For more than 20 years, the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA) has been serving the region through the work of the African diaspora and Muslim communities in Minnesota. Since its launch, ARAHA has been able to serve millions of meals and provide educational and economic resources to communities located in East Africa that have been inundated with several crises relating to famine and war.
The organization began in 2000, when several members of the East African community found themselves compelled to address the famine in Ethiopia.
Muna Scekomar, the marketing director of ARAHA, stated that the founders of the organization had all experienced some sort of crisis or emergency similar to the issues that they’re helping address. Many of them had arrived in the United States as refugees to escape war and genocide, so their personal experiences lend them to empathize with those in need of support.
“Once they were in a place that allows them to really thrive, they looked back home and asked, ‘How can we take whatever success that we have and give it back?” Scekomar said.
Many diaspora communities are no strangers to giving back. ARAHA’s founder and executive director, Mohamed Idris, credited the East African community’s sustained support to their families and communities in the region as to how they’ve been able to achieve such traction.
“There is no East African family that does not send almost some money and some funds from the Twin Cities on a monthly basis,” he said. “We are blessed to have the largest East African immigrant community here in Minnesota, and it has connected the community to the region.”
Outside of the cultural connection to the region, there is often a moral obligation for people to give according to Anab Omar, ARAHA’s program director. Because much of the population living in the Horn are Muslims, there is a concentrated effort of support during the month of Ramadan where Muslims are prescribed to fast and give charity.
This past Ramadan, ARAHA was able to give food baskets to roughly 5,000 families in the region. Omar credits this impact with the efforts of several cultural and faith groups.
“It’s people outside who are like, ‘We want to do something for the people of Horn of Africa. Not only here in Minnesota—we even get support from people all over the U.S. if it’s the Eritrean community or the Sudanese community,” she said.
Scekomar hopes to change the image of the region for the younger generation of East Africans so that the diaspora community sees itself in a different light compared to all the negative depictions in the West.
“They come to you, not to show you the pride of your country, but to show you the worst of it. A lot of time—I am speaking for myself as [part of the] diaspora—we almost try to run away from things like that,” Scekomar said.
ARAHA’s team utilizes different tools such as the Food Insecurity Classification to differentiate the levels of an issue plaguing the region. Those five levels are Minimal/None, Stressed, Crisis, Emergency, and Catastrophe/Famine. According to Idris, there have been continued crises across the Horn.
“The level of food insecurity today on the map in the majority of the area is between crisis and emergency because of the drought that has been going on since 2020,” he said. “Millions of livestock have vanished, and a lot of farmers also did not have a harvest for many seasons.”
Outside of dealing with food insecurity issues brought on by drought, ARAHA’s team navigates through geopolitical conflicts that further strain the populations who were already struggling to begin with. Political turmoil in Sudan has led three million people to flee from the nation’s capital. Roughly 800,000 fled to bordering nations, and another seven million were internally displaced.
Countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia are also experiencing regional conflicts that have caused the local communities to go without resources. Recently, Idris was able to travel to Sudan to assess the situation and found that there was a desperate need for basic resources.
“Our executive director was in Sudan back in June,” said ARAHA Program Director Omar. From what he saw, he informed us the situation wasn’t good.”
According to observers, there were several people sleeping on the ground, including pregnant women, with no covers. The organization went on to work towards providing resources such as mattresses, diapers, blankets, and mosquito nets.
ARAHA’s work in the region is made up of eight separate programs including food and water, which take up half of their focus. They also have programming around education, taking care of orphans, supporting school lunch programs, and creating economic opportunities.
The school lunch program has been a way for ARAHA to create an incentive for children to attend school while also getting the nutrition they need to develop. Some of the children enrolled in the program travel up to two and a half miles to school to participate in the program.
“We take away the burden of having to choose between food and education by combining it in the school lunch program. If you send your kids to school, we will provide you with food,” Scekomar said.
With the food and water programs taking up such a large part of ARAHA’s resources, it has had the largest impact by creating more than 600 wells across the region and more than 100 shipping containers filled with food that have been sent to the region.
As the issues in the Horn have evolved, so has ARAHA’s approach to the problems. When climate change began affecting their wells across the Horn, ARAHA’s staff sought a solution that was sustainable in the changing conditions despite the arid landscape.
“Even though it was one of the most popular programs, we shifted towards a more sustainable water well, which is the borehole-water well that stays for a longer period. It costs about $30,000 to make one borehole well, but that borehole well lasts for years,” Scekomar explained.
ARAHA’s team credits the organization’s regional presence and community ties for its effectiveness in providing resources. With several offices spread throughout countries including Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, ARAHA is able to get an accurate portrait of the issues on the ground. ARAHA also partners with local organizations in Djibouti, Yemen, and South Sudan.
Organizational partnerships have also been key to ARAHA’s ability to provide the necessary resources to those dealing with food insecurity in the Horn. One of their frequent partners, also based in the Twin Cities, is Feed My Starving Children, a faith-based nonprofit that organizes meal-packing initiatives for nearly 70 countries. Some of their other U.S. partners include Penny Appeals and Rise Against Hunger.
Because of ARAHA’s connection to the region, they’re able to assist and ensure that resources from their partners such as Feed My Starving Children make their way to their intended destinations.
“A lot of organizations come to us to implement a project, and so we partner with them so that we can implement these projects,” Idris said. “The humanitarian work is a collaborative effort, and we take advantage of that.”
Jordyn Strege is the senior manager of international programs at Feed My Starving Children. The two organizations have worked together since 2016, when they shipped a 40-foot container with 35 pallets of food. Strege said that the organization has worked with several different communities and has seen those from their nation’s diasporas leading the charge to provide meals to those in need.
Since Feed My Starving Children is a faith-based group with many churchgoers volunteering, there is a similar element of spiritually-driven work that both organizations share.
“We have a great partnership,” Strege said. “Of course, we’re of different faiths, but…the beauty of it is we have the same mission, and that’s really equipping individuals in need with resources.”
The organization’s stated goal is to alleviate suffering and build self-reliant communities in the Horn. Though much of the work in ARAHA is to address pressing issues that communities are experiencing now, they have a long-term vision they plan to fulfill.
They’ve been able to provide individuals and families with donkey carts, auto rickshaws, and dairy cows as a means of creating income. This focus on financial independence is at the heart of their work as they work towards creating independence from aid.
“It’s that true belief in the autonomy of the people and their capability of being able to create that autonomy and that self-resilience and self-reliance if only the obstacles are just removed,” said Scekomar. ”ARAHA is really a means to an end rather than us wanting to stay there long-term.”