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Gainesville man returns from helping African refugees
James Jennings worked with international aid organizations
Somali refugees wait to register at Dadaab Camp, Kenya. The refugees travel by foot across the desert to seek asylum.

James Jennings of Gainesville and his international relief organization, Conscience International, have returned from the famine-ravaged Horn of Africa, where they helped provide aid to starving refugees.

“You see people in very desperate condition. They have nothing and (get) daily food from whatever handouts they can get,” Jennings said. “... That is very gripping, but to see the children who are ill is even worse.”

Add in the heat and dust from the desert and conditions are “just dreadful,” said Jennings, who was accompanied in Ethiopia by engineer Robert Smucker of Flowery Branch.

The United Nations estimates more than 11 million people in East Africa are affected by the drought, with 3.7 million in Somalia among the worst-hit because of the ongoing civil war in the country.

Somalia’s prolonged drought became a famine in part because neither the Somali government nor many aid agencies can fully operate in areas controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants, and the U.N. is set to declare all of southern Somalia a famine zone as of Monday.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Conscience International assembled a team of Ethiopian project managers, as well as a team of American, Ethiopian and Korean doctors, to treat children younger than 5 at Dolo Camp on the Somalia-Ethiopia border.

The organization also arranged staging facilities and the use of a large mobile clinic for the MCM Korean Hospital in Addis Ababa.

Also, the group is taking steps through an Ethiopian organization to gain official permission from the Ministry of Health to work in refugee camps later this year.

Jennings has met with the United Nation’s World Food Program representatives about using U.N. flights, as Dolo Camp is a three-day drive from the capital.

While in Kenya on July 24, Jennings was invited to join the European Community’s high-level official ECHO delegation to the Dadaab Camp, where 380,000 refugees, 95 percent of whom are Somalis, are staying in what is believed to be the world’s largest refugee camp.

“The three clusters making up Dadaab are approximately 56 miles from the Somalia border, and many people who arrive there on foot are in poor condition,” Jennings said.

“One man told my journalist colleagues that he had nine children but four died on the long trek,” he added.

Officials have said some 800,000 children could die across the region.

Jennings said he has urged the ECHO high commissioner to put a program in place to offer water and transport to refugees closer to the border even though the Kenya government is resistant.

“Conscience International also intends to assemble a support team for a similar project in Kenya, using as a staging base a lodge in Nairobi designed for volunteer teams,” Jennings said.

Donations are desperately needed to sustain the aid effort, officials have said. The U.N. wants to gather $1.6 billion in the next 12 months, with $300 million of that coming in the next three months.

As for Jennings, he plans to return in November with another team of humanitarian aid workers.

“We’re trying to broaden our impact,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.