashid to do this. He uses a little of his $45 monthly salary and his own time.

His children – especially Saman – speak excellent English and wonder aloud to Abdul Rashid what the future has in store for them. Where will they go to high school? College?

“They are thinking of it,” he says, “but I can do nothing.”

His voice catches.

“Just a moment,” he says, collecting himself.

This isn’t easy. The proud college graduate, the world traveler, the man who keeps a laminated copy of his resume in English on hand just in case, has tears in his eyes because he  doesn’t know how to educate his kids.

“Never in my life,” he says, “did I think I’d become a refugee. I’m wasting my time here. I’m also wasting my children’s time. Let them go somewhere else instead of wasting their time in this stony place.”

Uganda. Tanzania. Rwanda. He and his family sit in their home and dream about these places. A place where Saman can go to high school. A place where Abdul Rashid can find a job. They’ve been here four years and never set foot outside the camp; they try not to think about how many more. Word in the camp has it that cell phone service is coming soon. Maybe then he’ll be unable to talk to the outside world. Until then, he’ll throw himself deeper into working for Save the Children. It feels good to have a purpose in the camps, he says, to have something you can devote yourself to. It takes his mind off things that are out of his control.

 “It’s nice,” he says, “to have a connection with people.”

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Crisis continues in East Africa
Crisis continues in East Africa

Save the Children has the largest presence of any international NGO in Dollo Ado, in the southern Somali region of Ethiopia, both in the refugee camps and in the hosting community, with more than 400 staff and over 600 volunteers currently on the ground. Operating from its main sub-office in Dollo Ado town, Save the Children has over 20 years experience of working with the pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities of Dollo Ado in food security, livelihoods, health, nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene promotion (WASH) interventions.

Save the Children has been responding to the influx of refugees from Somalia since 2009. In response to the significant influx of refugees since July 2011, Save the Children scaled up the refugee emergency response in all the existing and new camps and currently has operations in all five refugee camps and the Transit Centre in Dollo Ado. Our work builds on partnerships with UN agencies, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), various Implementing Partner organizations, as well as the refugee and host communities in a variety of sectors including Child Protection, Emergency Primary Education, Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), Nutrition and School Feeding Programmes.

Save the Children is currently running a total of 23 centers across the five Refugee Camps and the Transit center (3 in Kobe, 3 in Melkadida, 4 in Haleweyn, 3 in Boramino (2 under construction), 10 in Bokolmayo and 1 in Transit centre). A total of over 54,047 direct beneficiaries and over 160,000 indirect beneficiaries from the refugee community access one or more of the services provided by Save the Children in all the 23 Centers across the five Refugee Camps and the Transit center.

There is a need across all of the camps to improve the education facilities and child friendly spaces. The majority of activities for young children are still housed in temporary structures – tents or frames covered with plastic sheeting. Tents of this kind are really only fit for purpose for a maximum of 6 months but some of the tents are still being used after a year. The harsh winds blowing sands and heavy rains during the rainy seasons in Dollo Ado have caused huge damage to these tents. Save the Children is trying to upgrade facilities to semi-permanent (solid foundations with temporary walls made from corrugated metal sheeting that are much safer and avoid winds and dust) or permanent structures (such as the new Child and Community Friendly Centers) wherever possible but urgently needs further funds to support these improvements. 

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Save the Children Federation

Location: Fairfield, CT - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @savethechildren
Project Leader:
Penelope Crump
Westport, CT United States

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