Somalia Famine: The Lives We Can Save

by Courtney O’Donnell • Communications Director to Dr. Jill Biden

As I sit at my desk at the White House – it’s hard to believe that just three days ago I was standing in the world’s largest refugee camp witnessing one of the worst famines in our lifetime. I traveled on Monday to Kenya along with my boss, Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and several other U.S. officials to visit the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have fled Somalia seeking to survive the worst famine in 60 years.

In the weeks prior to our trip, Dr. Biden had seen the news reports and the images from the region and wanted to find a way to help. So the goal of our trip was a simple one - to try to bring attention to this famine and the need for aid, and to tell the stories of the people we met. As Communications Director, my role is to find ways to make more people aware of this need and get the message across to as many people as possible.

While our government and others around the world have acted to support the region, there is an urgent need for individuals to act. The pace of the famine is relentless, and without additional assistance, hundreds of thousands of children could die of starvation and disease in the coming months.

MORE: What were your thoughts before you left about what’s going on in Somalia?
Courtney O’Donnell: Like Dr. Biden, I had seen the news reports and images and they were heart-breaking. When I learned that more than 29,000 children under the age of five have died in the past three months in the region, I was horrified. I had some sense of how dire of a situation it was, and I tried to prepare myself. I was also glad to be a part of an effort to bring more awareness to the region. But emotionally, it was hard, particularly as a mother, to know what we were about to see.

MORE: How did that change once you were at the refugee camps in Kenya?
CO: Being there in person really brought home just how acute the need is – the famine is spreading with a relentless pace. The camp we visited was originally built for 90,000 people and there are now more than 420,000 Somalis who have traveled there seeking sustenance and medical attention. It was striking to see the lines of families that stretched out way beyond the entrance gate. Being at the camp in person underscored the seriousness and the scope of this crisis for me – and it also brought the staggering numbers and statistics to life.

MORE: As a mom, what went through your mind?
I was drawn to all of the mothers and the children that I met. Most of these women had walked barefoot, through days and nights, for 10, 20 or 30 days carrying their babies and children to get to the camp. Think about that. Most of them have the clothes on their bodies and nothing else. Many people are robbed or face violence on that journey. Oftentimes it’s a mother who’s the head of household, so you have a mom trying to bring her children to safety and get them food through this incredibly long and hard distance. You think about this journey and all they go through so they hope they can get the basic supplies to keep their kids alive. Anyone who’s a mom would understand that you’d do anything for your children and the mothers at the camp were doing just that – in circumstances that we could never fathom.

Throughout the day, I kept thinking of my own children back home in Washington, D.C., two rambunctious and chubby little creatures who have spent their lives getting regular checkups with pediatricians, loads of preventive care, as well as endless snacks and feedings. It is so striking that these two scenarios could co-exist across the globe.

MORE: Tell us about the moms there.
CO: We met a mother with four children, and her youngest child had diarrhea. She had walked for 20 days to get to the camp and she asked us to help her child. In her situation, diarrhea can be fatal given the already severe dehydration and malnutrition these children are facing. Again, it was hard for me not to think about my own sons at home and all of the preventive care that we take for granted. That contrast made the deepest impression on me – and has stuck with me. Support will make a huge difference, I have seen it.

MORE: The White House announced on Monday $105 million in aid for drought assistance for Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. As Americans, we can’t fathom a food shortage. How can you get the message across that we, as individuals, need to help? How can we even help?
CO: While I saw first-hand just how bad the situation is, I saw the difference that aid can have, even a few dollars in terms of saving a child’s life. I saw firsthand the ways that lives are being saved – through medicine, food, clean water and incredible individuals and groups that are working on the ground. I saw how a vaccination that costs less than $2 or an inexpensive rehydration pack can enable a child to survive. I also saw some of the innovations in agriculture and development that is working to prevent this type of famine in the future.

MORE: What would you want the world to know?
That there is hope and that there is a need for every individual to truly make a difference.
People can literally save lives with small dollar donations. At people can learn more about the issues and see the ways they can take action.

Since returning from Kenya, the impact and the impression of the trip has become even more emotional and urgent. As I see the images on TV, or learn about the growing numbers of refugees – the numbers become faces and the need feels personal. This morning, I had my oldest son’s 3-year checkup at the pediatrician. I looked across the waiting room at all of the parents and children. All of us were there for a simple reason – to make sure that our children are healthy. In my mind all I could imagine were the mothers who I saw waiting in line at the refugee camp – mothers who share that simple and basic goal to raise healthy children – but face unthinkable obstacles to get there.

Click here to see amazing photos of Courtney's trip with Dr. Biden.

First Published August 11, 2011

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