More than 80 per cent of the Somali refugees crossing into Kenya are women and children. Many of the families I see cueing at the Dadaab refugee reception centres are headed by mothers, grandmothers and older sisters. I often wonder where all the men have gone. This dearth of men is what makes Abdile all the more remarkable. In a community of mothers, Abdile stands apart as the consummate father. Dadaab, Kenya – 2 August 2011. Field report by Christopher Tidey.
Abdile, his wife, four children and their paternal grandmother left their home in Somalia in search of food and water after the drought had claimed their crops and livestock. During the 25-day journey, Abdile’s wife succumbed to starvation, while he was forced to will his family forward, at times literally carrying three of his four children on his back.
“We had no choice, but to continue,” says Abdile. “We had to keep moving or we would die.”
Aden, his youngest son at three-years-old, grew increasingly malnourished as their food and water supply dwindled. By the time the family reached the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, Aden was so weak that he had not the strength to lift his head or swallow. As he was rushed to the hospital, his five kilogram body was perilously close to shutting down. Doctors at the Hagadera hospital wondered whether he would survive.
That was nearly two weeks ago and Aden is still here. In fact, he is getting stronger, improving in small increments each day. When I went to visit Aden late last week, his weight had risen to 6.1 kilograms and he was beginning to eat solid food. His muscles remain terribly weak, but he is finally able to stand with support for seconds at a time.
Aden’s slow, but steady recovery comes as a result of near constant treatment from the dedicated staff at the Hagadera hospital and a regime of therapeutic feeding provided by UNICEF. But, I think there is more to his improving condition than medical care alone.
Every time I visit Aden at the hospital, his father is there. The doctors tell me that since Aden was admitted, Abdile has been a fixture at his bedside. Each day, the routine is the same. Abdile, the only father in the ward, stays with his son, while Aden’s grandmother cares for his three siblings at home. Each night, Abdile stays at the hospital so that Aden can fall asleep under his watchful gaze. The delicacy and love with which Abdile touches, feeds, reassures and holds his fragile son is a truly beautiful sight – the embodiment of what it means to be a parent.
Just as Abdile willed his family to survive the journey to Kenya despite the enormity of their loss, he is willing Aden to survive now. “Now, more than ever, it is important for our family to stay together,” Abdile tells me during our last visit. “My son is getting better day by day and I know that he will survive this.”
Nearly 6,000 new cases of malnutrition in children were reported in the Dadaab refugee camps in June alone, most of which were newly arrived refugees. Across the Horn of Africa, well over 2 million children are believed to be malnourished as a result of the drought, rise in food prices and political instability in Somalia. More than half a million children are at immediate risk of death.
To save lives, the global humanitarian response must be immediate. UNICEF is working to deliver unprecedented quantities of life-saving therapeutic and supplementary foods across the Horn. So far this month, by plane, truck and ship, UNICEF has delivered 1,300 metric tons of critical supplies to some of the hardest hit areas in southern Somalia, including enough therapeutic supplies to treat over 66,000 malnourished children. Over the next eight weeks, UNICEF will expand supplementary feeding to reach 360,000 children and expand as quickly as is possible to reach more children and their families.
Sometimes because of the tremendous suffering I see here, I wonder whether the international community is capable of mounting a response that is equal to the humanitarian challenges on the ground. But then I think about Abdile and Aden, their struggle, their bond and their triumph and I remember that there is still hope in this land.