Thursday, July 21, 2011
The scene at Dadaab, Kenya, this week must be something out of one's most horrific nightmare.
Over the past few days, more than 5,000 Somalis have joined the other 400,000 desperate souls already residing at the world's largest refugee camp complex.
With famine - recognized officially as such on Wednesday by the United Nations - raging on, tens of thousands more are expected in the coming days.
For Mohamed Jama, though, hearing news that his sister Faduma Jama and her family are among those residents of the cramped, filthy camp, where plastic sheets serve as housing in the 50 C heat, would lift his heavy heart.
"If they are in a refugee camp, that is the best we can expect," says Jama, president of the Somali Canadian Society of Calgary.
"We haven't been able to contact them for several days now. They are likely on the move, looking for somewhere to take refuge."
Jama says he is just one of many from Calgary's 4,000-strong Somali community left to wonder, worry and wish for the best for their loved ones back home.
"This is the most heartbreaking time ever for Somalis living here," says the 60-year-old, who fled his homeland in 1990 with his family after an endless civil war made life there untenable.
"We have seen a lot happen to our country, but this is the worst thing in more than six decades."
Although they have made a new life here in Canada far from its political and natural strife, the city's Somali community maintains strong ties to that East African country.
"Most of us have family, immediate family, still there," explains Hussein Warsame, an associate professor with the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.
"When the rains come, we rejoice along with our loved ones back home, and when the rains don't come, we wait and worry."
Warsame, who came to Canada in 1986, says he has been sending home several thousand dollars each year to help out relatives.
"You leave, but you never forget the needs of those still there," says the academic, who regularly speaks out on the issues facing the troubled country.
"But now, my family is asking for more money, because others who know them are now coming to them seeking shelter and food."
Warsame says he is one of the lucky ones, able to afford much bigger monthly stipends.
"Most of Canada's Somali community are people of lower income levels, who can hardly afford it, but they do it."
Still, they wish they could give more and hope in the coming days to do just that, with help from the greater Calgary community.
This evening, leaders from the local Somali community will meet at Connaught School to discuss ways to generate fundraising initiatives to help those back home.
"Fundraising is not our specialty," says Jama, "but we will brainstorm ways in which to appeal to our fellow citizens' compassion and humanitarianism."
Some of those fellow citizens, people like Ron and Martha Retzlaff, are already doing their part.
The Calgary couple set off two and a half years ago for Kenya, the country taking in the bulk of the Somali refugees fleeing drought conditions.
"Seeing the UN declare famine isn't shocking at all to us," says Ron Retzlaff, who with his wife is visiting the town of Millet, southeast of Edmonton, this week to welcome their seventh grandchild.
"There are more than two million people affected se-verely there by drought."
The Retzlaffs have seen the refugee camps with their own eyes and still find it indescribable.
"Thousands come in a day and there is nowhere to take them and process them," says Retzlaff, who with his wife is on a fiveyear stint as the country representatives for the Mennonite Central Committee (canada.mcc.org) in Kenya.
"Try and put yourself, and your children, in that situation. It's just awful; it's heart-wrenching."
Retzlaff says negative reports about the obstacles to aid at the hands of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which controls much of the worst-hit parts of southern Somalia, shouldn't stop Calgarians from donating money to reputable organizations providing aid there.
"We've seen with our own eyes the work being done on the ground and how it can save lives."
According to the United Nations, a famine is declared when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent, when more than two people per every 10,000 die per day and people are not able to access food and other basic life necessities.
It is estimated that the famine has already killed tens of thousands.
So while life in a refugee camp may be hell on earth, it is still life. And with life, there is hope.
"I will hope for the best," says Mohamed Jama of his lost loved ones. "I won't give up on them."
Valerie Fortney is a Calgary Herald columnist. email@example.com
Where to donate
UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) www.unhcr.org/emergency/somalia
United Nations Chil dren's Fund www.unicef.org
OXFAM Canada www.oxfam.ca
Canadian Red Cross www.redcross.ca
- - Mennonite Central Committee www.mcc.org
World Vision Canada www.worldvision.ca
- - Doctors Without Borders www.msf.ca