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

Published: Sunday, April 15 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

"Everything we do grows out of building dignity, self-reliance and self-respect," Evans said. "So when we get to a certain area, when there's a request for help, we're looking for long-term partners and we're looking for sustainable solutions to problems that matter to those who live there."

This approach has become the gold standard in philanthropic circles. Actor Matt Damon's water.org project, for example, is based on a similar philosophy: The organization helps villagers broker deals with microfinance institutions that can get them a loan to build a well. Water.org will guarantee the loan, but in the end, the responsibility of managing the water supply and repaying the loan falls to the village.

The church's approach is similar, whether that help is going to an unemployed construction worker in Arizona who can't afford groceries or a village in need of water in Sierra Leone.

The effort in East Africa was one of 111 disasters the LDS Church responded to in 2011 through its welfare arm. For the LDS Church, these projects have little to do with proselytizing, which is why for so long they've gone unnoticed.

In the Horn of Africa, for example, there are about 1,000 church members, and none where the church is doing disaster relief work. In fact, there isn't a chapel within hundreds of miles of where Amina lives in the Melkadida camp, or a single missionary. She's never heard of the Mormon church, and unless she leaves this camp, she probably never will.

"The church does these projects because it believes that's the right thing to do, the Christian thing to do," says Lynn Samsel of LDS Charities. "There is no quid pro quo. It's simply about trying to do good in the world."

Fleeing famine

The Horn of Africa is that jagged edge of the continent that reaches out into the Indian Ocean, nearly touching the Arabian Peninsula. In many measures, it is one of the worst places to live on Earth.

Prone to famine and instability, the region has been locked in the grip of war since 1991, when governments in Ethiopia and Somalia collapsed. Today, Ethiopia is a relatively prosperous country by African standards and is ruled by what its citizens consider a progressive government.

Somalia, on the other hand, either has no government at all, or the most corrupt government on Earth, according to a measurement by Transparency International, a global nonpartisan group with a stated purpose of fighting corruption.

The absence of any semblance of law or order has led to the rise of various warlords and militias who have intermittently controlled wide swaths of the country.

Today, none of these groups has more power than al-Shabab, a radical Islamic terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida. When the drought began three years ago, al-Shabab kicked out the Red Cross and every other Western humanitarian organization in the country. At the same time, it began levying a tax on farmers, demanding they give them one-third of what was already a paltry crop.

Amina saw firsthand what happened to those who defied al-Shabab. One morning in 2010, her uncle was taken into the middle of her village and slaughtered like a goat.

"I don't know why they killed him," she says.

"At first we thought they were a religious group, but then we realized they had nothing to do with Islam," said a friend of Amina's named Mohammed Iman. "We had no choice but to leave and come here."

By the time Amina and her family crossed the border, there were already six refugee camps in Ethiopia. She was put on a creaky bus and shipped to Melkadida, which is one of the oldest and largest camps in Ethiopia, and also one of the farthest from the border.

By Western standards, conditions in the camp were horrible. The camp housed 40,000 people, six or seven to a tent. The tents provided by the U.N. leaked water when it rained and provided little shade in the sun. The camp was also filthy.

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