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Somalia famine casts light on North Memphis’ ‘Little Somalia’

  • Written by Dr. Sybill C. Mitchell
  • Published in News
Fever, dysentery, measles and chronic malnutrition is a way of life for refugees. There is never enough supplies, never enough food. Fever, dysentery, measles and chronic malnutrition is a way of life for refugees. There is never enough supplies, never enough food. Death is a familiar aspect of life in a refugee camp. Mothers lose their children and continue to hope for a better life.

For nearly 800 Somali immigrants, Memphis is akin to “the promised land.”

 somail refugees
 A combination of drought, famine and war has devastated the people of Somalia, especially the most vulnerable, the children. (Courtesy photo)

Tribal warfare in Darfur, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, genocide in the Sudan. Reports of mass atrocities and carnage across the African continent stunned the world throughout the ‘90’s.

But, say United Nations officials, drought-stricken Somalia has triggered widespread famine and “the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.” A mass exodus into Kenya and Ethiopia has created over-crowded refugee camps. Many die there – most of them children who do not live to see another birthday.

“Some flee political oppression. Others leave after financial ruin – the drought has destroyed crops and livestock,” said Reuben E. Brigety, who heads up the U.S. State Department’s assistance programs to African refugees.

In a widely distributed public statement, Brigety recently called America “a great nation that can do more than one thing at the same time.” The U.S. has pledged nearly $70 million in aid, despite its own economic challenges. Thousands have found a new home in America. Hundreds of thousands more still wait for rescue.

Most speak no English. They must depend on aid workers at Catholic Charities to tell their story.

A voice for the voiceless

Vinodini Jayaraman, director of Refugee and Immigration Services, told the Tri-State Defender that she has witnessed both tragedy and triumph in the Somalian refugee community.

“Many saw their entire village burned down and ran for their lives,” said Jayaraman. “The worst drought in 60 years has destroyed crops and livestock. Mothers walked hundreds of miles with their children for several days with neither food nor water. Overcrowded conditions at refugee camps in Ethiopia or Kenya only offered more suffering.”

The average length of stay in a refugee camp is 16-17 years, she said. Many children are born there, and some routine of life is established, even in miserable, sometimes inhumane conditions.

To these families who have never used kitchen appliances, indoor toilets, or running water, an apartment in North Memphis looks more like heaven than simply a new place to live.

“Over the past two decades, we have helped approximately 50 Somalian refugees each year to begin again,” said Catholic Charities of Memphis President and CEO Michael D. Allen.

“We try to provide every kind of assistance we can, but we could do so much more with more volunteers who are willing to help us.

Attaining the “American Dream” suddenly becomes  reality for these families. They are eager to work and go to school, said Jayaraman.

“Within 30-45 days of arrival, everyone gets a Social Security card,” said Jayaraman. “Those who are of age and can work are assisted with securing employment. Everyone who is able to work pays the State Department back every penny for their transport to this country.

“Somalis are proud and happy to attend school and pursue careers,” she said. “They are proud to live in America and in our city where there is opportunity for personal advancement and growth. Even starting off with the most menial of jobs does not deter their ambition. It’s gratifying to be a part of this work. We must continue to feel compassion for these families and do all we can to help them.”

According to Brigety, “There are many seasoned relief professionals who would tell you we haven’t seen a crisis this bad in a generation….We anticipate that this crisis will get worse before it gets better.”

Memphis may get still more Somalis before the year is out, said Allen. United Nations member countries continue a joint effort to help assimilate refugee families.

(Anyone who may be interested in volunteer opportunities with refugee services, or any other outreach at Catholic Charities should call 901-722-4700.)

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