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

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

There were 151 people per squat hole, so most women didn't bother lining up for the latrines, opting instead to leave the camp, which was dangerous because of tensions with nearby communities.

Amina spent most of her day helping her mother, trekking half a mile across the camp to line up for water or food rations to bring back for her family. Disease spread quickly through the camp, despite the efforts of aid workers.

At the height of the crisis, eight people died every day inside the camp, and most were children under age 5. Their small bodies were carried into the brush, where nothing but a small mound of dirt marked their graves. As bad as things were in the camp, Amina never thought once of returning to Somalia.

"At least here we can live in peace," she said.

A new life

From the time the famine started, the LDS Church had been looking for ways to help, and from its Salt Lake headquarters was in constant communication with its Africa-area office in Johannesburg. At the same time, two of the church's longtime partners in humanitarian relief reached out with individual proposals for projects.

The first came from a group called International Relief and Development, or IRD, which proposed trucking water to 22 villages along the Ethiopian border that had largely been bypassed by foreign aid. The church agreed to fund the trucks, as well as a follow-up project to build birkits, or underground water storage tanks lined with concrete.

While the church would pay for the materials used to build the birkits, the actual work and management of the project would fall to the villagers themselves, under the supervision of IRD.

The second proposal dealt with the refugee camps themselves and came from International Medical Corp., or IMC, which wanted to do three things: increase the number of latrines in the camps; build nutrition centers where families could come for medical checkups and food; and finally, to pay for the construction of brick-and-mortar women's centers, where mothers and victims of domestic violence could go for counseling, support and job training.

The church agreed to both proposals. Together, the initiatives cost the church $2 million, a small part of the $22 million the church spent on emergency aid last year.

The church also mobilized its three congregations in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, hundreds of miles to the north, to assemble hygiene kits that included soap and hand towels for refugees.

Today, thanks to the work of IMC and LDS Charities, there is a latrine for every 31 people in the Melkadida camp where Amina lives, down from the high of one latrine for every 151 people. Four community nutrition centers have also been built, which means Amina no longer has to trek from one end of the camp to the other to get her family's weekly rations, which sometimes meant standing in line for hours in the hot sun.

The community nutrition centers have not only made the process more orderly (the buildings are made of cinder block and steel, and they offer shade for those waiting in line), they have also allowed aid workers to do checkups on children.

Those who are moderately or severely malnourished get special attention and a nutritional plan to bring them back to full health. A few children still die every day in the camps, but the numbers are getting lower each month.

Amina has settled into life in the camp. She still misses her friends and family back in Somalia — recalling fondly the days they spent playing volleyball in her village, but her focus is on the future.

She recently got a job working for IMC as a gender-based violence coordinator in the Melkadida camp, meaning that when there are incidents of domestic violence she helps IMC aid workers respond, organizing tea talks where Somali men and women gather to discuss the triggers for domestic violence and more healthful ways to respond to anger and frustration.

Amina says she loves the work and the way it is changing her community. She hopes to one day bring what she's learned back to Somalia.

She has not forgotten what she escaped, and says she feels lucky that she is alive, even in this camp of sagging white tents, with the sharp odor of donkeys. She looks with excitement to a future with promise.

When asked what sort of man she would like to marry, she blushes and looks at the ground, smiling as she runs her finger through the dirt.

"I don't know," she simply answers. She is only 22 years old. She is just beginning her life.

She looks at her watch. It will be dark soon and she still needs to gather firewood for her mother.

One day she will leave the camp and perhaps gather wood for her own family in her own home. But for now this camp is home, and her family awaits her return.

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

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

Editorial: Water of life

Email: jhyde@desnews.com

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