Why are Somali children still starving? This past Ramadan, this question overwhelmed me and occupied many of my nights. I remember the charity commercials aired more than 20 years ago beaming distressing images of too thin children, too tired to cry, with no energy to swat the flies collecting on their faces.
I worked with an international charity organization for the last three years and, inevitably, come summer, after yet another disappointing (global-warming) rainy season in East Africa, we would initiate yet another campaign for those suffering from the famine-drought in the Horn of Africa. It is a concerning constant that every year, more than 2 million children in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are at risk of starving or succumbing to diseases caused by malnutrition.
To answer this question, one has to take into account the circumstances that drive the societies in the Horn of Africa deeper into despair. Political unrest has led to mass destruction and the displacement of millions. Climatic disasters continue to dry out natural resources. International aid never reaches those starving children because of corrupt distribution and thievery. Similar, no-less-unnerving realities are facing millions of children in developing countries across the globe.
But why are there hungry children in the United States, the most food-rich nation in the world?
I was completely taken aback on the 7th night of Ramadan when, while leaving the masjid after tarawih prayer, a young brother and sister stopped me and asked for money. “My brother is hungry,” the young girl said. I was dumbstruck. The dark did not allow me to see much, but there was no mistaking the hollowness of their eyes. These children were not receiving proper nutrition.
I learned that this young sister and brother were children from a displaced refugee family. For those who have a heart and who reflect, there is something about the sheer reality of hungry and starving children that knocks you down and makes it a little harder to enjoy three square meals a day.
I can speak to the condition in the United States because that is where I live, but no doubt these trends generally describe the plight of poor and refugee children in Western, “developed” countries. It is my intention to communicate to my Muslim community two things: (1) If we are to understand why Somali children are still starving, we all need to think differently about food, and (2) we are not immune to this global problem. The trying economic times are making it difficult for many Muslim families, particularly refugee families to provide the wholesome, nourishing food their children need to thrive.
What is Child Malnutrition?
When I was a sixth-grader, my teacher introduced a new boy named Sean to the class. My 12-year-old self noted two things: That he would wear the same clothes for weeks at a time, and he would never bring a lunch. As my other classmates and I would spread our glorious sandwiches, fruits, yogurt (and some unhealthy unmentionables) across our desks, Sean would sit, clear-desked and silent. When asked, he said that he could only eat cereal for breakfast and dinner when his father came home.
More than a decade later, I observed similar stories in some Chicago Public Schools, deep in the food deserts of the city. More recently, while walking through a part of the city where refugees tended to re-settle, I witnessed too many young mothers begging for food with their children in tow.
According the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, malnutrition is defined as a “condition that develops when the body is deprived of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to maintain healthy tissues and organ function “About one percent of the children in the United States suffer from chronic malnutrition, meaning that they may not eat anything for days at a time. But an increasing number of children in the United States are undernourished, meaning they may eat one or two meals a day but not enough essential nutrients are consumed. Undernourished children often have pale, dry skin, achy joints and tender bones, and rashes on their bodies. These children are often listless, lacking energy to play or to attend school.
Land of Obese Kids?
An even larger number of children in the United States are "over nourished," although I would call this a misnomer. We are often mistaken in our belief that obese children contain enough nutrients to go around, when in reality, many of these children are over-FED but undernourished. Their diets are unbalanced, full of complex carbohydrates, fatty and salty foods, and as a result, they exhibit many of the symptoms of underfed, under- nourished children, like achy joints, rashes, anxiety, changes in mood, and other psychiatric symptoms. Over time, these children may develop heart disease and hypertension that can lead to death at a relatively young age.
We are the only creation that wastes food. I recently saw pictures from a posh wedding for a (Muslim!) Indian business mogul’s daughter that boasted a 30-course meal prepared by an army of chefs. More than 20 percent of the food was thrown away into a landfill (not even donated).
In another story, a man from New York engaged in a social experiment during which he survived-for one whole year!- on dumpster diving alone. (Dumpster diving is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, diving into a dumpster behind grocery stores and other corporations to salvage near- perfect food that had been thrown out).
Steps to Take to Fight Child Hunger
1. MAKE INTERNATIONAL FOOD AID A PART OF YOUR CHARITABLE GIVING
During Ramadan, we are particularly in tune with food- both our own desire for it and our willingness to provide it for others. These charitable habits should be established these sacred 29 or 30 days to be carried out throughout the year. Often we look to donate to build schools for needy children overseas, but we must recognize that these schools may never be used if there is no food security for the children. When giving, look for sustainable food programs, like establishing farms, building wells, and urban agriculture.
2. ADOPT A REFUGEE FAMILY
When the small, fledgling Muslim community migrated from Makkah to Yathrib, the Ansar were eager to “adopt” these refugee families. The Ansar provided their brethren in faith with food and work so that their lives would be free from the worry of survival and so that they could worship unhindered. There may be masjids and organizations in your area that have set up a program to aid recent Muslim refugee families. Let the focus of your support be providing wholesome, nutritious foods. Depending on the area, government support programs may be providing little or no food aid, and what is provided may be ultra processed and have little nutritional value.
3. FEED YOUR OWN CHILDREN NUTRITIONALLY BALANCED MEALS
In the Sha’ban 1432 issue of Al-Jumuah, nutritionist Sehba Khan explained the new standards for healthy eating adopted by the American Dietetics Association. Alhamdulillah, most of us have access to nutritional foods, but we have to be mindful of what we feed our children and how it will affect their souls. In everything, Allah appointed us the community of the Midmost, or balanced, Way-and this is especially true with what we put in our mouths.
4. BUILD A HOME ENVIRONMENT OF FOOD- CONSCIOUSNESS AND GRATITUDE
This means do not waste food. Teach your lads to share food with those who have none. We should constantly be reminding ourselves and our children that Allah has given us a blessing through His Mercy that we can pretty much eat whatever we want, whenever we want it. But this is a borrowed blessing that comes with terms and responsibilities. Allah reminds us that He is the One who has brought forth gardens for us to "eat of their fruits when they fruit. And give out (to the poor) what is rightfully due from this on the day of its harvest. But do not be excessive. For, indeed, He does not love those who are excessive" [Surah al-An’am: 142].
May Allah bring a day when the children of the Horn of Africa are well nourished and thriving. May He bring a day when the image of a starving black, African child is a thing of the past. Ya Allah! You are the Merciful, the Provider, provide for all of the children of the world so no child goes to bed hungry.
Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.
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