A child peers from behind folds of fabric covering a makeshift shelter.

Amid despair, aid worker finds hope as Somalia faces the threat of famine

One of the greatest burdens of being a humanitarian is watching children on the edge of starvation suffer, then realizing their hunger will worsen before enough help arrives.

This is the reality facing millions of children in southern Somalia. At least 7 million people are experiencing severe food insecurity, and 213,000 people are one step away from famine.

Widespread hunger — largely driven by the country’s worst drought in 40 years, and exacerbated by rising food costs — has displaced more than 918,000 people. With no choice but to relocate, they’ve often walked for days or weeks. Because their communities are remote, help wouldn’t have been able to reach them if they’d stayed behind.

I’ve met several of these displaced families in Dolow District, located in the southwestern Gedo region. Kin, a mother of six, traveled in vehicles with her family for nearly 700 miles to escape drought and hunger in northern Somalia. She’s now staying with her children in a tiny shelter made of old clothes, plastic bags, and dry sticks. Three of her children are living with disabilities, including two who have difficulties walking.

Like most of the 18,000 others staying in this makeshift camp, Kin lost all her livestock to the drought and came here with the hope of receiving humanitarian assistance to survive. She also had to leave loved ones behind. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult her journey must have been.

Read New York Times’ Chief Africa correspondent Declan Walsh and photographer Andrea Bruce report from Baidoa, Somalia, and learn how World Vision is helping children and families threatened by famine.

Some children awaiting aid won’t live to see help arrive. The United Nations has warned that nearly 400,000 Somali children under 5 are likely to be severely malnourished by the end of the year.

The desperate situation of food insecurity forces parents to consider drastic measures just to survive the year: pulling their children from school so that they can work or preparing young girls for marriage to secure a dowry. Even then, these families can often afford only one basic meal a day.

Now, families like Kin’s that are surviving on humanitarian aid still miss meals, sometimes for days, or have to beg their neighbors for food. That’s how the families I met celebrated the Eid al-Adha holidays in early July.

Everyone in Kin’s camp relies on a single water tank that is filled twice a day thanks to World Vision. This support is a lifeline. In camps that don’t have access to clean water, our frontline staff are witnessing a surge in waterborne diseases, such as diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera.

A mother, dressed in a rust-colored veil, holds her sick child on her lap as an aid worker records the child's condition.
World Vision health and nutrition worker Mohamed Yusu records symptoms of a child with a suspected case of measles in Somalia, where hunger along with waterborne and communicable diseases are on the rise due to poor sanitation and hygiene, a lack of clean water, and crowded conditions at makeshift camps. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Gwayi Patrick)
A girl, dressed in a patterned blue veil sits in a camp in southern Somalia.
(©2022 World Vision/photo by Gwayi Patrick)
Suldana waits for water at a camp for displaced people.
Daily, she tends to the needs of her family and also goes to town to find work, mostly washing dishes, where she earns 50 Somali shillings (about US$1) to help buy food. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Gwayi Patrick)
Bird’s-eye view of a severely malnourished child weighed on a scale in a health clinic where extreme hunger is the norm.
Seven-month-old Hamdi is weighed at a World Vision–operated nutrition clinic in Baidoa, Somalia, where healthcare workers are reporting a rise in severe malnutrition among children. Hamdi’s screening revealed that she was severely malnourished, weighing less than 9 pounds. Due to the prolonged drought and increasing food insecurity, children are not getting enough nutrition in their diets. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Gwayi Patrick)

The scale of need and suffering is beyond anything I’ve seen. A district commissioner told me this drought is far worse than the one Somalia experienced in 2011, when 250,000 people, half of which were children, died of hunger.

Seven-month-old Hamdi weighed less than
9 pounds when her mother brought her
to a World Vision–operated nutrition
clinic in Baidoa, Somalia. Upon screening,
she was shown to be severely malnourished
and was given ready-to-use therapeutic food.
(©2022 World Vision/photo by Gwayi Patrick)
After receiving nutritional care from World Vision,
Hamdi started on the road to recovery.
By the time of her follow up visit,
baby Hamdi’s health was steadily improving,
and she had gained nearly three
pounds in one month. Three servings
a day of ready-to-use-therapeutic food for
eight weeks can save the life of a starving child.
(©2022 World Vision/photo by Gwayi Patrick)

Amid the despair, I have not lost hope.

Aid agencies like World Vision are present where needs are greatest, doing everything possible to help alleviate food insecurity suffering. World Vision is providing food vouchers and cash to 38,000 displaced families in Somalia every month, in partnership with the World Food Programme. This helps cushion children and their families from the negative effects of the drought. But the fact is, we urgently need funding as we seek to nearly double the number of people who receive this critical support.

Somali mother, surrounded by four of her children, smiles broadly while holding a food voucher card.
Faadumo, a Somali mother of eight, pictured with some of her children in front of their makeshift shelter in an informal camp in Baidoa, southern Somalia, where they have been living since April 2022. Faadumo migrated from her rural home after her livestock died during the drought earlier in the year. She can access food vouchers and aid from World Vision through its partnership with the World Food Programme through December 2022. The blue card she is holding in her hand is loaded monthly with a food voucher worth US$75. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Gwayi Patrick)

I’ve met Somali children who are determined to build a better future for themselves and their country. They’re the change we’ve been waiting for, but drought and hunger threaten to erode their dreams. Let’s come alongside these children before it’s too late.

Aid worker in Somalia wearing an orange and white World Vision vest

Tobias Oloo served as operations director for World Vision in Somalia.

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