Building hope: How the LDS Church is helping thousands fleeing war and drought

Published: Sunday, April 15 2012 7:05 p.m. MDT

Inside a community nutrition center in the Melkidida camp children line up for a health check up.

E. W. Ristau, All

Part 1: Praying for rain: Sustainable strategies deliver water, hope to East Africa

Report on KSL: Famined Africans build water tanks, aided by LDS Church

Report on KSL: Refugees meet basic needs with help of LDS Church

Editorial: Water of life

View video at left: "Reporter's Notebook: Inside Ethiopia with staff writer Jesse Hyde"

Editor's note: Second of two parts.

DOLO ADO, Ethiopia — Not far from Somalia on a barren, windswept plain, a girl named Amina gathers firewood in the fading light of late afternoon. She is slightly built, with a long, delicate neck and thin, bony arms. The cheap Casio watch on her wrist tells her that she doesn't have much more time before she has to get home to help her mom.

Amina lives in a sprawling refugee camp that sits at the base of a mountain in the Horn of Africa. From where she stands she can see the rows of white tents stretching to the horizon, a small, teeming city of some 40,000 souls.

Inside, the air reeks of the sharp odor of donkeys and open latrines, of charcoal cooking fires and the sweet scent of tea. It is a city unto itself, where boys fly kites and marriages are made, where donkey carts crowd the dusty paths. But it is largely unknown to the outside world.

Amina is one of 400,000 people who have fled Somalia in the past year in response to the worst famine in the Horn of Africa in 60 years. She hiked eight days with her family across a sun-scorched desert to get to Ethiopia, fleeing not just a famine, but unspeakable violence committed by warlords marauding across her homeland.

She is 22 years old and she doesn't know when, if ever, she will leave this refugee camp, known as Melkadida.

The need for help

In the past year, more than $900 million has flowed into East Africa to help the 10 million-plus people affected by a three-year drought, which the United Nations declared over in February.

Much of that money has gone to camps like Melkadida, where dozens of nongovernmental organizations are working. These NGOs make up a who's who of the world's biggest and most influential humanitarian groups: OXFAM, UNICEF, Save the Children. And among those working in Amina's camp is LDS Charities.

Largely unknown, even to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LDS Charities began in response to another famine in this same region of Africa. That crisis marked the beginning of a new kind of global consciousness — that when disaster strikes, people in wealthy nations have a responsibility to help.

In the time since, humanitarian aid work in places like Africa and South America has mushroomed into a multi-billion dollar industry, with some of the world's richest and most famous men and women devoting a good chunk of their respective fortunes to schools in South Africa, clean-water efforts in Zambia, and AIDS eradication in Rwanda.

Some of these efforts have been more successful than others. Africa is littered with broken down water wells built by well-meaning charities that failed to involve the locals.

"The problem," says Peter Evans of LDS Charities, "is that often they don't feel like the project is theirs; they didn't build it, they didn't invest in it, they didn't participate. Down the road when there's a problem, when a well breaks, they don't feel any ownership and haven't been empowered to solve the problem So they don't know how to fix it."

The LDS Church has a decidedly different approach. Its humanitarian relief efforts are under the welfare arm of the church, which is built upon the philosophy of self-reliance.

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