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Reaching Out to Kosovo Refugees Who Are Returning Home

Muslims work with other food relief organizations to help those displaced by Yugoslav conflict.

November 29, 1998|UMAR QADI | Umar Qadi is president of Mercy International-U.S.A., an international relief and development organization headquartered in Plymouth, Mich

The alleviation of hunger is a vital teaching of all faiths and is especially important in Islam. In many places in the Koran, Allah (God) describes the "righteous" as those who feed the needy, and, conversely, the "unbelievers" as those who refuse to do so.

Soon, as our Christian and Jewish neighbors celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah respectively, Muslims the world over will be fasting during the month of Ramadan. This annual fast is a time of joy and an opportunity for those who are blessed with enough food to feel the hunger and thirst of those less fortunate.

Inspired and guided by these religious traditions and teachings, many Muslims strive to alleviate human suffering and restore dignity. Currently, organizations founded by Muslims are assisting the needy in many places, including Kosovo, a Yugoslav province of 2 million inhabitants.

The most recent conflict in Kosovo began in February and has already produced an estimated 300,000 refugees. These victims, mostly small farmers, fled their homes with not much more than the clothes on their backs, leaving behind unharvested fields. Their livestock, houses and other possessions were unprotected. Those who fled to Albania and other neighboring countries require food and every other basic item for survival. In Albania, international relief organizations, in cooperation with U.N. agencies and local organizations, are providing refugees with food, shelter, cooking utensils, hygiene items, blankets, clothing and medical care.

Our organization, Mercy International-U.S.A., for example, works with Catholic Relief Services, a cooperative relationship that is both practically and symbolically important, because people of different faiths work together for a common humanitarian cause.

Since the recent agreement between U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, many of the displaced in Kosovo have been returning to their homes only to find their houses damaged or destroyed, their livestock killed and many of their other possessions looted.

A recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization assessment mission to Kosovo concluded that the conflict was affecting the vital agriculture sector in four ways: uncertain access to land, collapse of local wheat grain production, shortage of farming equipment and decline in livestock. It is unlikely that people will have access to land to plant the small vegetable gardens that they would normally rely on for food before spring. Also, local wheat grain production has collapsed due to the destruction of many fields. Other fields have been left unharvested, the autumn planting season having been missed. In addition, much of the farming equipment has been destroyed or stolen. Finally, it is estimated that 200,000 head of livestock have been killed or looted.

As a result of this destruction, feeding programs will have to continue while the returning villagers are given assistance to repair their homes and provided with seeds, livestock, tools and equipment to resume their own food production.

Hunger is one of the most crippling of tragedies. It weakens the physical and mental health and strength of its victims and, ultimately, if not addressed, leads to death.

But hunger and its most severe form, famine, are only the cruel symptoms of much deeper root causes. While much has been done to save the lives of people facing starvation, the underlying political (as in Kosovo), economic and environmental causes must be corrected if we are to finally solve the problem of hunger. Solving these root causes requires the will and effort of each individual, each nation and the world's nations acting as one culturally and religiously diverse global community bound by a common destiny.

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