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Daring to be different, two venture to Somalia to give aid
Article Tab: Ray Meltvedt, left, and Mike Crary land in Mogadishu, Somalia, from Nairobi, Kenya, to purchase and distribute food to the needy.
Ray Meltvedt, left, and Mike Crary land in Mogadishu, Somalia, from Nairobi, Kenya, to purchase and distribute food to the needy.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Ray Meltvedt and Mike Crary of San Clemente say they were appalled at a lack of aid going to famine victims in a country ravaged by lawlessness, warlords and piracy. They went to Mogadishu, determined to see what a few committed people can do.

Some people may think Ray Meltvedt and Mike Crary are nuts, they acknowledge. Who would go to Somalia and hire 10 armed guards for protection while setting out as individuals to distribute food at refugee camps? This was in Somalia – that hopeless hideaway on the Horn of Africa known for warlords, pirates, terror, chaos and dead U.S. soldiers' bodies being paraded through the streets of Mogadishu.

"It's not where I would have chosen to go on vacation," Meltvedt said. But that's what the two San Clemente residents did in July. Meltvedt, a vice-president with Amcor Landsberg, a packaging company, and Crary, a technical sales representative with Chemetall, a chemical company, have started a small organization they call FeedingSomalia.org.

They said they paid their own way and all their own expenses on the July 21-26 trip so that every penny donated to the cause would feed hungry Somalis. They figure the trip, including hiring armed guards and rental vehicles, cost them each more than $5,000.

At the same time they figure they purchased and distributed enough food to provide 196,782 meals. They also worked a deal to reinstate water for two months to a camp of 25,000 people whose UNICEF-funded water supply had run out. The $7,500 that the American visitors spent on water could have funded another 75,000 meals, they calculate. But they said they were happy to help any way they could.

If the food donation sounds like a drop in the bucket in a country where 30,000 children were reported to have died of starvation over a three-month period last year, Crary said he'll take it. "If we can prevent one child from dying of starvation," he said, "it's worth it."

Meltvedt was inspired to act after seeing a CNN interview with U2 musician Bono last summer, discussing mass starvation in Somalia from a catastrophic famine and world response that was sorely lacking. Civil war, it seemed, was making aid efforts look hopeless.

"To have that many people starving and dying and to have the world say they don't care struck me as completely unacceptable in a world that has so much," Meltvedt said.

He resolved to see what a handful of people could do. In October, he and two others paid their own way to Mogadishu to scope things out. "My hotel room got blown up," Meltvedt said. "The whole building next door got blown up." At the time of the blast, he was at a camp distributing food he'd bought for $600. Undeterred, he helped clean up the hotel and returned home to start FeedingSomalia.org with Brenda Crary.

They set up a "Feeding Somalia One Dime at a Time" website, acquired some donated food and raised more than $75,000 to pay shipping costs to send the equivalent of 1 million meals to Somalia, Meltvedt said. A series of fundraising events then collected more than $25,000 that Crary and Meltvedt could use in Somalia on the July trip to render aid.

Meltvedt said the organization has no overhead. "We go there on our own dime and buy the food, and we give it to the people to eat," he said. "The very night we were giving the food out, they're eating the food."

Crary and Meltvedt said they decided to buy food locally rather than try to import it, as that would simplify efforts. Food is available, they said, and they worked with a local organization, Somalia Community Concern, to get the food to people who need it. They visited recipients the next day to see them eating it.

The visitors' choice of food – flour and oil – is a staple in Somalia, something the donors knew would be cheap, would be used and would go farthest. They learned that locals have six recipes – mixing flour and oil with onion, cabbage, radishes or whatever vegetable families can get. "It's almost like pita bread," Crary said. UNICEF helped by providing 1,400 20-liter containers.

Most of the Orange Countians' week-long trip was air travel to and from Somalia, leaving them three full days on the ground there. They wore bulletproof vests loaned by U.S. Armor and had 10 fulltime guards armed with AK-47s and machine guns, Crary said.

"During the time we were there, we didn't see one westerner and yet ... Mike and I had a great time together as friends," Meltvedt said.

He said they ran on a beautiful white-sand beach south of Mogadishu. "We held a mock Olympic run," he said. "Mike ran against some local Somalis and we paid them a few dollars as the winners. I did an ocean swim out to an island, which got our guards a little excited."

As he reached the island, a quarter-mile offshore, the guards yelled to come back, wary that it might be a pirate hangout.

The two travelers said they want to go back next year – again at their own expense – and Meltvedt said he hopes to someday be able to take his daughters there on vacation "when the country settles down and we can say we had a part in bringing this country back to what it was before all the craziness started 20 years before. Mogadishu is a beautiful city. The country of Somalia is gorgeous."

Crary said he was able to look beyond the danger "and see the beauty of the people. We're all humans and we just need to connect as one person to another, global neighbors."

His wife Brenda agreed. "Somalia is kind of off the radar," she said. Hardly anyone goes there. That's why we kind of chose it. When it came out as the poorest of the poor, and people who are worst off and nobody is helping. That's Somalia."


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