‘The Worst I’ve Ever Seen’: One Persistent Nurse’s Take on Somalian Refugee Situation

By Shawn Kennedy, editor-in-chief

Long-term care: Martone at a refugee camp in Uganda back in 2001

Gerry Martone is a nurse who has traveled to the far reaches of the world in his job as director of humanitarian resources at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). We ran a profile of Gerry in 2001 and also a photo essay. He’s also a skilled photographer and we’ve published his photo essays documenting his travels. (See here for one on assessing poverty in Afghanistan and here for one on Sudan refugees; click through to PDF versions for best viewing.)

So when I spoke with Gerry last week, shortly after he came back from a visit to a refugee camp in Kenya, it scared me when he said the situation in East Africa is the worst thing he’s ever seen. The region is plagued by a severe drought (Martone says it’s had no appreciable rain in two years), and while drought is a cyclical phenomenon there,  a struggling central government, lack of health and response systems, and ongoing  conflicts among local clans have worsened the situation, causing widespread food shortages. The global community is responding with aid, but for many, it will be too late.

He visited a UN camp outside the city of Dadaab, Kenya, to which more than 440,000 displaced people—mostly Somalians, who are the hardest hit—have fled. The IRC runs a hospital at the camp. The situation is dire: the UN estimates that, without intervention, 750,000 Somalians face death within four months. And it doesn’t have to be this way—it’s a matter of making potable water and food available—though even with supplies on hand, it’s hard to get them delivered to those in need. Martone said the area is completely lawless and very dangerous—he traveled with six armed guards—and many organizations fear sending their workers.

Martone said if people want to help, they should donate to an aid agency they feel comfortable with—and there are many doing work in the region, including the IRC, Doctors Without Borders, and the UN Refugee Agency, to name a few.

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2016-11-21T13:11:57+00:00 September 20th, 2011|Nursing|14 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Sasha Pausa April 21, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    As we all may know water is a critical element in our lives. We need it to survive, to grow our crops, and our animals need it. Without it our means of survival diminish. Unfortunately water is not the only problem effecting Somalia. As stated in the article it is dangerous for everyone. All one can do is donate to support the cause and hope that food and water makes it into the hands of those who need it the most. Pray that the drought will come to an end and that turmoil in this country would cease.

  2. vanessa arrazcaeta April 15, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Amazing how important simple things we take for granted such as rain can mean the difference of life and death for 750,000 Somalians. In this situation, it seems that a two year drought exacerbated the situation. Without rain, there are no crops to grow, no drinking water, animals will die and the land will be left without resources. Unfortunately, if an organization has to worry about its own safety, that complicates things further. There are plenty of resources available in other countries, the problem is transporting it there. As if transport wasn’t expensive enough, the need to hire armed guards makes it unappealing for anyone that wants to help. In my opinion, the needs of other countries are not communicated as easily as our needs in the United States. Someone is homeless and there are community resources that help such as homeless shelters. In these countries the resources are scarce. I believe that the media should publicize situations such as these so more people can come together, donate and be able to bring in adequate resources. In fact, I even think it would be an excellent idea to have nursing schools require one semester to be in a foreign country serving those in need.

  3. Tercy Nunez April 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    This situation seems to be dire and critical. It is a shame that the people who are sent to help the people of Somalia are in danger themselves. The solution may be a simple one but it is hard to go through with the execution of the solution because of all the dangers that arise. These poor people who are desperate for the basic needs of survival are helpless to do anything about it. It is great to see the organizations coming together to try to help these people but it may be too late. There are many obstacles to overcome and when the help comes it may be too late for many of these people.

  4. Ramon Arce August 6, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    The situation is Somalia seems to be worsening by the day. Although there is a desperate need for aid, it would seem that a joint effort from governments around the world is in order. Local warring clans control much of what does and does not happen in Somalia. Therefore a strong international presence is required in order to insure the safety necessary for aid workers to perform their jobs. A significant international peacekeeping force is vital if aid is to reach its intended targets. It falls on the United Nations to play a pivotal role in leading the international community into Somalia. There are plenty of dedicated nurses and doctors, ready, willing and able to help but they must first have the security needed in order to make a change. There seems to be a fair amount of aid headed to the people of Somalia, we have to make sure it reaches those in need.

  5. Niurka Diaz August 6, 2012 at 1:06 am

    This situation is beyond sad. It is critical for these people to receive some help immediately. The government or the military needs to work on providing some type of protection to the agencies willing to assist. Also, if this climate conditions are known to occur frequently in this geographical area, the healthcare/sanitation body and government need to come up with a plan to prepare for emergency situations. Saving clean water and later making it available, distributing foods, providing shelter to the affected population and protection for rescuers are some ideas to keep in mind when developing a better healthcare program.
    Moreover, the world has to be informed about what really goes on in developing countries. I only learned about this matter because of necessary school work, otherwise I would have never known. Like me, there are people out there that can contribute to this cause monetarily or as volunteers; they will never find out unless we spread the word.

  6. Rocio Pena July 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    It is sad to see that people in great need will die if outsiders who can aid them don’t have the security necessary to go and help. I agree with Rachel’s comment and I can see why she (and myself) thinks that it is hard to help others when doing it poses a risk to our own safety: It is a fact that most people will put their own safety first because it’s one of our basic human needs. However, the real problem I see is the lack of advertisement of the many ways of volunteering and volunteering opportunities out there. Promoting commitment to help others in need, overseas or locally, should not be left to the hands of the aid agencies already helping, but should also be done by institutions and organizations internally, especially healthcare institutions which have a first-hand pool of healthcare personnel. One of the things that amazed me the most about my current employer was their advertisement of several volunteering opportunities overseas upon completion of a year of working with the company. I’ve been six months with them and I can’t wait for the completion of my full year to start taking advantage of these opportunities. As a nurse, I think we have a unique opportunity to see first-hand the wonders that a helping hand can accomplish, but sometimes we get so caught up in minor issues that we need a push from others to see there’re better and bigger things we can do.

  7. Gabriel November 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    As a student nurse you learn the importance and meaning of making sacrifices for others. For some, the ability to do so, allows them to deliver the best of care in the worst of times. A perfect example is portrayed in this article. It’s almost impossible to compare the mischiefs between where we live and places like Kenya, but at some point it is inevitable to realize we might not have it so bad. The hardships Somalians have to go through to obtain help is incredible, not only the search for resources and aid, but the constant danger surrounding their everyday. This deed Mr. Martone has been doing, should be more than another example of a contribution, it should be taken as a incentive to start having a more grateful attitude towards the world for what we already have, and maybe then we could all extend a hand to those that don’t have anything.

  8. Nathalia Ruiz November 21, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    With a very ominous and dreadful situation in East Africa, it is important to note that we as nurses and as nursing student can be proactive and involved in the global community. It is in the standards of nursing to be advocates for our patients. Furthermore the term patient itself means, “to suffer,” and as noted on the article above the people of East Africa are suffering. Although it is a shame to see, we as health care professionals must intervene and become proactive in the global health care community. By joining and supporting organizations just like International Rescue Committee, and people like Gerry Martone. I can truly say that the work that Gerry has provided over in East Africa is not only inspiring but enlightening and a forceful tool of motivation for others who should get involved.

  9. Kathy November 21, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    After reading this blog, I was exposed to the realities that the Somalian people are faced with on a daily basis. The combination of these struggles are leading the Somalian people to have food shortages. It’s incredible to know that all these things are happening and the world is so unaware. As a future registered nurse, I ask myself what I can do to help. It is not enough to just be aware of the illnesses that pervade a country; we must take action. There are so many preventable deaths across the globe and just educating people on how to prevent diseases and infections is a major way of achieving this. Not only should we focus on the troubles we have at home, but also focus and be aware of the things that affect us globally. We must care enough to take action and once action is taken it should be well executed. I hope that someday soon the Somalians are aided and more and more people are made aware and contribute through donations and directly helping the agencies in charge of this region.

  10. Rachel Clarke November 21, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    This is very heart breaking to hear that there are people in East Africa are going through food shortage and medical attention but cannot get the aid they need because of the crime in the area. I agree with Daniel, what is the government doing to give missionary workers more security? If the government is in need of outside assistance they’ve got to work with organizations and groups that are willing to travel there to offer their help and resources. I do missonary work myself and although my biggest purpose to doing trips like these to other countries is to help someone less fortunate. However, my safety is not something that I’m willing to put above anyone else.

  11. Daniel Fortich November 20, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    With such a volatile security situation, I am curious to know what cooperation aid groups have with the militaries of the region to help bolster the efforts of aid workers. There is no question that people need to be helped immediately by whatever means possible, but it seems to me like no real and significant aid can begin to flow into the region without a significant improvement in the state of security in Somalia. I saw this firsthand as a Marine in Iraq where when gauging the needs of almost any community across that country, security was the foremost concern. US forces would bring clean water, jobs, and schools into a community, but no significant change in quality of life was achieved until people were confident that they could send their children to school without the looming menace of roadside bombs or armed militias. It seems to me that until aid workers can safely deliver the care and resources they are attempting to give, there will continue to be death at an alarmingly large scale

  12. Darcy Hamlin November 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    It is sad to think that in order to provide help for a country who desperately needs it, the innocent people of aid organizations must be put in danger of being hurt or killed. However, we cannot ignore the staggering numbers that are predicted to die in Somalia within only a matter of months if nothing is done soon. I am a nursing student in a global health nursing class. It is interesting and troubling to me to see my textbook material actually being acted out. I am unfamiliar with previous tactics that have been employed to attempt to deliver supplies to those still inside Somalia, and the Kenyan government is resisting the UN’s efforts to open another refugee camp that would otherwise support an additional 40,000 Somalians. I agree with the above comment that we need to have some foresight when solving the issue. However, with such a short amount of time remaining for many of people of Somalia’s population, I can only hope that creative minds can come up with new and inventive ways of delivering supplies and of avoiding a disaster situation like this in the future.

  13. jm September 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Barbara, thanks for the comment, and great point about the importance of also taking the long view regarding sustainable health development programs to reduce vulnerability to climate-related disasters, which are surely on the rise.–Jacob

  14. Barbara Glickstein September 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Thank you for this critically important update from Jerry Martone to alert the nursing community to take action. I have been working with AMREF on this issue. If you don’t know their work you can find out more here http://www.amrefusa.org/

    We must act to reduce the vulnerability of communities to future climate-related disasters through sustainable health development programs. The training of health care workers – nurses and community health workers as well as physicians is much needed.

    Again, thank you for this post.

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