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East Africa Famine: An Interview with Laura Sheahen and Sara A. Fajardo of Catholic Relief Services

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The famine and drought striking East Africa have created one of the worst humanitarian tragedies of this generation. Thousands of children have starved to death and many more are in grave peril from malnutrition.

Somalis are desperately fleeing into Kenya and Ethiopia in the search for food, only these countries are also suffering from food shortages. With the unrelenting drought, the crisis could get much worse. Children are suffering from severe malnutrition. Aid agencies are struggling to keep up.

At a GIZ hospital at a refugee camp in Kenya, a severely malnourished Somali refugee child receives treatment. (Photo by Laura Sheahen/Catholic Relief Services)

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is one of the aid groups in a race to save lives. CRS officers Laura Sheahen, who just visited one of the refugee camps in Kenya, and Sara A. Fajardo, took time to discuss the massive relief effort underway.

How is Catholic Relief Services helping the victims of famine and drought in East Africa?

Sara A. Fajardo: To give just a few examples, we are currently helping to feed more than a million people in Ethiopia and have launched projects in Isiolo and Wajir, Kenya and about to launch projects in Mandera where the drought’s impact has been severe. Some of the pastoralist communities living there have lost 50-100 percent of their livestock. These projects include rehabilitating wells, assisting with school-feeding programs and working on conflict mitigation projects between different pastoralist communities who may be trying to access the same limited resources.

In the Dadaab Refugee area we will be working through partners to distribute around 10,000 hygiene kits to arriving refugees. As part of our “do no harm” approach to humanitarian aid, we will also be providing assistance to the host communities surrounding the Dadaab refugee camps. These communities have also been severely impacted by the drought but are often overlooked because of the seemingly more pressing needs of the incoming refugees. Tensions can often flare up when one community perceives another as receiving assistance while they are left to fend for themselves. We will provide them with water and food aid and work with them to help weather the difficult months ahead.

Somali refugees at Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Following a severe drought, many families faced starvation and left Somalia on foot. Thousands of refugees are flooding into Dadaab every week. (Photo by Laura Sheahen/Catholic Relief Services)

Even before this drought hit, Catholic Relief Services was on the ground working to help communities prepare for this current emergency. In Kenya our staff has been working over the past three years alone to provide 91 water points to local communities, helped to create tree nurseries with more than 3.7 million seedlings, worked to get more than 2,500 miles of agricultural terraces built, and provided more than 108,000 female goats to our beneficiaries.

In Ethiopia we’ve worked over the past eight years to fight the effects of recurrent drought by drilling wells 1,000 feet into the earth. In much of Ethiopia, water runs below the surface in underground caverns as deep as 1,000 feet. This water is difficult, but not impossible to access. A recent visit to the field revealed that 95 percent of 28 wells CRS has constructed are still operational. The difference between communities with water sources and those without is remarkable. The livestock are plumper and produce more milk, which in turn means that the people themselves are nourished better. People in these areas rely less on food aid and more on their own means.

You met some of the refugees escaping from Somalia, what are some of the stories they told you about what they have faced?

Laura Sheahen: Almost every refugee I spoke to had a horror story about the long walk from Somalia to Kenya. Armed bandits are a huge problem, and the vast majority of refugees I spoke to had been robbed at gunpoint. There has been an appalling number of rapes as well.

Some of the refugees were robbed not just of the little food and clothing they carried, but the actual clothes they were wearing; they are walking naked. People fleeing the famine and war in Somalia are also fighting off lions and hyenas in the night.

And of course, walking for weeks in the bush, under a baking sun and with no food, is bringing refugees to the brink of collapse even when they don’t meet bandits or wild animals.


Photo by Laura Sheahen/Catholic Relief Services

What do you see is the greatest risk to refugees at these camps? Is it spread of disease, malnutrition?

Laura Sheahen: Right now, just keeping up with the food and water needs is a gargantuan task. The refugee camps in Kenya near the border have existed for years because Somalia has been troubled and dangerous for so long. But because of the drought, the camps are overflowing now and it’s hard to get food to everyone quickly enough. Waterborne diseases will be a problem if sanitation for the newcomers isn’t worked out fast. Any contagious diseases — anything that spreads when too many weak, hungry people are crowded together — could be an issue. For example, there was a recent outbreak of measles.

How many more refugees potentially could arrive?

Sara A. Fajardo: It’s hard to say. Currently the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that between 1300-1500 new refugees are arriving daily. Aid agencies of course would prefer to help Somalis stay in their own countries. Whenever people are forced to migrate, it places them at undue risk for rape, theft, or other forms of exploitation. There is also the very real possibility of families becoming separated. In the measure that is possible the humanitarian aid community would like to provide direct assistance in the towns in villages most affected by the drought in order to avoid anyone having to make this often life-threatening trek.

How long do you think the refugees, as well as the host communities, will require extensive international assistance?

Sara A. Fajardo: This is a problem that will not be resolved over night. Droughts are cyclical in eastern Africa and their frequency (due to a variety of factors) is on the rise. Even if it rains tomorrow and the crops start growing, it will be quite awhile before things stabilize to the point where people can harvest enough food to sustain a family. It’s also important to remember that many of the drought-affected communities are pastoralists and rely on livestock for their survival. The UN estimates that it can take up to five years for herds of livestock to regenerate to a point that they can be relied as a consistent source of food. This emergency will require short, medium and long-term solutions, but of course the eventual goal of all concerned is to help people become self-reliant and not aid reliant.

Heya, a young refugee from Somalia, draws the letters of the English alphabet in the sand at Hagadera refugee camp. She is one of many who fled to northeast Kenya to escape drought and famine in their homeland. Heya sat on a donkey cart while her family walked five days with no food. “My stomach felt angry,” she says. So many refugees are arriving that the official grounds of the camp cannot hold them all, so they are setting up tents or makeshift domed shelters in what are called the “outskirts.” (Photo by Laura Sheahen/Catholic Relief Services)

                                      

You can donate to the Catholic Relief Services East Africa Emergency Fund.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.