After visiting the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa recently, I realized something: We need to get more personal with children in Africa.
Let's start with Abdirachman. He's a 13-year-old boy with wavy black hair and big dark eyes who arrived in Dadaab -- a refugee camp with the same population as Atlanta -- knowing no one.
Not long ago, in his hometown in Somalia, he got home from school and found his house a pile of ashes. His father was dead and his mother missing. He stayed with a neighbor who decided to put him on a truck to Dadaab. The drought in Somalia meant they couldn't feed another mouth.
While Abdirachman arrived without a problem, the journey isn't always so smooth. Two months earlier, Isnino, a frail teen who is about 15 years old, made the crossing in the back of a truck overloaded with refugees. Her life hasn't been easy. Her father forced her to marry when she was 13. She got pregnant not long after. She fled the country nine months pregnant in the back of bouncing truck loaded with people vomiting and dying. "I thought I was going to die," she said. Under that crush of people, Isnino gave birth alone. No one helped her.
After meeting Isnino and Abdirachman, it's hard to ignore the crisis in east Africa. They've personalized it for me. I think of them when I'm eating dinner with my daughter and son, when I watch TV at night with my husband and when I talk to colleagues. They just don't leave me.
What's happening right now, on the dangerous back roads of Somalia out of sight of the news cameras, is the world's worst catastrophe for children. Tens of thousands of children have already died throughout the Horn of Africa and hundreds more a day are dying in Somalia. The number of severely malnourished children admitted to 41 of Save the Children's feeding centers in Somalia and Puntland has nearly doubled between July and August this year.
The drought is only going to get worse. Rains predicted for October will likely be poor -- if they come at all. This hunger crisis will persist into next year. This has me worried that many more children may die. And they don't have to.
When I looked at Isnino, I saw my own daughter in a few years. What if my 10-year-old daughter had to cross Somalia with the threat of rape? What would she eat? Where would she sleep at night to escape hyenas?
Hunger is stalking children across Africa. Among the new refugees arriving in Ethiopia, the rate of acute malnutrition is 19 percent. That might sound cold and clinical to many Americans. When you learn that it means a child has a bodyweight 30 percent or more below the norm for their age and height -- I can't bear to think of my daughter at a rail-thin 35 pounds -- it becomes a lot more personal.
The assistance America provides in the Horn of Africa is crucial to helping feed these severely malnourished children. But some in Congress are threatening that lifesaving help, wanting to cut food aid by as much as 30 percent. I would ask members of Congress with three children to look them in the eyes and try to determine which one should go without food today. And tomorrow. And the next day.
Many parents in Somalia are forced to choose which children are strong enough to continue the journey. Without enough food to feed all of their children, many have been forced to leave dying children behind. As a parent of three, I can't imagine having to make such a choice.
American foreign assistance is on the chopping block by Congress and the timing couldn't be worse. More than 3.5 million people in the Horn of Africa need help. Half of them are children. Now is not the time to cut aid. This investment not only keeps children alive, it's an investment in security at home. Aid creates economic growth and stability abroad. Cutting international aid would increase poverty and hunger and could create economic or political instability. And the last thing we need is more global instability.
Reducing America's debt is crucial, but balancing our budget on the backs of hungry African children -- when poverty-focused programs account for about 1 percent of the federal budget - is just plain wrong. It won't make a dent in the multi-trillion dollar debt, but it will have life-and-death consequences for millions of people around the world and for kids like Abdi and Isnino and her baby. These programs should be protected, not cut, in the upcoming appropriations debates.
When the Senate votes on foreign assistance funding next week, the results will affect the trajectories of the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. Keep funding life-saving programs, and kids like Isnino and Abdirachman will have a chance to get an education, leave the refugee camp, and maybe go on to help their own people.
So I ask all the senators: What if that was your daughter or granddaughter, that needed life-saving assistance? Would that influence how you vote?
That's getting personal.
Carolyn Miles is the first female president & CEO of the humanitarian organization Save the Children.
Follow Carolyn S. Miles on Twitter: www.twitter.com/carolynsave