LA doctor tries getting food and funds to starving Afghans

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

A volunteer with the group Worldwide Wellness is working at a food distribution site in the city of Kunduz. The group has fed more than 3,000 people since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in August. Courtesy of Dr. Meena Said.

In Afghanistan, aid groups are warning that more than 1 million children could die this winter because the country is crumbling. The U.S. withdrew its troops — and financing — this August. Billions of dollars in public spending have disappeared. There’s also a crippling drought, and now most Afghans can’t afford enough food or fuel. 

Dr. Meena Said has been trying to help. She’s an endocrine surgeon in Santa Monica and the founder of Wellness Worldwide, a small NGO that delivers food and medical care to families throughout Afghanistan. 

She says in October, malnourished kids were in hospitals, but now they’re pouring onto the streets, and one hospital in Kabul just treated 3,000 kids (for starvation) over the last three months. “No one is really keeping track of the deaths. So children are dying. And if there's nobody to feed them, then indeed, there's nobody to count the dead.” 

Her team is fundraising and collaborating with community leaders and village elders to get info on which families need the most help. “Unfortunately, it's really hard for us to even decide who to feed and who not to feed because so many people need food,” she notes. 

She says she’s not surprised by how quickly the humanitarian situation has declined, and before the Taliban took over, 50% of Afghanistan’s population was already in poverty and dealing with food insecurity. She adds that when the Taliban took over in August, aid organizations were already sounding the alarm. 

Multiple factors are making it tough to get food supplies to people on the ground, she explains. “One is that because the banking system has collapsed, the merchants in … surrounding countries have increased their prices. The other reason is that large humanitarian aid organizations, because of the sanctions, even though they do have enough money to feed the population, to buy the food, they're not able to get money into the country because the banking system is essentially collapsed.”

What should the U.S. do immediately to alleviate the suffering? Said suggests that a special bank can be created and overseen by the U.N. Frozen funds and all humanitarian aid can be funneled through the bank and directly to the population, thus avoiding the Taliban. She adds that if humanitarian organizations can’t get money through the bank, they can buy food from nearby countries and mass distribute the goods within Afghanistan. 

“There's trade routes already open. And the Taliban are not obstructing us or anybody else from getting aid. And we've been there for five months, functioning with our children's program, with our clinic, and with our food program, and we haven't been obstructed so far,” she notes.

The health care system is also struggling, and while the Red Cross has been able to support some hospitals, the larger problem is that medical staff haven’t received their salaries for the last five months, Said explains. 

“Even the doctors and the staff are going hungry, and the supplies are short, and there [are] no medicines. So patients just don't go to the hospital. Or if they go, they have to go to the market and buy their own medicines, and buy their own IVs and supplies to try to get their treatment administered by doctors in the hospital.”

For listeners who want to help, Said says to call or write to elected officials and urge them to work hard to address the mass starvation. “Because this is a man-made catastrophe, and we have the ability to alleviate it.”

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