RI's Dania Gharaibeh Reports from the Famine

from Relief International
Published on 29 Aug 2011 View Original

When Relief International volunteer Dania Gharaibeh visited famine-stricken refugee camps in the Somali region of Ethiopia this month, she noticed that the children, despite being malnourished and displaced, were laughing and giggling as children do all over the world. Yet behind them, she felt their parents’ pain as one man confided, "It is one thing to be hungry, it is another, most hurtful thing not to be able to feed your children."

These sentiments were echoed throughout the small communities that Gharaibeh visited as she worked with Relief International’s team to conduct vulnerability assessments in the Somali region of Ethiopia. The purpose of these assessments was for Relief International to conduct focus groups with women and men who had fled Somalia in search of food and a better life for themselves and their children. Relief International wanted to know how these Somalis had arrived, how much food they received every day, how many meals they ate in a day, and whether or not they had access to food. According to Gharaibeh, the answers were bleak.

“Sometimes, due to subhuman conditions some of these communities live in, they slowly begin lacking the ability to express basic human emotions,” says Gharaibeh. “They are strictly on survival mode. One very striking feature I noticed is the difficulty they face to answer a simple question such as ‘how do you feel?’”

Though the U.N. declared a famine in the Horn of Africa in late July, this suffering has been a chronic issue that has lasted decades. As this deadly famine continues to spread throughout the Horn of Africa, of those spilling into refugee camps out of desperation, up to 90 percent are women and children. Mothers are walking an average of 30 miles to refugee camps, only to discover the children in their arms dead upon arrival. In some regions of Somalia, global acute malnutrition among children is at 50 percent and death rates are growing every day. By the time these mothers get to the borders for help, it is often too late.

In this harsh landscape, Relief International is one of the few organizations on-the-ground, in Somalia, able to reach people in need at the heart of the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of others must leave their homes and livelihoods behind to make long and brutal treks to refugee camps like the one where Dania visited.

The refugee camps offer a much-needed point of refuge, but sadly the refugees are often vulnerable. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled into Kenya, Ethiopia and to camps in Mogadishu, where cholera and measles are preying upon a malnourished and immune-suppressed population and camps can often not provide adequate security to the vulnerable groups within its borders.

In Sheder camp, in northeast Ethiopia in Jigjiga, Dania met a woman and her child who had travel unknown miles to reach the refugee camp seeking medical attention. “Her name is Omaima, her daughter is Warda, and their story struck me more than any other,” Dania said. She fled Mogadishu months prior to the declared famine because of the on-going conflict. “Not only is Omaima a refugee, one that has long suffered from extreme poverty, she is also a woman, a single mother and she is HIV positive.”

It is highly unlikely that Omaima will make it to the end the summer, and if she passes, she will also be leaving her daughter an orphan in a refugee camp. Omaima’s story is not unique, and exemplifies the price of displacement for refugees.

As Relief International expands its reach during the famine, the organization is working to eliminate the suffering of women like Omaima and children like Warda. Due to the untold suffering that takes place when a population is forced to travel long distances to neighboring countries for refuge and support, Relief International is working hard to fight famine at its source. On the ground in Somalia since 2007, the organization is increasing the impact of its ongoing nutrition programs through the expansion of feeding centers and emergency health clinics in order save thousands of hungry families from the threat of starvation.