With no clothes but the ones on her back, Fatima narrowly escaped the violence in Central African Republic (CAR). Gathering her five children and leaving everything, including her husband, behind, Fatima walked nearly 400 miles to Chad in search of safety. Her new home is a tent of loosely-bound sticks covered with rags to shield her and her children from the scorching sun that beats down on them and 18,000 other refugees in a makeshift camp.
I can well imagine what that walk was like for her because I made one like it as a young Turkish asylum-seeker. Carrying nothing, though I was blessed to have a jacket, I walked from Turkey to the Italian border without stopping, hoping to reach a place of safety. I eventually found that safety, along with education and hope for my future, in Switzerland. But Fatima and hundreds of thousands like her are finding only hunger and deprivation when their long walk ends.
The United Nations is sending 12,000 international peacekeepers to CAR to try to stop the fighting there, but that will not help the more than 320,000 Central African refugees who have no food, water, shelter or supplies that they urgently need.
During the last week in March, Zakat Foundation of America (ZF) delivered emergency food aid to more than 500 Central African Republic refugee families in Sarh, Chad, including Fatima and her children. Reports from the field show camps growing daily as hundreds of new refugees arrive, but resources are scarce and there is no organized system of distribution. The camps have little food, no tents for new arrivals, and no clothing to give those who have walked for more than a week in search of safety. Hope for the future wanes as refugees must rely on begging in the nearby villages for scraps of bread to feed their children.
The major challenge of delivering emergency relief to a camp setting is balancing the overwhelming needs of the people with the finite resources of an organization. Swarms of families surrounded our small relief truck in Sarh, but the food packages ran out too soon. Police officers tried to hold the crowds back, only to be overrun by refugees desperate for a bottle of water.
In the face of this urgent need, the lack of involvement by other aid groups is heartrending. But few organizations seem to have reliable information on the condition of the refugees in the camps, the lack of food or shelter, clothing, and medical services. Most of the international community's efforts have focused on political advocacy to stop the violence in CAR. The inertia of the international community is legendary, so when will the aid arrive?
As high-level meetings continue, thousands like Fatima are losing family members in CAR, running for their lives, or struggling to survive. Historically, the opportunity to deliver help early and save countless lives has been squandered as the world waited for situations to escalate or be resolved. Rwanda, Cambodia, and Syria are a few examples. Now is time for the international community to step in and help those suffering from the crisis in CAR.
Humanitarian assistance and political advocacy must happen simultaneously to give Fatima and her family, and hundreds of thousands more like them, a chance to build a better future.