MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The head of an agency providing federal aid to famine relief efforts in Somalia reassured a crowd in Minneapolis Wednesday that those who work with the U.S. to help the millions of people starving in the Horn of Africa won't be prosecuted for supporting terrorists.
Raj Shah, the administrator of the federal aid arm USAID, was part of a public forum addressing the ongoing famine in Somalia. He made the comments in response to an audience question about the government's anti-terror laws.
"Any partner working with the government, or USAID in particular, will be immune from that type of prosecution," Shah said, reiterating an announcement the Obama administration made in early August.
"We've heard your concerns and tried very hard to be responsive," he said.
The concerns are very real in Minnesota, which has the largest Somali population in the U.S. but has also been the center of an ongoing investigation into the recruiting and travels of more than 20 young men who authorities believe left Minneapolis to fight with al-Shabab in Somalia. A total of 20 people have been charged in Minnesota in connection with the travelers and terror financing — including two women who claim they were raising money to charity.
About 350 people attended Wednesday's forum about the famine, including many in the local Somali community. The forum was moderated by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, and participants included House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
"This is our business because so many of our friends are from the Horn of Africa," Ellison said. He added there is enough food to take care of everyone — but there needs to be a political will to do it.
"Neglecting Somalia will not lead to a solution," Ellison added. "The world can no longer ignore this problem."
During the forum, Shah announced the U.S. is pledging an additional $23 million in grants to support famine relief efforts, bringing the total commitment from the United States to $600 million.
Five regions in Somalia are suffering from famine and officials say that will increase in coming weeks. There's also widespread hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. The United Nations estimates that more than 12 million people need help, including about 3.7 million Somalis.
"We are facing an absolutely urgent crisis," Shah said. Aid workers have faced challenges, in the unstable country, particularly in those areas controlled by al-Shabab, a terrorist group that has ties to al-Qaida.
He said the U.S. is working on programs to be more effective inside Somalia. To counter some of the challenges posed by al-Shabab and rebels who have attacked food convoys, Shah said USAID is working on less visible relief efforts. For example, rather than sending truckloads of grain, USAID is providing cash vouchers that people can take to markets to buy food.
He also said USAID is focusing on medical intervention, vaccines and delivering meals that are high in nutrition — with the goal of saving as many lives as possible.
Daniel Wordsworth, president of American Refugee Committee, said the famine is very real for members of the local Somali diaspora — who often receive telephone calls at 2 a.m. from family members back home who need help.
He said there is a widespread feeling that barriers are too big, but he said he talks to countless people every day who know how to get things done and know how the food helps.
"The challenge is not in the size of the problem, but the challenge is in deciding how to act," Wordsworth said.