LEWISTON — Somalia native Abdirisak Maalin, 27, just returned home from what he thought would be a visit with uncles, aunts and cousins doing OK in a refugee camp in Kenya.
But what he saw made him cry.
The United Nations is calling drought-ridden Somalia and overcrowded Kenya refugee camps the “worst humanitarian disaster” in the world. The Kenya refugee camps, which now hold some 380,000, are overcrowded with refugees fleeing a drought in Somalia that has killed crops and livestock, leaving people no way to feed themselves.
The plight of relatives in Somalia and the Kenyan camps weigh heavier than normal these days on the minds of Lewiston Somalis. Other than praying and sending money, they are powerless to help.
Maalin, who works as an interpreter, spent six days at two camps in Kenya and 10 days at a third, Dagahaley, where he lived from 1991 to 2002.
“I knew how bad the camp was. Now the camp is double its size. Conditions are horrible,” Maalin said. People live in shelters made of blankets and branches. “Parents are looking terrible, terrified. There's nothing to eat.” The camp looks like a war zone. “Tens of thousands arrive every day because of the drought. They had to walk seven to 15 days there without food.”
Some of the newly arrived included his aunts. “You cannot look at them. You feel like crying,” he said. “They don't have energy. They look dull. They are thin, starving. Some of their kids died on the way to the camp, or died at the camp.”
Children are dying of malnutrition, whooping cough and diarrhea.
“UNICEF cannot provide help for most of them, they do not have enough supplies,” Maalin said. “People are overwhelming the camps, but more are coming every day. They say it's like 1991,” when people fled Somalia because of the civil war.
Today people fleeing Somalia still face being beaten or shot by Al-Shabab militants. Those who do make it to the camps have to wait days for their turn to be registered. Once registered, they get some food and supplies, but supplies are limited. Since they arrive weak, many die waiting.
All three camps in Dadaab are the same: Overcrowded, with people living in makeshift shelters, Maalin said. Everything is brown.
“Everything's dry. There are no animals. The livestock are dead. People are coming to the camps because they have no other option. They lived through the civil war. They lived through many droughts,” but this drought is different.
He heard stories of parents who abandoned their children too weak to walk and too big to carry. They left them under a tree. To do otherwise would mean everyone would die, he said. “It makes you cry. The person telling you will cry.”
Hussein Ahmed, owner of Global Halal on Lisbon Street, thinks often about his father and siblings at the Hagadera camp.
“He's lucky to have me here,” Ahmed said. Money he sends to Kenya helps them buy food and occasional cellphone calls.
He worries about the tens of thousands who don't have relatives sending money. “There's a huge number of people who are not registered, and are not getting any food or supplies from anywhere,” he said. “They have nothing. People are starving. Children are dying.”
Before he came to Lewiston in 2001, Abdi lived at the Hagadera camp for 10 years. “I know how hard it is to live on the rations provided by the United Nations. For those who do not have outside help, this is the worst time" because of limited food supplies provided by the U.N. and drought. "We don't know how we can help," Ahmed said, adding there's talk about setting out donation boxes in stores to raise money for aid.
Rilwan Osman also sends money to his sisters and brothers in the camps. “I think about them all the time,” Osman said. “It's really hard.”
The drought is even harsher than terrorists, he said. Bullets can be dodged by hiding in a bush in the jungle, Osman said, “but you cannot hide from hunger.”