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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) 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.

The LDS Church paid to truck water to this chief's village — as well as 21 others — in the Somali region of Ethiopia.       (E. W. Ristau, All) The LDS Church paid to truck water to this chief's village — as well as 21 others — in the Somali region of Ethiopia. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

A village elder in the Dolo region of Ethiopia. The LDS Church paid for the trucking of water to his village at the height of the drought. (E. W. Ristau, All) A village elder in the Dolo region of Ethiopia. The LDS Church paid for the trucking of water to his village at the height of the drought. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

A village man begins the long trek for water in the Dolo region of Ethiopia. (E. W. Ristau, All) A village man begins the long trek for water in the Dolo region of Ethiopia. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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."

LDS Charities and International Medical Corps built community nutrition centers in the Kobe and Melkidida camps. (E. W. Ristau, All) LDS Charities and International Medical Corps built community nutrition centers in the Kobe and Melkidida camps. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

"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.

Inside a community nutrition center, where nurses check up on the health of malnourished children. (E. W. Ristau, All) Inside a community nutrition center, where nurses check up on the health of malnourished children. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

Malnutrition affects hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia. At the height of the crisis, as many as eight children died every day in the Melkidida camp. (E. W. Ristau, All) Malnutrition affects hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia. At the height of the crisis, as many as eight children died every day in the Melkidida camp. (E. W. Ristau, All)

"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.

The nutrition centers funded by the LDS Church have made it easier for mothers to get their weekly rations for their children. (E. W. Ristau, All) The nutrition centers funded by the LDS Church have made it easier for mothers to get their weekly rations for their children. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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, 22, hopes to marry and start a family of her own. She now works as a gender-based violence coordinator. (E. W. Ristau, All) Amina, 22, hopes to marry and start a family of her own. She now works as a gender-based violence coordinator. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

Amina works with Anneke Swetsloote, an aid worker with International Medical Corps, to improve the lives of women in the camp. (E. W. Ristau, All) Amina works with Anneke Swetsloote, an aid worker with International Medical Corps, to improve the lives of women in the camp. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

In one village outside the camps, life is beginning to return to normal. The U.N. declared an end to the drought in February. (E. W. Ristau, All) In one village outside the camps, life is beginning to return to normal. The U.N. declared an end to the drought in February. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

Amina walked eight days from Somalia to arrive at the refugee camp where she lives. She works with IMC as a gender based violence coordinator. (E. W. Ristau, All) Amina walked eight days from Somalia to arrive at the refugee camp where she lives. She works with IMC as a gender based violence coordinator. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

The LDS Church and International Relief and Development trucked water to 20 villages daily at the height of the crisis.  (E. W. Ristau, All) The LDS Church and International Relief and Development trucked water to 20 villages daily at the height of the crisis. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

Many mothers in the camps must raise their children alone. The Islamic terrorist group Al Shabab forced men to join their ranks, or killed them if they refused. (E. W. Ristau, All) Many mothers in the camps must raise their children alone. The Islamic terrorist group Al Shabab forced men to join their ranks, or killed them if they refused. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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.

Children who aren't getting enough to eat in the UN camps are put on a special diet and monitored closely. (E. W. Ristau, All) Children who aren't getting enough to eat in the UN camps are put on a special diet and monitored closely. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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

Every morning, women and children line up their jugs to gather water to bring back to their tents in the camp. (E. W. Ristau, All) Every morning, women and children line up their jugs to gather water to bring back to their tents in the camp. (E. W. Ristau, All)

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

Editorial: Water of life

Email: jhyde@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company