American Refugee Committee sets sights on Somaliaby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Pirates, militant gangs and nearly 20 years of civil war have made Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarian workers.
But a Minneapolis-based relief group plans to set up a program there early next year. The American Refugee Committee would be one of the few international aid organizations to base their operations in the lawless East African nation.
Some Somali-Americans are applauding the move, especially in light of concerns that money sent to the homeland may be getting into the wrong hands.
Overseeing a humanitarian-aid program in Somalia apparently requires nerves of steel. The Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee's job description calls for someone who's able to cope in "stressful situations."
That's putting it mildly. Many foreign aid groups left Somalia after militias began to kill or kidnap staff workers in the southern part of the country.
The ARC's president and CEO, Daniel Wordsworth, says the increased violence has prompted many of the aid organizations to move to Nairobi, Kenya.
"They are operating in Somalia by remote control," Wordsworth said. "We are trying to locate our team on the ground, and do it face to face, and be right there where the money is being spent, where the programs are being implemented, and where the people are."
Safety is a huge concern for Wordsworth, which is why his group will work in the northern -- and more peaceful -- part of Somalia, and assist some of the 1.6 million internally displaced people who have fled the violence of Mogadishu and other areas. They're like refugees in their own country, many of them living in makeshift settlements with no medical supplies or clean water.
Wordsworth says the program would also train young Somalis for jobs.
"For these young people, what future do they really have? It's not that they haven't been to school," he said. "It's that no school exists where they live. They may be 20 years old and have never seen a teacher."
Wordsworth says going to Somalia is a natural move for his organization. Minnesota's Somali-American community is the largest of its kind in the United States, and the humanitarian crisis raging in their homeland is one of the worst in the world.
Last week, Wordsworth met with a Somali humanitarian worker who was visiting the Twin Cities. Dr. Hawa Abdi, a gynecologist, has spent the past 20 years helping her people at a hospital and camp she set up on the outskirts of Mogadishu.
Glamour Magazine awarded the 63-year-old Dr. Abdi as one of its women of the year, and described her as "equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo." In May, she was captured by the hard-line militia Hizbul Islam and was forced to watch as the gunmen killed one of her guards and broke the legs of two others before they released her.
Abdi's grown daugher, Deqa Mohamed, a doctor who lives in Atlanta, traveled to Minneapolis with her mother, and tells the story of how militants looted her mother's hospital.
"They destroyed everything, literally everything they could see. They broke the windows, doors, even the mattresses, they cut them in half. I have no idea why they did that," she said. "It's very painful, to see what she built over 20 years destroyed in less than two hours. It's very sad."
But Mohamed, who has worked with her mother at the camp, says international aid groups must find the courage to move their operations into Somalia.
"Get out of Nairobi, sitting in their beautiful houses and getting safaris," shes said.
She said aid workers need to have a presence throughout Somalia, including areas that are relatively peaceful. Somalis will seek out aid organizations wherever they can find work, she said.
Many Somali-Americans are rooting for the ARC for yet another reason: They hope the new program will bring transparency to fund-raising efforts for their homeland.
Said Sheik-Abdi of Minneapolis says people in his community give generously to informal charities set up by individuals in Minnesota. But he says the recent indictments of two Rochester women has worried some donors. The women say they were raising money for internally displaced people, but federal authorities say the cash was going to the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Sheik-Abdi, an ARC advisor who was part of a delegation that revisited his homeland earlier this year, said the arrests caused some to question whom they can trust to handle their money.
"If that person does something negative, what impact will that have to an individual who is a Somali-American who is sending the money with good intentions?" he said.
Federal authorities say Somali-Americans won't be prosecuted unless they knowingly donate to terrorist groups. But the FBI cautions that the public should be mindful of where their money is going.
"If you don't know the person who is asking for your money, and there is no way to vet or be certain where that money is going, I would approach that cautiously," said Special Agent E.K. Wilson, counterterrorism supervisor for the Minneapolis division of the FBI.
The American Refugee Committee hopes it can win the support and guidance of local Somali-Americans. The group will hold several town-hall meetings to help shape the new program.