Schools joining Somali famine fight

Lyndale and Whittier lead the way in Southwest

Minneapolis Public Schools has joined the international effort to combat famine in Somalia, and several Southwest-area schools are leading the way.

Both Lyndale Community School and Whittier International Elementary School raised funds last month to help relieve an ongoing famine that is considered one of the world’s worst food crises of the past two decades. In mid-November, the United Nations’ Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit reported relief efforts had reduced malnutrition and death in some parts of the country, but that 250,000 people still remained at imminent risk of starvation.

Famine relief is a cause that resonates loudly in the district. Minneapolis is home to one the largest Somali immigrant populations in the country, a community that already is a significant donor to famine relief. School Board Member Hussein Samatar was the first person born in Somalia to win elected office in the United States.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson joined Samatar to bring attention to the famine and the emergency response throughout the month of December.

“Many in our community have been watching the unfolding tragedy of famine in Somalia and neighboring countries,” Johnson said at the Nov. 29 School Board meeting.

That tragedy is really a confluence of tragic circumstances.

Drought has parched the Horn of Africa, withering crops and livestock. Disease — including measles, cholera and malaria — followed famine. And ongoing civil war within Somalia has complicated relief efforts.

At Lyndale, teacher Billy Menz’s third-grade classroom led the school’s fundraising drive, writing persuasive essays that they shared with other students and collecting about $1,000 in four weeks.

Lyndale has about 200 students from Somali-speaking households, nearly a tenth of the district’s total, and a number of Menz’s students have personal connections to Somalia, including Katra Shire, who recalled visiting an aunt and uncle there. Asked about her essay, Shire said she thought about how she would feel if the situation was reversed.

“If we were there and they were here, and we needed food and they would send it to us, I would feel grateful,” she said. “If we help them, maybe one day they will help us.”

A long-term disaster

The funds raised at Lyndale went to the I Am a Star campaign, a collaborative response to famine in Somalia developed by the Twin Cities’ Somali immigrant community and the American Refugee Committee. The Minneapolis-based international humanitarian organization began meeting with local Somali groups nearly two-and-a-half years ago, said Tyler Zabriskie, senior vice president of the organization’s international programs, whose daughter, Joy, is also a student in Menz’s class.

“It’s easy to think this is too big a problem, and it’s hard to give it attention,” Zabriskie said. “But I think it’s exciting that kids — and adults, too — are saying, ‘No, we can be hopeful about affecting this.’ And we can.”

Local Somali-American volunteers have returned to Somalia to help lead the American Refugee Committee’s work on the ground in the capitol, Mogadishu. Some are working in a support role in the city’s main hospital, said Therese Gales, a spokesperson for the organization.

“Basically, 1,000 people were coming to Mogadishu a day because of the famine and, as you can imagine, the infrastructure was really strained,” Gales said.

The American Refugee Committee was also working in the camps where those fleeing the famine have come seeking clean water, food and healthcare. And it was preparing for the next steps in dealing with the crisis: improving food distribution and forging long-term solutions to get farmers back on their land.

“I think what’s challenging about this crisis is it’s more of a longer-term disaster,” Gales said. “A rapid-onset disaster happens and it’s in the news … and then the rebuilding process starts. But with famine, it’s sort of a long, drawn-out situation.

“It’s like an earthquake that’s still going on,” she continued. “People are still in crisis. They’re still struggling to survive.”

Coming together

Whittier, which hosted a potluck and poetry jam Nov. 16 to raise money for the American Refugee Committee, was another school leading famine relief efforts in the district. Like Lyndale, Whittier has a significant population of students from Somali-speaking homes — 94 of its 639 students, or about 14 percent.

Poetry is part of the texture of life in Somalia, a fact Whittier parent and school volunteer Fatuma Webi teaches in an after-school class on Somali culture.

“We express all the time within poetry,” she said.

There are 10 students in the class, only three of them from Somali families. But they were all excited to help, Webi said.

“They want to do a lemonade stand for Somalia,” she said. “They want to collect clothes for the kids in Somalia.”

For Webi, who experienced conflict in Somalia firsthand, a significant aspect of the school’s fundraising efforts was the broad participation of families, and not just those with a direct connection to her homeland. She said the idea for November’s fundraiser came from another parent who was not Somali but felt compelled to help because of the friendships she and her child forged at Whittier.

“I was very happy and glad, just to know we are not alone, that … we come together as a community and help out,” Webi said. “That was very big to me.”

How to help

Minneapolis Public Schools encouraged district staff, students and families to contribute to Somali famine-relief efforts in December. The district identified two Minnesota-based non-profit organizations working in Somalia: the American Refugee Committee ( or and Feed My Starving Children (