08.24.11

Why My Mom Is in Africa

Ever since she was a young girl, Meghan McCain remembers her mom visiting foreign countries during the times of international crisis. Earlier this week, Meghan interviewed Cindy by phone from a hotel room in Africa about the starving children and dire conditions for families in Kenya.

Meghan McCain: Where exactly are you right now?

Cindy McCain: I’m in Nairobi, Kenya. Yesterday, along with [the poet and rapper] K’naan and [retired basketball player] Dikembe Mutombo, I visited Dadaab, the main refugee camp on the border of Somalia and Kenya. There are over 400,000 refugees in Dadaab, and the number continues to grow at a staggering rate.

Meghan: Where are these refugees from?

Cindy: Al-Shabaab and other factions in Somalia are warring, and these people are fleeing for their lives. The civil war coupled with the famine and the inability for the international community to get enough aid into the region has caused people to flee. Many have walked for days on end to find food, water, and safety. About 80 percent of these refugees are women and children, as many of the men have stayed to tend to their livestock or join armed groups. People are coming from all across Somalia. They are pastoralists, who have dealt with declining pasture for grazing and even less water for living. They live in constant fear of armed groups forcing men to join them. It’s a horrible situation that has been going on for quite some time; it escalated recently due to lower-than- normal spring rains and lack of food security due to the increased conflict. The Dadaab refugee camps were set up to provide support to Somali refugees ever since 1991. Men women and children are starving and entering this camp at the rate of over 1,000 people a day. They are fleeing for their lives and fighting for their children’s futures.

Meghan: How did you get involved with this?

Cindy: I’ve been doing relief work since the early 1980s. Since becoming a mother, I have really connected with the plight of women and children. It's heartbreaking to see these mothers watch their children suffer from malnutrition. I am concerned that the world community will lose interest and we will lose a generation of children due lack of global response.

Meghan: It’s hard for me to imagine what being in the camps must be like.

Cindy: The camp covers as far as the eye can see. Everywhere you look, there are strong people fighting for their lives and their children's livelihood. Small UNHCR tents—some covered in plastic, some made from tarps—line the camps. For those people waiting for shelter, they make homes from tree branches and whatever other material they can get their hands on. It’s hot, very windy, and there is sand and dust flying everywhere.

At the processing center, where the families first check into the camp after their long trek from Somalia, I saw a 7-year-old who couldn’t walk because he was so weak from hunger. I saw another infant that was getting fed via IV in an attempt to get nutrients into him as quickly as possible; he was 2 years old and topped the scales at around 13 pounds. When you don’t have the proper nutrients as a child your lungs don’t develop, your heart doesn’t develop, your brain doesn't develop. A lot of Somalis, including a horrifying amount of children, are dying. The World Food Program and other International organizations are doing everything they can to feed, inoculate, and care for the living, but they need help.

Meghan: Why do you think Americans should care, and why do you think there is not enough media attention for this?

Cindy: I get this question all the time. America is the beacon of hope around the world, we are always the first ones in and always the last ones to leave. If not us, then who? Why shouldn't we care? People are dying here at catastrophic levels. The media came in and did initial coverage of the story, but events around the world have pulled them elsewhere, and we as Americans have short attention spans. There is no quick fix for this situation, these people are going to need our help for quite some time, and a long-term fight isn't sexy. There is no Band-Aid or cure. All we can do is continue to support these people and continue to press for more stability in the region and more international aid. The goal is not only for refugees to survive, but to return to their homes and flourish.

Meghan: If you weren’t my mother, I wouldn’t know this was going on.

Cindy: I am here to beat my drum and stomp my feet for more international attention. We need more people in here, we need more help, we need more concern. World Food Program, UNICEF, and CARE International need more money. This is a very serious situation and without a massive global response these refugees will not survive. I was able to sit and talk with a group of women as they waited to be assigned a shelter to live in. It was incredibly humbling. Most of these women had walked days on end to get over the border. Some carrying five children, some as many as nine children. Some have had to leave their own children on the journey to get help. It’s the worst kind of situation you can imagine. They fear for their children, they fear for their safety, and they fear for their future. For me as a woman and a mother, I can’t just sit by and watch this happen.

The best we can estimate is that in the camp there are two doctors for every 100,000 people. Say what you will about our health care, but none of us has to hold our dying child in our arms because we can't find a doctor. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. When you see the face of famine on someone, the look in his or her eyes ... it’s tragic.

I saw a 7-year-old who couldn’t walk because he was so weak from hunger.

Meghan: When I am sitting here listening to you, I feel pretty helpless. What can the average American do?

Cindy: I urge people to visit futurefortified.org. From there, you can directly effect change and people’s lives. Right now money is the most important thing people can do because these refugees need food, shelter, and medical care, and they need it now. Educate yourselves, and educate your neighbors. Get off the couch, and find your passion. Help others less fortunate than yourselves—that’s the American way.

Meghan: What happens if we don’t do anything?

Cindy: We can't NOT do anything. If we do nothing, we will see hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children die. Whenever there is war or conflict, it is always the women and children that bear the brunt of the fallout. It angers and saddens me.

Meghan: Why do you think this isn’t getting more attention?

Cindy: I think all too often Americans get “Africa burnout.” Many Americans often see Africa as a lost cause. I don’t view Africa that way. You have to look at these people’s faces when they find out you are American—they truly believe they are saved. The kind of hope we instill just by showing up and caring always makes me cry, every time I see it. Americans lose track of the idea of just how important a role we play in the world, and this is a very important region. There are bad guys roaming around this place not because they want to be good citizens but terrorists. Somalia is where the pirates are. We’ve had so many issues in regards to our military. They kidnap people on a regular basis— kidnapping is an industry there. It’s in our best interest to make sure these people are helped. I also encourage those that have the means and are willing to come here—and I’m particularly pointing at Hollywood. Darfur for some reason was really sexy to Hollywood and to the folks that could make things happen but for some reason this hasn’t caught on.

Meghan: What else do you want the world to know?

Cindy: I don’t want this place and these people to be forgotten. This is a big problem, and it’s not going to end any time soon. I encourage Americans to get involved and do what they can on a local, national, or international level. Not everyone can get on an airplane and come here, but you can get engaged. What I do is what moves my heart and I feel compelled to do. I want to thank Newsweek and The Daily Beast for caring about this issue, and I want to encourage the readers to give money. Again, go to futurefortified.org; $10 goes a long way in a place like this.

Meghan: Thank you for this interview, Mom, and all the amazing work everyone there is doing!

Cindy: Thank you for the interview, Meghan!