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The shadow of famine moving closer: Willmar presentation aims to raise awareness

Briana Sanchez / Tribune Hamdi Kosar leans in to give Fardowsa Ibrahim a hug as she speaks about her experience with famine in Somalia as a teen. The talk was part of a presentation March 25 at the Willmar Community Center. Kosar and Ibrahim both shared similar stories.1 / 2
Briana Sanchez / Tribune A video on famine in Somalia is shown March 25 during a presentation at the Willmar Community Center. Families who lived through similar famine situations years ago shared their experiences with people in the community.2 / 2

WILLMAR — The news coming out of Somalia has not been encouraging as nearly 6.2 million people are at risk from a potential famine, according to the United Nations, the second famine in less than a decade.

Many of Willmar's residents have been growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Somalia and a group of about 30 met March 25 at the Willmar Community Center to learn more and hear firsthand what it is like living through a famine.

"Very thankful for all of you who care," Arfon Mohamud said.

Mohamud, along with Willmar Community Center commission chairwoman Darlene Schroeder, led the discussion.

Mohamud, Fardowsa Ibrahim and Hamdi Kosar have all experienced the tragedy of famine.

"It is important to know the journeys they've been on," Schroeder said.

Ibrahim was 15 years old, recently graduated from her boarding school and her mother didn't attend the ceremony. It became very clear why when Ibrahim returned home.

"I saw my mom, sitting outside crying, covering her face. She didn't know what to do," Ibrahim said.

There was no food in the house, water was rare and Ibrahim's younger siblings, 5 and 9 years old, were deathly ill. The mother told her daughter to go in to say hello to her siblings before it was too late.

"She said 'I hope you never come,'" Ibrahim recalled.

Ibrahim, who learned some English at school, took it upon herself to find help. She found a group of people with cameras and she kneeled in front of a man, asking for food for her family. She explained how afraid she was to go get water from the well three miles away. The man helped, driving Ibrahim and some of her neighbors to get water.

"I was so happy, I cried and hugged him," Ibrahim said.

The man interviewed the family and Ibrahim worked for food as a translator, as he went around the village.

"I saw my friends, family, neighbors dying," Ibrahim said.

The UN got food and water to the village, and Ibrahim's siblings received medical help, but Ibrahim remembers how powerless she felt.

The famine left its marks on Kosar as well, even though she was a small child.

"I have memories of what happened," Kosar said.

Kosar lived with her grandmother on a farm, located in a forest, she said. The rest of her family lived in the relative security of the city. Kosar recalled how difficult it was to get water.

"As a child you don't know what's going on," Kosar said.

Kosar said she one day hopes to go back and help those who need it.

"I have that dream in my heart, to go back and help them. If I can make someone's day, I make my day," Kosar said.

Armed conflict, geography, climate and weather are all playing a role in the humanitarian crisis.

"There has been two years of poor rainfall and this is the third," Schroeder said.

Without rain the crops fail, animals die and drinking water dries up. This leaves families with few options.

"A lot of women and children are leaving their homes," Schroeder said. The United Nations said from November 2016 to February 2017, nearly 257,000 people left their homes in search of water, food and safety.

"The numbers are increasing as the days go by," Mohamud said.

Because many of the men stay behind to care for what is left of the farms, these women and young children are walking days, if not weeks, unprotected. There are many cases of sexual and gender-based violence, in addition to the lack of water and food.

"They mostly die on the way," Mohamud said.

Hundreds of thousands are streaming into camps, including asylum seekers and returning refugees from other countries, putting a strain on already limited resources.

"Other things come up, like diseases, like cholera," Mohamud said.

Since the beginning of the year the UN has reported at least 11,000 cases of cholera and 268 related deaths, caused by drinking unclean water.

"They don't have a choice if they drink this unsafe water or not," Mohamud said, because there are no other water sources.

In 2011, a reported quarter of a million people died from the last famine. The UN says many of the deaths occurred because the international community did not respond fast enough.

"We want to avoid what happened in 2011," Schroeder said.

The UN is coordinating international aid response with at least 300 partner organizations. It is estimated around $863 million will be required to meet the need. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs accepts both online and mailed donations, as does the American Refugee Committee. A Facebook page called Somali Famine Willmar Responds has been started as a place for local people to share how they or organizations plan to help.

"The more you do, the more you do," Schroeder said, who feels Willmar has the potential to have a great response.

"Every day, every week matters when it comes to saving lives," Schroeder said.

If there is one lesson Kosar learned from her experience with famine, and a

lesson she wanted to share, is that we all need to help each other.

"Even though we're far from each other, we're neighbors. We have something in common, that's human," Kosar said.