While most of her peers are enjoying their free weekend time, Alia Mohamed spends her Saturdays on Skype. She will listen dutifully at her computer as one of 50 Somali children recalls what he or she learned that week -- anything from a sentence or two in English to a new recipe.
"It's the most tremendous feeling ever; it's just amazing," said Mohamed, a biology major at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. "I always ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up."
The 22-year-old Mohamed is the founder of Mercy to Mankind, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to aiding impoverished, orphaned children in drought-ravaged Somalia. The foundation's four board members and three volunteers -- all U.S.-based students -- aim to remotely provide food, shelter and school items for an orphanage they founded in Mogadishu, the war-torn nation's largest city and its capital. At present, Mohamed's orphanage houses 50 children between the ages of three and 13, and an additional 150 from a separate organization also attend classes and receive aid through Mercy to Mankind.
"It was part of my upbringing to give back," said Mohamed, a Somali native who fled the country with her family when she was just a year old. Still, Mohamed wasn't overly concerned with goings-on in her homeland until July 2009, when she attended a Somali youth conference that encouraged humanitarian involvement among its participants. "I was just so eager to do something … I really wanted to take action," she recalled.
Take a look at some photos of Mercy to Mankind's work in Somalia, then scroll down to keep reading:
The idea behind Mercy to Mankind was conceived a mere three months later in October, and a series of campus-based fundraising efforts helped Mohamed and her colleagues to rent a home previously owned by her uncle as the basis for the orphanage. Though Mohamed was fortunate enough to have a lot of family members still based in Mogadishu, the organization did face some unexpected challenges when it came to staffing. "When we wanted to hire teachers to work in the orphanage, they were constantly worried about their safety, because of [threats] from religious extremists," she explained.
As the fifth of eight children, Mohamed says her parents always encouraged beneficence, and always reminded their large brood never to take their good fortune for granted. "The majority of Somali families -- between 80 to 85 percent of the nation -- couldn't afford to move" at the start of the war, she said. Her family was one of those able to escape, first moving to Cairo before finally settling in Fairfax, Va.
Mohamed now hopes a series of upcoming fundraising efforts and awareness events at both Marymount and George Mason University will support Mercy for Mankind in the construction of a new children's center in Mogadishu to house and provide aid to additional children. She also would like to return to her homeland for the first time, possibly as early as December, to see her efforts in action.
Given the estimated 29,000 Somali children who have died due to the nation's famine since June, Mohamed said she only wishes she could do more. "[That figure] is a very large number compared to the 50 that I do care for," she noted. "It's too heartbreaking because I can only do so much. I don't reward myself for anything … but the light I see in their faces [while on Skype] makes it worth it."
For more information on Mercy to Mankind, click here.