Somali Media Rally Behind Famine Relief

Somali Media Rally Behind Famine Relief

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The famine now ravaging Somalia has stirred vivid memories for members of the Somali community in the United States, many of whom arrived fleeing similar conditions 20 years earlier. As Al-Shabab, the Muslim group that controls much of Somalia’s southern region, turns away international food donors, Somali media here are working to fill the void.

“Help has to come from the Somali community around the world,” says Hussien Mohammed, director of Sagal Radio Station, which offers in-language radio programming for Somalis and other East African immigrants in the Atlanta area. As news of the famine emerged, Somali media in the United States have in fact positioned themselves as a de-facto hub for donations and other forms of aid to their drought-stricken countrymen.

Efforts include a panel discussion hosted by the Somali American Media Association in Minneapolis, bringing together community leaders and local politicians to discuss the most effective ways to donate funds. The show is scheduled to air next week. In addition, Somali TV of Minnesota has organized a call-in program where people can inquire about how to most effectively send donations. The show’s organizers say it will be posted to YouTube after it airs locally.

One of the places concerned Somalis in the United States can go to donate funds are so-called hawalas, or money wiring agencies. The largest, Dahabshiil, runs 24,000 branches worldwide. The hawala system has been one of the most common ways for Somalis to send money back home via money transfers involving personal connections. Smaller outfits used to make transfers to more rural areas, however, are more informal, making it difficult to measure exactly how much is being remitted.

According to the United Nations, which officially declared a famine in the two southern regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle, some 350,000 people are at risk of starvation in Somalia. The World Food Program estimates that up to 11 million people are in need of aid across parts of East Africa.

As of Wednesday the WFP began airlifting supplies, bringing 10 tons of nutritional supplies to malnourished children. However the WFP is unable to reach many people in need in southern Somalia, where Al-Shabab is concentrated, due to security concerns.

Al-Shabab emerged out of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which controlled much of the country until its collapse in 2006 following a U.S. supported invasion by neighboring Ethiopia. Blamed for much of the violence in Somalia, the group’s connection to terror organizations like Al Qaeda has implicated members of the Somali community in the U.S.

“Everyone is concerned about where the money will end up,” commented Abdirizak Hassan, executive director for the Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee. Still, he said, support efforts are getting underway.

Hassan estimated that at a recent community fundraiser in Nashville, approximately $4,000 was raised, a fraction of the $1.6 billion called for by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Another event organized in Minneapolis involved local college students and members of the Somali community.

Al Shabab recently reversed a decision made in early July to allow international food donations from organizations like the WFP and International Red Cross following the U.N. declaration of famine in the country. Spokespersons for the group say the U.N. has exaggerated conditions on the ground and deny that a famine is in fact taking place.

Somalis here don’t seem convinced. Many migrated here following the last famine that struck Somalia in 1991-92, which left hundreds of thousands dead.

“This famine reminds them of that time and they really want to help,” said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minneapolis. Many are concerned about how best to make the needed donations, and whether or not the aid will reach those most in need.

On the media side, the challenge remains of how best to reach a population scattered across the country, with many speaking little to no English and made up of a high percentage of broken or separated families and at-risk youth. Over the past 10 years, some 50,000 Somali immigrants have arrived in the United States, many of them as refugees fleeing famine and war.

Including Sagal Radio, there are three radio broadcasts that cater to Somalis in and around Atlanta, as well as eight TV and radio programs that serve the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Concentrated in select cities such as Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Columbus, the Somali population is dispersed throughout the country, its members reliant on the media for information on a range of issues, including immigration, health care and the legal system. Famine relief can now be added to that list.

Organizations such as UNICEF and UNHCR have offered ways via their websites for people to donate. To donate to UNICEF, click here:  and to donate to UNHCR, please click here.