MINNEAPOLIS – Mohamed Hassan gets emotional when he hears about the famine devastating Somalia, recalling his own months-long walk from Mogadishu to Kenya two decades ago as a teenager fleeing the civil war.
Now Hassan and other Somalis here are digging deep to help.
"I've lived through starvations, hunger. I've lived in a refugee camp," Hassan said. "Because of my relationship to the people of Somalia back home, but also because of past experiences, I feel the pain. I cannot afford to sit back and watch people go through these experiences."
From Facebook campaigns to car washes and concerts to local collection sites, Minnesota's Somali community — the nation's largest at an estimated 25,000 people — is raising tens of thousands of dollars to help the starving masses.
Though an overall total isn't known, Somalis have helped raised roughly $100,000 for the American Refugee Committee, including $47,000 at a single event last week. Another group, Amoud Foundation, reported raising $94,000 from the Twin Cities in less than two weeks.
"I don't think we've ever seen an emergency like this where the diaspora is at the center of the response," said Daniel Wordsworth, the president and chief executive of American Refugee Committee. "They are all taking a lead ... We don't have to convince the Somalis to care. They care more than we ever will."
But Minnesota Somalis are taking precautions. The state has been the center of a long-running federal investigation into the recruiting of Americans to join al-Shabab, a terror group responsible for much of the violence in Somalia. As part of that investigation, two Minnesota women were accused last summer of soliciting money and clothes for refugees in Somalia but steering the money instead to al-Shabab.
To guard against that, Somalis are carefully partnering with or donating to long-established relief organizations.
Before donating, people "have to think twice," said Hassan Mohamud, the imam at Islamic Da'wah Center in St. Paul and an organizer of relief efforts. "Everybody wants to pay and everyone is generous to pay, but they want to make sure they won't be in trouble if they give this."
"The community is very careful," said Safia Yasin Farah, who started a Facebook page, Somalis Without Borders for Drought Relief. "We don't want to have anything to do with al-Shabab. We just wish they would go away."
After the Minnesota women were arrested, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota came up with tips for charitable giving. Spokeswoman Jeanne Cooney said there is no safe list of nonprofits that are free of terror ties, but the Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains a list of groups that are designated as terror organizations. While that list is not all-inclusive, Cooney said, "We urge people to peruse that list before they give or make contributions."
She said the government doesn't recommend one group over another, but there are some, such as ARC, that have been carefully scrutinized and seen as ethical. Still, it's up to the donor to make sure a group is legitimate.
Wordsworth said ARC began working with the Somali community two years ago In April they announced a partnership called Neighbors for Nations, which gave Somalis a safe way to send humanitarian aid back home.
Now, he said, ARC and American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa have a joint team in Mogadishu that is providing food baskets and items like blankets to thousands who have flocked to the capital city for relief.
The United Nations estimates that more than 11 million people in East Africa are affected by the drought, with 3.7 million in Somalia among the worst-hit because of civil war there. Somalia's prolonged drought devolved into famine in part because neither the Somali government nor many aid agencies can fully operate in areas controlled by al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab.
The U.N. has said it will airlift emergency rations later this week in an effort to try and reach at least 175,000 of the 2.2 million Somalis who have not been helped yet.
The diaspora in Minnesota is doing what it can. Sade Hashi simply threw open the event center of his Safari Restaurant for free to anyone who wanted to meet about the drought. Hashi said it was the least he could do: He remembers fleeing Somalia due to the civil war and waiting in line for water.
"Now that we live here, we don't forget that," he said. "We are trying to save a life."
Farah's Facebook page, which lists organizations where people can donate funds, has followers across the globe. She supports groups that have workers on the ground outside Mogadishu, because she says access to aid is key. She has been promoting Amoud Foundation, a Texas-based group that is setting up feeding centers around Somalia.
The group has raised roughly $94,000 in less than two weeks from the Twin Cities alone. They have received additional pledges for donations from Memphis, Tenn., Chicago, the Washington D.C. area and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said Mohamoud Egal, president of the Amoud Foundation.
The group focuses on health care, education and helping displaced women and children in Somalia. Egal said group members had planned to come to Minnesota to tap the diaspora for funds for its work — but instead is focused on famine relief.
"Right now our mission is to save their lives," Egal said.
The group has set up collection sites at area mosques and a Somali mall. Some of the money collected went to emergency food and water, with the rest going toward the feeding centers, where suffering can go get nourishment.
Mohamed Idris, executive director of ARAHA, said his team in Mogadishu is seeing more people in need of help each day.
"The situation is very critical," he said. "We need to act swiftly to ensure these people get the aid they need."
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