My mouth dropped open when I read the words of ABC News reporter Amy Bingham in an article about the potential effect Tropical Storm Isaac could have on the city of Tampa as the Republican National Convention kicks off there on Monday. Most of the commenters on news stories like this made fun of the fact a storm was bearing down on a group of Republicans.
But my shock was over the complete lack of regard for the people of Haiti who are in real danger.
“Under the best case scenario, the storm could smash into the mountains of Haiti … then the weakened storm could sweep over the Bahamas and swirl off the east coast of Florida … missing Tampa…” wrote Bingham.
Seriously? A storm smashing into the mountains of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is the “best case scenario”?
I was just in those mountains of Southern Haiti in June. There are families and communities in those mountains who are extremely vulnerable to storms like this. They all talked of the terrible flooding that overtook their homes and villages in 2008 when four hurricanes hit Haiti. They are terrified of disasters, and because of their remote rural location in these mountains, most of them probably don’t even know another storm is coming their way.
I was glad today to see NBC News and a few others focusing on the danger to Haiti. If Isaac continues on its current path and strengthens into a hurricane, it will likely cause much damage to the homes and lives of the millions of people who live in Haiti.
World Concern is preparing staff members in Haiti and gathering emergency supplies to respond.
We’ve also been working to reduce the risk to communities in this region, like Côtes-de-Fer, a village near Bainet, along the southern coast of Haiti. We worked with community members to build a canal in 2010 that is designed to direct large amounts of rainwater away from homes and into the ocean.
“The water used to flood my house,” said Dieudonné Felix, who lives in Côtes-de-Fer. “The last time it rained, the rainwater went straight to the sea. This is a big improvement.”
But even communities with canals are at risk because Isaac is expected to dump more than 12 inches of rain—possibly up to 20 inches—on Haiti today and tomorrow.
Please join me in praying for the people of Haiti, World Concern staff and others who work in this area, and all who will be affected by this storm.
The bumpy roads here in rural Haiti toss you around like a bull rider. Hairpin turns wind you through steep mountains, striking even the toughest travelers with motion sickness. And the roads seem to go on forever. Just when you think the road couldn’t go any further, it keeps going.
A sense of dread came over our team visiting Haiti this week when one of our Haitian staff informed us, after 7 hours on these roads, that we were about to go on “the worst road in Haiti.” We thought it couldn’t possibly be any worse than we had experienced. But it was. Dust and dirt swirled around us as our Land Cruiser lurched up rocky mountains with cliffs on either side.
It is at the end of many of these roads, far beyond where most are willing to go, that World Concern works.
When our vehicles pull into villages, children wave and grin excitedly. The leader of the community often greets our Haitian staff warmly with a hug of recognition, signaling relationships that have been formed over time.
People who live in these remote communities are grateful because someone has come so far for them. Mothers whisk their children home to put on their best clothes. Little girls in dirty, torn shorts and T-shirts return wearing frilly dresses, looking more like they’re going to a wedding than meeting visitors.
Parents talk openly about their struggles: not having opportunities to earn income, lack of clean water, and sick children. Some fear earthquakes and flooding will threaten their lives again soon.
They are strengthened by the help they receive—not a handout, as it is starkly obvious to those of us visiting that this would not change anything. This kind of widespread, extreme poverty, requires a long-term, well-planned response—the kind of help that brings the chance for something different. A better future.
“If we have water, we can do anything,” said one farmer whose community has a new canal that channels rainwater away from homes and into the fields where it waters crops.
“Education is the key,” said a second grade teacher who has served his village since 1995.
These people tell us they want to learn new ways of doing things. They don’t want handouts. They want changes that will last. They want to do the work themselves, with our support and assistance, but they want ownership over the projects.
This is where you come in. You don’t have to go to the end of the road to help. We invite you to witness the transformation in Haiti by supporting the work of World Concern. We’re encouraged on days like this, to know that even at the end of a tough road, real and lasting change is possible.
Baby Adey’s mother must have felt desperate as she lay sick and bedridden in her home in Garissa—an area of Northeastern Kenya badly affected by the Horn of Africa drought. But as a mother, her own illness was surely not as frightening as her child’s.
Our health workers in Garissa—where one in three infants is underweight—discovered Adey and her mother during a visit to their home. They were too sick to travel, so we went to them. Adey’s father told us his wife hadn’t been able to breastfeed because she had no milk. Six-month-old Adey appeared tiny, weak and lethargic.
The average 6-month-old baby girl in the U.S. weighs 16 lbs. Adey weighed just 4 lbs. 6 oz.—less than most newborns. She was malnourished, dehydrated and had an upper respiratory infection.
World Concern staff transported Adey and her mother to the hospital, where the baby received antibiotics, fluids and emergency nutrition. Her mom, who was also malnourished, was treated for her illness and given nutritionally fortified porridge.
Three weeks later, a much happier, healthier baby Adey was discharged from the hospital weighing 8 lbs. 2 oz.—almost doubling her weight.
Receiving Baby Adey’s story in my inbox reminded me that the crisis in the Horn of Africa is not over. When the U.N. declared parts of Somalia were no longer experiencing famine conditions (in which 30% of children are acutely malnourished and 2 adult or 4 child deaths per 10,000 occur each day), the food crisis disappeared from the headlines. But it’s not over.
At the time of the UN declaration, there were still 9 million people in need of aid in the Horn of Africa. Baby Adey and her family were among them.
Sometimes we get asked, “Why do you help people in other countries instead of the poor right here at home in the U.S.?”
Good question and one I think is worth answering.
Every nonprofit has a mission – a calling they aim to fulfill through their work. There are more than a million nonprofits based in the U.S. Many help with domestic issues and serve people here, while others help internationally. Some do both.
We at World Concern feel a special calling to help those in the poorest, least developed and often hardest to reach places in the world. That’s our mission. We seek out places to serve where climate and geography, societal instability and scarce infrastructure create incredible challenges – both to the people living there, and in terms of reaching them with help.
One example of this is in our response to the Horn of Africa drought crisis. The most practical place to help would have probably been the refugee camps in eastern Kenya. But there were already many organizations responding within the camps. As we assessed the area and the situation, it became clear there was an added strain being put on communities surrounding the camps and near the Somalia border as tens of thousands of displaced people were arriving in these towns.
We saw an unmet need and made the decision to support these communities – with food, access to water, medical care and emergency supplies. Since August, we’ve fed thousands of people, many who had been walking for weeks in search of assistance. Some might not have survived the last leg of the journey to the camps. Others have settled in these communities – a better place to start a new life than a refugee camp.
These communities are dangerous places to work. They are under almost constant threat of attack by militia. On the Somalia side of the border, we are one of only a few organizations working there. But we see this as fulfilling our calling to reach people in desperate need in hard to reach places.
Some of the villages where we serve in Laos are cut off from society because of rain, mud, rivers and damaged roads. The people there have no way to access food or medical attention if needed.
Thanks to infrastructure, development and government assistance here in the U.S., communities are rarely cut off from aid, even in a disaster. We’re finding ways to reach people in remote parts of the world – because few others will.
In American culture, there is a an emphasis on helping ourselves before we help others. The self-help world tells us that taking care of our own needs first is as important as on our own oxygen mask on an airplane before assisting others. We secretly aim to make sure our own children have enough Christmas presents before giving to others in need. As Christians, we’re called to put the needs of others before our own (Phil. 2:3-4). This is not to say we shouldn’t support the needs of the poor here at home. But what would Jesus say about the idea of “helping our own” before reaching out to others?
I confess I’ve avoided writing about the families in this post for weeks. I doubt I’ll ever get to the point where photos like these don’t disturb me, but I will say there are fewer that shake me up inside – mostly because I know we’re doing something to help.
This set of photos and stories, sent by our staff in Somaliland (northern Somalia), really affected me. They were taken during an assessment of drought-affected communities to determine the needs of people there. One of World Concern’s priorities is to reach the most vulnerable first, so the families we help are often headed by females, have sick or disabled members, or are among the poorest of the poor; in this case, in the fifth poorest country in the world.
These are some of the families we met. I wanted to share their stories and photos so that others know their circumstances. To give them a voice, in a way.
It took me a moment to figure out what was going on in this photo to the right. It shows Khadra, a young mother of three from the Sanaag region outside her small hut fashioned from sticks, plastic and pieces of fabric. The family had 200 sheep and goats before the drought. They lost them all.
While talking with Khadra, our staff learned her husband is mentally ill, suffering from psychosis. Khadra said that she feels she has no alternative other than to tie him to their hut so he won’t wander away.
I can assure you, there aren’t any social services in this part of Somalia. Definitely no mental health counseling.
Imagine being in Khadra’s position and not knowing what else to do. My heart aches for her.
The part of Salah’s family photo (left) that troubles me most is their home. You can see they’ve tried to use scraps of trash, or whatever they can find to create some sort of shelter, but it’s no match for the searing daytime sun or cold desert nights.
I’m assuming this father has lost his wife. I’m told he has chronic respiratory problems and is very sick. He and his children survive off of food provided by neighbors and relatives.
Arale (below, right) is a disabled father of four who migrated to Garadag after losing his herds to drought. Their only source of income is to send their children to look for animals owned by other families, for which the children earn a small daily wage.
World Concern is helping these families, and thousands of others, initially by trucking water into drought-affected communities in this region and distributing emergency food. Families also receive plastic tarps for shelter, jerrycans, mosquito nets and cooking pots.
Long-term, we’re building berkads (semi-underground water reservoirs) and digging new wells – 36 of them in the coming months! Another way we’re helping is providing people with the tools and knowledge to grow vegetables and improve nutrition through kitchen gardens.
There is hope for these families.
Somaliland is slightly more politically stable and has experienced more peace than the rest of Somalia, having declared its independence in 1991. This is one reason we’ve been able to make progress there. Time is another factor. We’ve worked there for 30 years, enabling us to respond quickly when disasters like drought, war or famine strike.
We’re hoping to reach more families like these throughout Somalia.
“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9
Through our Global Gift Guide, and with the help of our donors, we’ve given goats to needy children and families for years – enabling them to have nutritious milk, and earn an income. But until today, we’ve always been on the giving end of things …
Our team that is responding to the drought in Northeastern Kenya and Somalia visited a town called Amuma, about five miles from the Somali border where we are building water projects. The town has no water source, so we are trucking water in to meet the immediate need. But with hopes of rain coming soon, we are repairing and improving a large water pan, which will be filled by the rain and sustain the community for up to four months.
The team was there today to select the contractor from the community that will do this work. Rather than bringing workers in from the outside, we’re involving the community to make the decision. We see this as their project, and therefore engage them in the process. The team met with the chief, elders and counselor (local politician), then with a representation of the community. Sealed quotes were opened in their presence (a very transparent process), and all parties signed an agreement that they would be a part of the process and were happy with what was happening.
After visiting the site of the project, the community members were so happy, they presented the World Concern staff with a gift – a goat!
They said, “Not since independence (1963), has any organization ever been so consistent and transparent” with them. They were so happy we are working with them, coming in early to ask questions and learn from them, finding ways to keep the work in the community and allowing them to participate and to make decisions – all in an honest and transparent way.
The team was truly humbled and honored to receive such an expression of gratitude from the community of Amuma.
World Concern staff member Susan Talbot, a technical specialist in commodities, logistics and disaster response, is in South Sudan this month. The following is her account of a visit to one remote village where we’re working.
Today, our team traveled to Menaba, a three-hour journey by Landcruiser over a road that would be impassable to most vehicles. We are accompanied by tsetse flies that swarm over the windows and hood. Phillip, our security officer based out of Nairobi, says the flies are wondering why they can’t find blood on this elephant. It’s the end of the rainy season and the grasses on the sides and at times in the center of the road are 6-8 feet tall, snapping as the vehicle charges through and over them. As we hit flooded holes, the muddy water splashes on the windshield.
As we reach Menaba, our staff is finishing up distributing food – salt, dried beans and sorghum – to women with children. Some are displaced from other parts of South Sudan and others are returnees from Darfur. They’ve been settled in a nearby camp for about a year. Hunger and malnutrition are evident in the toddlers’ patchy hair. This is the end of the hunger gap, which starts in April. The gardens are producing and the marketplace has peanuts, tomatoes, watermelons and cucumbers. But the families in the camp have no land to farm and no resources to buy food. The women greet us like long lost relatives; so welcoming, so grateful.
Women with toddlers gather under a large tree to receive their monthly ration of Plumpydoz, a nutritional, peanut-based food that addresses malnutrition in 6 to 36-month-old children. Nearly 500 children have been registered at each of seven distribution sites in Raja County. Each family receives four containers per child—one container per week. The child takes a tablespoon of Plumpydoz twice a day. The supplement will help the child grow physically and mentally during a crucial period of development. Without adequate nutrition like this, a child’s health is compromised for the rest of his or her life.
We go over the hill to see World Concern’s school feeding program in action. The children crouch around their common bowl of cooked sorghum, four to a bowl, girls on one side of the yard, boys on the other, eating with their washed hands. The feeding program acts as an incentive for school attendance. It’s good to see so many attending school — about 400.
We are invited to join the school principal and some teachers under a tree for lunch. We sample the same cooked red sorghum the children are eating. I expect a bland taste of cooked grain cereal, and am surprised by the good flavor. Phillip sees a group of boys kicking around a soccer ball and quickly organizes a competitive drill, then divides them into teams for a game. He manages to communicate, even with his limited Arabic. Games and laughter transcend language and culture.
I am particularly drawn to a little boy of a young mother. He’s 3 years old and infected by intestinal parasites. Bloated bellies have many causes, but his mother confirms she sees the worms in his stool. After spotting him, I notice several others in a similar state.
I have experienced the heartache of having a child die from an incurable condition. When I make eye contact with this mother, I see the question on her face. Do you have something that will cure my child? For this mother and this child, hope exists in the form of a tablet that costs 44 cents.
When we set out to visit the community of Dhobley, Somalia, it came after a security assessment from several people, and the knowledge that whatever the security may tell us, it’s still a dangerous place to go.
The militant group Al Shabaab, which has ties with Al Qaeda, was pushed farther back into Somalia a few months ago, helping Dhobley maintain some order. Security forces from Kenya and Somalia’s transitional government continue to make gains and reclaim territory. Still, news reports I’ve read indicate that Al Shabaab fighters are not very far outside of the community. And it’s clear that Al Shabaab is not far from the minds of the refugees.
When I talk with families fleeing the famine, I hear one thing again and again. It’s not just hunger that has driven families to leave. It’s the lawlessness that has flourished in the failed state of Somalia. I’ve heard horror stories of the innocent being victimized by evil men in unspeakable ways.
Even if these families had moderate success with their businesses or farming in Somalia, nearly all did it while living in fear. With the painful backdrop of poor security, the famine was the inescapable problem that pushed them over the edge, sending them on an uncertain journey for food and water. In order to affect long-term change, security must improve.
Heading to the nearly unmarked border
On a day we traveled to Somalia to work, we left World Concern’s base for famine response in Dadaab, Kenya. This town is home to the rapidly-growing complex of refugee camps you’ve seen on the news, as well as a large UN compound. It takes about two hours to drive from Dadaab to Dhobley, just across the Somalia border. Like other agencies, we have elected to have a security detail join us on the road.
The road to Somalia has no signs, just tire tracks in deep sand on a twisting road through scrub brush. Before reaching the border, we had to stop in the Kenyan border town of Liboi on our way to Dhobley, to get our passports stamped, knowing that there was no similar immigration checkpoint in Somalia.
The border has two non-descript markers, short unmarked concrete obelisks set along the road, in a section of sand and scrub that looks like any other. But that was our sign to stop. Our Kenyan vehicles could go no farther. Soon, after we called our contacts in Somalia, an ancient small Nissan transport van arrived, and we switched vehicles, from our Kenyan trucks, to the rented Somali van. Inside were Somali men who run a partner agency in Dadaab, and they would be leading us around town.
Gunfire seems normal
Dhobley was filled with livestock searching for a drink, and small shops like I have seen in other more established towns in Kenya. What was unusual was the military presence. Hundreds of young TFG soldiers dressed in green fatigues held old assault rifles and wandered around, on foot and in the back of pick-up trucks.
Every so often, I’d hear gunshots. Who was firing? I’m really not sure. I’d bet, though, that with no real functioning government, many people are armed. The crack of gunshots are common in Dhobley. People are saying, “Hi, how are you doing!” or “I am angry!” or some other message. But what we did not hear was prolonged gunfire to indicate an actual fight. And so, strangely, I stopped flinching when I heard a shot, and it just became ambient noise.
No hospital, but a medical clinic
World Concern is joined in Dhobley with our partners at Medical Teams International, who work under World Concern in the response. One man and a woman are from Uganda, and usually work in that country. They are extremely talented folks with much relevant experience. Because of the crisis, they’ve been called up. Another man is a physician from Oregon who specializes at diagnosing rare diseases, along with a nurse who is an expert in disaster medical care. Both of them have been in about seven missions with MTI.
The MTI team saw patients in a small clinic. The one story building is under construction, and helps the community compensate for the loss of a hospital. Locals say that Al Shabaab commandeered the hospital when it controlled the town, using the building as a base of operations. During the fight to reclaim Dhobley, the building was more or less destroyed.
Searching for working water wells
While the MTI team saw patients, a team from World Concern drove from water source to water source in town to see how the systems were functioning. After evaluating several pumping stations, we see they need work, and form a plan for how to help. With a large population of displaced people, the demand for food and water has increased. We also notice that people are using a watering hole for livestock as their source of drinking water. This is a guaranteed way to spread disease.
We’re also working here to ensure the hungry are fed. By using a voucher system, those in need are able to buy food from local businesses. We find that this is safer than trucking food down a road that is also home to bandits. And by buying from local vendors, we help the economy.
It is a safe bet that Dhobley receives many more refugees in the coming months. The primary road to the Dadaab refugee camps passes right through Dhobley. With continued unrest elsewhere in Somalia, and the growing famine, more families will decide to leave their homes, and search for a new life in Kenya as refugees.
Working for sustainability – with an eye on who’s really hurting
By helping communities with food, water and more, World Concern is working to help keep Somalis in Somalia, if possible, and out of the overburdened camps. And in our work with communities, we’re also helping ensure those who live in these towns on the border can survive the flood of travelers.
It is a complex problem, happening in a dangerous area, and it will get worse before it gets better. It is a difficult logistical and political equation to ensure long-term stability that will allow us to do the long-term transformational work that the community really needs.
What remains consistent, however, is the desperation from families who find themselves caught in the middle. It doesn’t matter that the security is rotten, and that bad people still roam freely here. The fact is that these families – men, women, boys and girls – need the basics of life. They need food and water, and without it, they will die.
Our goal is to be here long-term, to help the communities become more self sufficient, and less vulnerable. We want to see the communities transform. But the reality for now is that we are in a life-or-death crisis.
With those who are supporting us, we are able to make a small difference in this big disaster, making sure that families we touch will make it through this famine alive.
There is water in Damajale, Kenya today, bringing relief and smiles to the faces of thirsty children and families.
About a week ago, the only deep well in this village along the Kenya-Somalia border failed. The pump, 150 meters underground, was working round the clock and finally quit. Watch the CNN iReport here.
Damajale is one of many host communities that has seen a massive influx of refugees. In the past month, an additional 2,000 to 3,000 people have arrived here, having walked for days – even weeks – in search of food and water.
Fatuma, a mother of eight, was brought to tears when she realized there was no water. She had walked 30 kilometers through the night to Damajale to find only empty jerrycans stacked around the well.
“I struggle to stand here now, because I am so thirsty,” Fatuma said. “I don’t know when I will come back to my home. I may die on the way.”
World Concern is working in outlying host villages like this to get water and food to people there. Repairing and increasing the capacity of existing wells is one way we’re doing that.
In Damajale, we were able to get a new pump flown in, and engineers worked through the night to fix the well.
Today, water is flowing from the well.
To those who have donated to the famine response, the chairman of the elders of Damajale says, “You have come and rescued us. May God bless you.”
As I read the daily news articles about the famine in the Horn of Africa, I’m continuously shocked at the angry comments posted at the end of these articles. Many of them are downright hateful, and imply that we as Americans should not help other countries where there are groups that have expressed hatred toward the U.S.
I’ve even heard questions like, “Why should I care?” Or, “Haven’t those people brought this on themselves with their violence?”
To me, this is irrational thinking. Humanitarian organizations provide aid in some challenging places. We do so because there are innocent children and families who are caught in the middle and need help. In the case of Somalia, these families have no government to turn to for help. It doesn’t exist. Their crops have failed, their animals have died, and they have left their homes in search of survival.
In almost all suffering it is possible to point to people individually or corporately that are responsible for the injustice. The most intense suffering and hardest to overcome is that which people inflict on others. Injustice is not limited to the rich oppressing the poor. Wherever people have an element of power – whether wealth, land, social, political or positional – over another person, there is the risk for oppression. This is the situation in Somalia. There are those with power that are oppressing the powerless. This has held people down so they have been living just above the survival line in the best of times. The drought has limited food production for the last two years and plunged the population below the survival line. Oppressed people are dying.
So what is to be done about the oppressors in Somalia and the rest of the world? As humanitarians, we believe reaching out to people in need shows a path other than violence as the answer. I am not suggesting that if we care for those in need the oppressors will see the acts of kindness and change their ways. But those who receive help are given a chance to see compassion, rather than violence, in action.
All other concerns aside – these are people that are dying. When a child is withering away it really does not matter whether the cause is drought, ignorance, or social injustice. It is a precious child that is dying. If we determine that any person is of less value because of where they were born, we have lost our humanity.
As one who deals with the issues of injustice everyday in my profession, I realize the impossibility of meeting every need myself. I feel the frustration of the overwhelming need weighed against limited resources. But I also know that the real question I must answer is not how much can I help? But rather, should I care? We can all do something. If everyone did what they could, then extreme poverty could be conquered.
What is the purpose of our freedom if not to help the powerless? We must do more than “do no evil.” We must “do good.” It is not enough to point fingers at the oppressors. We must help those that are oppressed. We must reach out to those who cannot repay us and will never know our names.
This is what compassion is about. This is what makes us different from those that oppress.