Children of Somali diaspora in Canada come together to fend off famine

A group of young Somali professionals in Toronto are fundraising to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Many are children of people who fled war and natural disaster and came to Canada as refugees and asylum seekers.

Many in the diasporic community have never been to Somalia but want to do their part

Samiya Abdi , a member of Fight The Famine Toronto, says many in her group have never been to Somalia, but want to prevent a looming humanitarian disaster. (Samiya Abdi, Aspire2lead)

A new generation of young Somali-Canadians is looking to raise both money and awareness of the looming disaster in their parents' homeland — and hope the international community will act before it's too late.

Samiya Abdi, a member of Fight The Famine Toronto, says she's part of a wave of young activists and educated professionals who are hoping to prevent a disaster rather than react to it.

"Only when there's so much death and destruction then people are interested in making a difference," she said.

The region's normal peak rainfall is in April. But since November there has been no significant rainfall and the water that's left is not drinkable. 

'A real opportunity'

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs there have been  2,984 new cholera cases and 34 deaths from April 10th to 16th alone.

Just six years ago this same region was hit by a famine that killed more than 250,000 people.

Agencies are struggling to avert what could be third full-scale famine in 25 years. Fight the Famine Toronto, an initiative by the Somali-Canadian Relief Task Force, is hoping to raise $100,000 to prevent famine in Somalia. (Samiya Abdi, Aspire2lead)

Abdi says this time around something can be done to save lives.

"Unlike in 2011, in 2017 we have the real opportunity to avert famine. Famine has not been declared yet, however there is severe drought that has caused the loss of 80 per cent of livestock," she said.

Abdi says her group is a youth-led initiative linked to a global movement of young people upset at the world's silence and the slow response six years ago. 

Anyone in community will know someone affected, activist says

And many are children of the Somali diaspora— people who fled war and natural disaster and emigrated to Canada as refugees and asylum seekers.

"A lot of us either grew up outside of Somalia or were born outside of Somalia. Only a few of us have even visited," Abdi said.

The region's normal peak rainfall in April. but since November there has been no significant rainfall and severe drought that has caused the loss of 80 per cent of livestock. (Samiya Ahmed, Aspire2lead)

She says the impact of the drought is widespread, affecting half the country's 6.3 million people population.

"So if you speak to anyone in the Somali-Canadian community, they will have a relative who has been affected by it," said Abdi.

'They have nothing' 

Hidaya Hassan, 25,  is a student at Wilfrid Laurier University studying human rights and criminology. She has family still in Somalia and visits once a year, most recently in January.

"I visited a town and they were selling a goat for three dollars. That was their everything and they were selling it," she said, adding she feels the international community usually doesn't pay attention until people start dying. 

Muse Mohammed is a 28-year-old Canadian photojournalist working with the UN. Originally from Mississauga, he has a Somali father and Chilean mother. He got to visit the village his father is from for the first time during this trip. (UN Migration Agency (IOM) / Muse Mohammed)

The UN says the total number of displaced people within the country has jumped to 615,000 since November 2016.

"Roads are literally littered with dead animals," said Ahmed. "People are walking five to ten days to get to the next village to look for water. Not just for themselves, but their livestock. To try and save their lifesavings. Now because of a natural disaster they have nothing."

'It affects everyone'

Muse Mohammed, 28, is a Canadian photojournalist based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is originally from Mississauga and his father is Somali and his mother is from Chile. 

He recently returned from a month long assignment in Somalia with the UN International Organization for Migration where he covered the worsening drought and food crisis.

"On the ground there I met many from the Somali Diaspora — from Finland, the United States, Sweden and other Canadians," Mohammed said. "They are there to do  their part."

Mohammed travelled through drought stricken areas of the country and visited the village his father originally came from for the first time.

"This drought does not discriminate. It affects everyone. It doesn't matter what clan what your affiliation," he says, adding that areas held by the armed militant group Al Shabaab have also been hard hit.

"Most of them are just leaving their homes and their livelihood behind," said Mohammed. "Some have lost all their  animals in some cases hundreds of camels, donkeys and goats. And these are more than just animals. It's their way of life."

Abdi says because the people are still largely nomadic or semi-nomadic — goats, sheep, camels and cattle — from their main economy.

"My uncle has lost over 200 camels. So imagine losing your house or $200,000 dollars. It's people losing all the wealth they've spent a lifetime to accumulate."

Agencies are on the ground in the region, but they are struggling to avert what could be the third full-scale famine in 25 years.

Fight The Famine will be held Sunday, April 30, at the Daniels Spectrum Cultural Centre in Toronto and finance minister Bill Morneau will be its keynote speaker. All donations will go to famine relief, says Abdi.


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.