Somalia, the horn of Africa, is amidst a draught once again. The country has also faced decades of war, which has already destroyed much of its infrastructure and economy. In 2011, Somalia had its pervious draught and famine, which left a quarter of a million people dead. The current draught is causing more damage than in 2011.
Recently, Asim Ismail of Al-Wasila Trust embarked on a journey to Somalia to witness the devastating effects of the draught himself.
I understand that you have just returned from your journey to Somalia. What parts of the region did you visit?
My organization is called Al-Wasila Trust. We collaborate with an organization named FIF (Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation) on disaster management in Somalia and other parts of the world. In Somalia, we have been working for the last two years. Bosaso is the city where we provide aid and are currently supporting two orphanages. Bosaso comes under Somalia. I have to state this especially, as eleven cities have declared independence from Somalia and have become separate countries.
According to U.N., nearly 6 million people are threatened by this crisis. What was your firsthand experience regarding its effects on the people?
I would not comment on the statistics, as I do not know the exact numbers. Besides Bosaso, many other parts of Somalia have also been affected by the draught, but I have restricted our aid to Bosaso only. Somalia has always been a troubled, draught-affected country but for the past one year there has been no rain. This has increased the severity of the weather. Both humans and the livestock are under threat. Here one must understand that the primary occupation of the inhabitants is cattle farming. The raised cattle are sold to Saudi Arabia during the time of Hajj. So basically this draught has largely affected their economy as well. Therefore, I would comment that this is a draught upon a draught.
The draught has also largely increased the diseases with more than 6000 cases of Cholera alone. Did you happen to visit any health camps during the visit and how did you find them?
I did not happen to see any health camps but only remote clinics comprised of one room. The clinics are in a substandard condition, and no proper doctors are available.
I think, by large, children are the most affected by the draught. Did you come across any children that moved you?
Most people in Bosaso survive in tent cities provided by the U.S. or U.N. aid. These agencies have provided camps, but they barely support them any further. In one tent city, you will find an average of 2500 dwellers. Out of this population, only 98 would be men that are working. This 10% minority hardly manages to find work to support family. Even if they do, the monthly wages won’t exceed a maximum of $100.
We assigned a few teachers in one of the tent cities we visited. These teachers will, Insha’Allah, teach Islamic education and the Quran to children.
There, I found a boy of around 13 years of age. He clearly looked sick and somehow compelled me to go have a chat with him. I asked his mother about his condition, and she replied that he had Pneumonia. I inquired why the child wasn’t taken to the doctor, to which she answered that there were no doctors to go to.
Now, I know there are no doctors in a tent city, but you would find one at a fifteen minutes drive or so. However, her answer shocked me. She told me that a single trip by a cab to the clinic, getting him diagnosed and arranging his medicines for a single time would cost around a $100. This is an out of reach expense for a place, where an average salary is $100 provided that one has an income source. There is no bus service, no cabs. Moreover, a cab’s concept there is like a van that would carry passengers. So they would just leave their children to die, as nothing much can be done about it.
In February, the U.N. aid agency warned that there is only a two-month window to avert a catastrophe in Somalia. What sort of shortages is the country facing? How much aid is needed in the region that you visited?
I would say unlimited aid! Even the U.S. and U.N. agencies cannot cover the entire Somalia. A few Islamic organizations have also been working, but they are working either on a minimal scale or on temporary basis.
Considering the fact that the weather conditions are never going to change in Somalia, why don’t these people migrate somewhere else?
Many of these people have travelled six hundred kilometres from different places to come here. A place of safety! There are migrants from Yemen, who have survived the war and Somalians from other cities, which are even more affected. So basically there is no place to go.
What could possibly be worse than this besides war?
In Bosaso, they might receive a few millimetres of rain every four to five months. This is a luxury, which is not available to the many other parts of Somalia.
What are some of the goals that Al-Wasila Trust hopes to reach? How can the Muslim Ummah help?
To me, it is not about how we can help them. The catastrophe is massive, and we can barely make a difference. However, I believe it is not about them but about me.
On the Day of Judgment, when Allah (swt) will question Asim Ismail, I would be able to say: “Oh Allah (swt), I was not sitting at home but was trying to do something.” Another alarming fact is that people do not provide heartily for Somalia, as they do for Syria. The statistics say the ratio would be 1:10. Maybe the reason is Syria’s constant limelight and coverage by the media.
I know for sure that whenever the media, especially CNN or BBC, are rolling their cameras in a disaster-affected area, we get a generous share of donations and work becomes easy. Since Somalia is not covered by the mainstream media, people tend to forget it and thus minimum efforts are observed.
Do you feel accomplished in the help that you provide to these people?
As I said earlier, there is no such thing as accomplishment. We should do whatever we can. But a wonderful initiative is taken by some schools for supporting the cause. I would like to mention Generations’ School and Haque Academy here. They are putting efforts at different levels to support the Fajr Drive. Fajr Academy has already been doing it. It’s a total win-win situation, as our next generation would be growing up with the morals and awareness of helping the Ummah. Therefore, I want this campaign to spread up its wings in colleges and universities as well.
What can we learn from our Somali brethren who are living in a tough situation?
They are better Muslims! They do not beg but would prefer to die with dignity. I would include an incident that boggled my mind.
A tribe consists of several families, with each family having its own animals. They are accustomed to approach for the provided aid as per their turns. Each family knows its turns quite well. When we arrived, I was startled to observe their manners. Only one family would proceed at a time, giving a chance to their cattle first. There was no sign of panic or rush. They did not even line up!
Upon investigation, I realized that there would be times when others would know they might never get a chance to quench their thirst. But they would stay patient and humble.
If we ask them how they are doing, they would promptly reply: “Alhumdulillah.”
Do you think that their example can teach people to appreciate what Pakistan holds for them?
Pakistan holds a lot for us. Whenever you visit a place like this, you begin loving Pakistan a little more.
How does the city you visited differ from Karachi?
The airport is a deserted one-room facility, where walls have no luxury of paint. I saw maximum of two or three bungalows in the entire city, maybe there are a few more, Wallahu Aalam. Their best hotels are worse than our one star hotels. With a huge scarcity of food, these facilities manage a meagre two-item meal. Watermelon juice is a novelty and a luxury that is only afforded by foreigners. So basically there is no business, no economy. The city is raised by U.S. and U.N. aid funds – they have built support system and tent cities. But again, there is not much they are doing for those tent cities.
What is the technical process for the aid to reach the needy? Does Al Wasila Trust transport the supplies from Pakistan or buy it from somewhere closer?
Money is the best form of donation, as ration is available at a slightly high price. We take medicines from Pakistan. Currently, we are sending a team of doctors to help those in destitute areas. We have made a partnership with a local NGO in Somalia. Therefore, some provision is taken from Pakistan and rest is from the surrounding areas.
Some local NGO has begun a windmill project costing millions. That would be an excellent project but then, how much can one do? The costing is exorbitant.
People ask us about digging wells and solving the water issue. But in Bosaso, due to the geographic conditions, the expense of a well would be Rs. 3,000,000 whereas in Thar it would be Rs. 175,000.
Isn’t Shukr and refraining from wastage of food at all levels our core lesson to learn from this?
That can be a side lesson. The first and foremost is: stay thankful to Allah (swt) for whatever the circumstances might be.
How safe or perilous was your journey?
When we moved out of the airport, we were accompanied by armed guards, as it is not allowed for foreigners to travel alone without army guards. So our first encounter was a convoy with an anti-aircraft gun and around twenty armed soldiers. The hotel where we stayed was across from another hotel, which had had an ambush just a week before.
One morning, I was in the mosque reciting the Quran just after dawn – after the Fajr Salah. I was there with my friend, who soon left for some business. Suddenly, I heard gunshots right outside the hotel. There was a complete blackout. I hid for a while before coming to take a bird’s eye view of the situation. I should include here that whenever we travel to such places, we always have a 5% risk of never coming back. My family knows this, and they have been the biggest supporters throughout.
Can you share any words of wisdom with the readers of this interview?
Give a reason to Allah (swt) to forgive you. One can’t make a significant difference, but efforts are what Allah (swt) sees and judges.
Interview by Asma Hamza – Manager, Dahlia the Dreamer