Youth group plays ball to help homeland cope with famine

Dahir Hersi, 12, (left), and Mahdi Ali, 15, both of Boston, and Mohamed Hassan, 13, of Quincy, participated in a basketball tournament at the Tobin Community Center in Roxbury yesterday. Dahir Hersi, 12, (left), and Mahdi Ali, 15, both of Boston, and Mohamed Hassan, 13, of Quincy, participated in a basketball tournament at the Tobin Community Center in Roxbury yesterday. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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Aden Hussein emigrated from Somalia by way of Kenya about 12 years ago. When he arrived in Boston, his life changed for the better - academically, economically, and socially.

But while his six siblings and his parents have prospered here, the 20-year-old Suffolk University student said the aunts, uncles, and cousins who remain in Somalia, a war-torn country in the midst of a famine, have not fared as well.

“I’m over here living the good life, and they are over there struggling. I can’t imagine,’’ Hussein said.

He was among a group of about 130 young men shooting hoops yesterday in a Roxbury gym, where the basketball games were played for a purpose: to raise awareness and money for Somalia. As Hussein waited for the rest of his team to arrive, he dribbled a blue basketball and thought of the family still back in his homeland.

“They say resources are going fast, and it’s going to affect them soon,’’ he said.

The goal was to raise $5,000 through the money that each player paid to participate in the Somali Relief Basketball Tournament held at the Tobin Community Center in Roxbury. Sixteen teams of eight competed for a $200 prize, money that most players planned to donate, should they win, back to the organization benefiting from the tournament.

“A lot of people are dying while we’re here wasting food,’’ Mohamud Hussein, an 18-year-old Bunker Hill Community College student, said as he warmed up.

Yesterday’s tournament, organized by United Somali Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young people, was intended to not only raise money but also awareness about the deteriorating situation in Somalia.

In July, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, regions facing the worst drought in six decades. An estimated 3.7 million throughout the country in the Horn of Africa are in crisis, and 3.2 million Somalis - nearly half the population - need immediate assistance. Complicating the situation is Somalia’s long-running war. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis live in famine zones controlled by Al Qaeda-backed militants, making aid difficult to deliver.

Each week, tens of thousands of people flee to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

“We all came from refugee camps,’’ said Said Ahmed, who helped found United Somali Youth.

Ahmed, a world-class track and field star who immigrated to Boston in 1995 and grew up in the Mission Hill projects, said the Somalia that many of the youth fled is getting worse. It’s the responsibility of Somali-Americans and others to help, he added.

“We have to give back,’’ he said. “In the last 90 days, 29,000 kids under age 5 have died in refugee camps. That’s the reality.’’

And it is a grim reality weighing heavily on the high school and college players who participated in yesterday’s tournament.

“I’m trying to help Somalia; that’s my home country,’’ said Mohamud Mohamed, 16, who arrived at the community center not knowing what team he would play for, just that he needed to play. “It’s for a good cause.’’

The tournament was part of an initiative to help Somalia through donations to organizations that provide direct aid to Somalis. According to organization officials, United Somali Youth donated about $43,000 to famine relief efforts in July.

Organizers said all the money from yesterday’s tournament will benefit Atlantic Global Aid, a nonprofit group based in Maine that delivers medicine, supplies, and medical personnel to Africa. Ahmed said it was important to work with an organization that has personnel on the ground to make sure aid is delivered to those in need.

Hunger, Ahmed said, is easy to alleviate if food gets to the right places. “That’s the reality.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at