HomeTop StoriesIn a refugee camp in Kenya, food shortages left children starving even...

In a refugee camp in Kenya, food shortages left children starving even before Russia ended the grain deal

DADAAB, Kenya (AP) — Abdikadir Omar was trapped in an extremist-controlled town in Somalia for years until May, when he slipped out to take a 12-day trip to neighboring Kenya with his wife and seven children in search of food and safety.

To his surprise, “I found peace but no food,” the 30-year-old told The Associated Press. He stood by the withered corn he was trying to plant around his family’s makeshift shelter of branches and plastic sheeting outside one of the world’s largest refugee camps.

As global food insecurity takes another shock from Russia’s termination of a deal to halt the flow of grain from Ukraine, the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who have fled climate change and insecurity provide a stark example of what happens when aid runs out.

Omar, a farmer, was forced to hand over most of his produce as tax to al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists who have controlled parts of Somalia for years. What little was left was not enough to feed his family during Somalia’s worst drought in decades. The final blow came when al-Shabab, under pressure from a Somali military offensive, killed his younger brother.

Omar and his family joined a new wave of Somalis on the run. They were among 135,000 new refugees who arrived in Dadaab in recent months and eventually gained access to food aid when the Kenyan government resumed refugee registration at the camp 90 kilometers from the Somali border in February.

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Dadaab is home to over 360,000 registered refugees and many unregistered refugees. The camp was established in the 1990s, its durability reflected in the neat rows of corrugated iron houses in the older parts.

However, food rations are more fragile. They have been reduced from 80% of the minimum daily nutritional requirement to 60% due to reduced donor funding, according to the World Food Programme. Traditional donors were quick to address hunger in places like Somalia when they criticized Russia for ending the grain deal, but they have concentrated their giving elsewhere, including Ukraine. In May, a high-level donor conference for Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia raised less than $3 billion of the $7 billion organizers wanted for humanitarian aid.

Refugee camps like Dadaab, especially in Africa, will see further cuts from Russia’s action, WFP executive director Cindy McCain told the AP on Tuesday. Under the recently terminated deal, WFP bought 80% of its global wheat supply in Ukraine.

“There will be some severe shortages and in some cases none at all as a result of this,” she said, adding that it was too early to predict what those cuts would be.

Already, “families who used to prepare probably three meals a day have now been reduced to preparing either two meals or one meal a day, and that’s pretty extreme,” WFP’s head of programs at Dadaab, Colin Buleti, told the AP during a visit to a food distribution center last week.

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Families receive monthly rations of sorghum, rice, beans, corn and vegetable oil, in addition to a cash transfer for buying fresh produce that has been halved to $3.

Aid workers say the reduced rations are likely to exacerbate malnutrition. In one of the three sections of Dadaab, Hagadera, 384 cases of malnutrition were reported in the first half of the year.

The malnutrition ward in Hagadera is overcrowded with crying babies. It is intended to treat 30 patients and is currently at 56.

Dool Abdirahman, 25, arrived in November with her malnourished daughter. The family fled Somalia when the child developed hydrocephalus, or a buildup of fluid in the brain. Until then, the family had struggled to cope at home, Abdirahman said.

International Rescue Committee health manager in Dadaab, Barbara Muttimos, said even the nutritious peanut paste used to treat children who are acutely and severely malnourished is under threat from reduced funding and the growing number of hungry people.

But for mothers like Mabina Ali Hassan, 38, conditions in Dadaab are better than the non-existent services at home, where conflict has destabilized the country for the past three decades.

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“I regret going back to Somalia in 2016 when I learned it was safer,” said the mother of eight. “This baby was born there and couldn’t get health care because the hospitals weren’t equipped.” She said she returned to the refugee camp when her son, now one year old, became malnourished.

Maryan Mohamed, 30, said she was lucky to be one of the newly registered refugees. The former tea shop owner and her six children arrived in Dadaab in March and lived on food packages from friends who had already been registered for four months.

“While stability welcomed me here, I’m still striving for the life I dreamed of,” she said.

The threat of insecurity remains, also for the refugees. Al-Shabab this month attacked a Somali military base just 12 kilometers from the Kenyan border. Somali troops are under pressure to assume security responsibilities as an African Union peacekeeping force continues its withdrawal from the country.

The Kenyan government is now in talks with the United Nations about how to integrate the hundreds of thousands of refugees into host communities in the future. The UN Refugee Agency says such integration is the best way to accommodate refugees now that donor funding is dwindling.


Associated Press writer Sam Mednick in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.

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