Games for the young at a Somali Relief Ottawa-East Africa Relief campaign with fundraising barbecue benefit on Sunday July 24, 2011, at Vincent Massey Park.
Their plates overflowed with food in memory of those whose plates are empty.
On Sunday, hundreds of people — many part of Ottawa’s large Somali diaspora — converged at Vincent Massey Park for a day-long fundraiser to help the millions of Africans living through the worst famine to hit the horn of Africa in decades.
The scent of halal hamburgers and hotdogs roasting on the grill filled the air, while people piled their plates high with salad, chicken and rice, samosas, and traditional Somali meat stews.
There were sweets, too: Cupcakes, cookies and brownies emblazoned with a simple message in white icing: “Feed Somalia.”
More than 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti desperately need humanitarian help.
The situation is particularly bad in Somalia’s troubled southern region, where the distribution of aid is being hampered by the hard-line Islamist al-Shabaab militia, which is blocking relief supplies from entering the country.
Caught in the middle, thousands of Somalis are making a perilous journey south to Kenya, home of the world’s largest refugee camp.
A report in the New York Times this week said countless Somalis are dying along the way, while many of those who do make it to Kenya can barely stand, talk or swallow.
“Some mothers have even shown up with the bodies of shrivelled babies strapped to their backs,” the Times reported.
Suad Daware left Somalia as a child.
Now 29, the Ottawa woman has been following the story closely and was struck when she read about a woman who left for Kenya with five children, to arrive with only two.
The other three died en route.
“That just got me,” Daware said.
“I don’t know what that would feel like for a parent. I cannot even imagine.”
She decided on-the-spot to organize something, got some friends to join her and partnered with another community group that was already planning a BBQ for Sunday. “Hopefully it will mobilize people,” she said.
“If it were you, you’d hope people would help you out.”
What’s happening right now in Africa hits close to home for Mohamed Sofa, a community health worker at Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre.
“It’s very emotional,” he said. “I think inside people are burning.”
Most of his family, including his parents, still live in Somalia. They live in the northeast, which isn’t part of the severely affected area. But they have seen food prices soar: They used to be able to buy a large jug of cooking oil, 50 kilograms of rice, some flour and powdered milk for $150, but these days, $300 to $400 couldn’t buy the same amount of food.
People are also having to look out for others, Sofa said, so food that once was split among five mouths is now being stretched to feed up to 20.
But his family is safe. For now. As Sofa explained, safety in Somalia — a country that’s been gripped by turmoil since its government fell in 1991 — is conditional.
Hawa Mohamed also has relatives in Somalia — cousins, nieces and nephews — but reaching them has been difficult now that thousands are on the move to Kenya.
Mohamed stays on top of what’s happening in the region by reading Canadian and Arabic newspapers online, but she can no longer bear to look at the pictures.
“I reach a point where I can’t watch. I can only read. My heart cannot handle it.”
Sofa said he’s not looking at the pictures either. “The images are hard, you don’t want to drain yourself,” he said.
Mohamed said she wants the international community, including Canada, to come up with a long-term solution for her troubled homeland, as the revolving door of transitional governments clearly isn’t working.
After 20 years of conflict, it’s time to focus on the people affected, she said.
The Canadian government pledged this week to give $50 million to aid organizations responding to the crisis. That’s on top of the $22 million the government had previously committed to. The government will also match charitable donations made by individual Canadians dollar-for-dollar.
Mohamed said she’s proud her adopted country is giving so generously and encourages Canadians to open their wallets. But she wants the government and aid agencies to make sure the money gets into the hands of those who need it most.
Mohamed said she is angered by reports that al-Shabaab is refusing to accept aid from Western countries and the United Nations World Food Program.
There needs to be another way to get food to the people in Somalia or else thousands more will die trying to make the journey to Kenya.
Meanwhile, the warlords, pirates, extremists and constant state of conflict takes a toll on all Somalis, she said. “It’s a living trauma to be Somalian,” Mohamed said. “You don’t see anything to be proud of.”
Sofa said he’s not surprised the militia group is blocking aid given its behaviour over the years. He called the current famine “man made” and agreed that the solution lies in finding a long-term fix to the political instability. Otherwise, there will be more famines and refugee camps will continue to burst at the seems.
“We feel like everyone’s given up,” he said. “You have to wonder what is next. Thirty years, 50 years, will I ever see a solution in my lifetime?”firstname.lastname@example.org