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Supporting Refugees In Kenya — And Receiving Their Prayers — Through COVID-19

Riziki Kassim sits by a flower bed at Burlington's City Hall
Elodie Reed
Childhood friends Famma Abukar, left, and Riziki Kassim, right, launched a grassroots fundraiser this spring to supply food to refugee families living in Kakuma, Kenya during Ramadan. Here, the two friends sit on the steps of Burlington's City Hall.

Since early March, Burlington resident Riziki Kassim has raised nearly $7,000 to purchase food and dry goods for Somali Bantu refugees weathering COVID-19 in camps in Kakuma, Kenya.

Digital producer Abagael Giles began reaching out to Chittenden County residents about COVID-19, translation and grassroots solutions in April. Watch for the final story Thursday, and read the others already published:

In total, those funds fed more than 300 families during Ramadan.
“It all started with this Facebook page created for Somali Bantu women,” Kassim said. “It’s a free space for us to talk about anything. We talk about school, work, motherhood, postpartum depression.”

The group, “Somali Bantu Fearless Females,” has just over 900 members. It was created by Anissa Aden, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska in early March, just before COVID-19 hit Vermont.

Kassim says it’s become popular with her friends in the Somali Bantu community locally. 

“We share resources and we support each other by hearing each other’s stories,” she said. “It’s a place where we can talk about the things that not a lot of people talk about in the broader community.”

More from VPR: Local Coronavirus Response Groups Contemplate Longer-Term Recovery

She added that the representation in the group is global.

“The majority of us are from Somalia, but some of the ladies are from Ethiopia, some are from Australia,” Kassim said. “Some are currently in Kenya … we have members located all over the United States.”

Kassim’s parents are from Somalia, and she said they fled the Somali Civil War in 1991 to Tanzania.

“That’s where I was born, as well as my little sister,” she said. “We moved to Kenya when I was seven, and to the United States in 2006, through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.”

Organizer Riziki Kassim, in profile
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Burlington resident Riziki Kassim led an international fundraising effort that provided food to more than 300 families during Ramadan, in Kakuma, Kenya.

At 27, Kassim is a mother of two and front line worker. She has a degree in health sciences, and she works as a pharmacy technician.

And of course on the side, she’s raising money online. On March 9, Kassim and another member, Famma Abukar of Winooski, set up a GoFundMe page and came up with a plan to raise $7,500 for families during Ramadan. 

“A lot of us were raised in Kakuma refugee camps, but have family back home in Somalia,” Kassim said. “We thought, since we are here to support each other, why not bring up the idea of giving back to our community, at home?”

Through the Somali Bantu Fearless Females group, she and Abukar connected with the latter’s uncle in Kakuma, who agreed to coordinate their effort on the ground.

“Through personal connections, we’ve found a team of five back home that are helping us with buying wholesale food and distributing it,” Kassim said. “We keep in touch, and they give us the block number, the UN identification card number and a phone number for each of the people they get food to.”

The team in Kenya purchases flour, rice, cooking oil, dates and sugar.

An initial round of $2,000 worth of relief was distributed to caretakers of orphaned children in Kakuma. The next target group was seniors without children, and people with disabilities. The third round of food, distributed May 17, went to single parents. Each round of aid fed 80 to 100 families during Ramadan. 

More from VPR: 'An Emptying Of That Community': Observing Ramadan During A Pandemic

Most of the 258 donations to the fund came from Somali Bantu women across the country. They were small — anywhere from $5 to $100.

One donation came with a note that read, “This is on behalf of SEVERAL omaha MOTHERS.”

Another: “This is on behalf of my mother, Nurto.”

Kassim’s own, first donation statement reads, “I donated because I know what it’s like living in a refugee camp where there are no jobs.” 

Now, ironically, she says, the tables have turned.

“The pandemic has really not been as severe there,” Kassim said. “In early March and April, people were praying for us.”

Locally, she says, “COVID-19 has been hard for a lot of people in my community. Some people are frontline workers.  A lot of people have been laid off, but they’re managing with family help.”

More from VPR: 'The Lines Often Blur': Working As A Community Liaison In A Pandemic

Despite that, she said, many still found a way to give.

The group is now turning its focus to recent flooding in Somalia.

“We hope these projects can be a source of hope, to keep us connected here, but also to our friends and family back home,” Kassim said.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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