Op Ed: Jews must respond to Somalia crisis

On July 14, 2011, a severely malnourished baby lies in the pediatric unit of a hospital in Lodwar, Kenya, west of Somalia. The famine in the Horn of Africa is getting worse, human rights group say.

A tragedy is unfolding in the Horn of Africa, where hundreds of thousands of children are at immediate risk of death. The disastrous combination of the worst drought in 60 years, high food prices and regional conflict has left 12 million people, including more than 2 million malnourished children, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

A huge migration is now taking place from the areas of southern Somalia that have been engulfed in famine to the capital, Mogadishu, and to neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Mothers carry their infants for days or weeks on end, desperate to find them nourishment, clean water and medical assistance. Some have been forced to make an unthinkable “Sophie’s choice” about which child to feed and which to allow to die — a decision no parent should ever have to make.

The next rains are not due to arrive until October, meaning that no new harvests can be expected in the region before the end of the year. Unless aid to affected areas increases significantly, the famine will likely spread and intensify, putting many more young lives in jeopardy. However, despite the scale of this catastrophe, the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa have not consistently made headlines, nor have these scourges caught the attention of many Americans.

The international donor community, so quick to mobilize after similar disasters, has been slow to respond to the situation in Somalia this summer. This catastrophe is not on the public agenda, but it urgently needs to be.

With this in mind, I turn to the Jewish community — my community — for support in our efforts to save the lives of children threatened by conditions beyond their control. After serving nearly two decades in Jewish communal life, I have spent the past five years as president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which is one of several entities trying to get aid to the afflicted area.

My worldview, personally and professionally, has been shaped by a commitment to tikkun olam — healing the world. It comes from my mother, who was a child in Vienna during Kristallnacht. She survived the Holocaust by being sent to the United States in 1939, at the age of 6, along with her 4-year-old brother and a woman she never saw again after they arrived. They were raised for two years in an orphanage for Jewish refugee children on New York’s Lower East Side. My mother’s dislocation as a little girl left both of us with the profound desire to do whatever we could to protect and care for other vulnerable children.

Today, it is in the Horn of Africa where children’s survival is most in peril. More than 400,000 refugees, the vast majority of whom are women and children, are crowded into three refugee camps in Kenya. They desperately require nourishment, medicine and access to clean water and sanitation facilities to survive. Aid organizations are there, providing those services — along with child-friendly spaces and educational opportunities — but the needs are tremendous.

In Somalia, the epicenter of the emergency, tens of thousands of people —mainly children — have died in the last few months. UNICEF and other humanitarian groups are reaching thousands of malnourished children with nutritional supplies. One highly effective weapon is a nutritional peanut paste that has the power to pull a child back from the brink of starvation. Packed with protein and vitamins, it is ready to use and does not need to be refrigerated or mixed with water.

This miracle paste is saving lives. But many more are threatened and will perish if we don’t act quickly.

The Jewish community must take notice of the plight of these children. As Jews, we have been at the forefront of humanitarian causes and responses to international disasters. Humanity is facing a devastating crisis in the Horn of Africa. We cannot fail to fulfill our Jewish responsibilities now.

Caryl M. Stern is president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.