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Bridging the cultural gap in Somalia

By Kate Snow, NBC News

DADAAB, Kenya — I’m struck by the disparity of life on this planet.  While my own five-year-old is at summer day camp, swimming and playing, I’m sitting with 12-year-old Issa.  He’s been herding cattle since he was five.  He’s never been to school.

He walked barefoot for 22 days to get to this camp.  His parents let him eat every other day to make what little they had last.  When we meet he’s in the International Rescue Committee hospital’s pediatric ward being treated for pneumonia.

“You’re pretty tough,” I say.  “Not tough enough,” he says back.

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Issa's life has been very different than that of most 12-year-olds who live in America.

I fish for some common ground between us.  Does he like soccer?  Nope.  No time to play when you have to keep the cattle in line.

Does he have a favorite movie?  “What is a movie?” he asks.

“Toys?” Never had any.

It’s hard to comprehend the scope of this famine in the Horn of Africa.  But maybe harder still to understand how different this part of the world is from our own.  How easily a humanitarian tragedy can happen.

In Issa’s life before the refugee camp there was no one to rely on but your family or clan.  Their herd of cattle was all they had.  When the cattle died, the family had no income to fall back on and no food to eat.

Add to that the fact that Somalia simply doesn’t have a stable government.  Life in the bush goes on as it has for thousands of years.  Life in the cities is all about conflict.

Sabat Hussein is 31.  She went to private school in Somalia and speaks with me in English — a rare thing here.

'I didn't even bury my mother'
Three years ago, the family was eating dinner when a bomb landed on their house.

“My father, my mother and some of my brothers died,” she says.

She’s not sure which faction was responsible.  All she knows is that she ran.

Inside Somalia, three million people are starving and thousands are fleeing famine in the south, desperate to escape to Kenya or to camps in the capital city Mogadishu. NBC's Richard Engel reports from Mogadishu and NBC's Kate Snow reports from Dhoobley, Somalia.

“I didn’t even bury my mother,” she says sadly.   She was fleeing to Kenya with her seven children as fast as she could.

Hussein is convinced that nothing will turn around in Somalia until there’s a stable government there.

“If I see a Somali government before I die I would be so happy,” she says.

My new friend Issa says now that he’s in the camp in Kenya, he’d like to give school a try.  Maybe he could become a teacher one day, he says.

Issa also tells me he’s never actually talked with a white person before. 

And finally I find a way to bridge the cultural gap.

I teach Issa how to “high five”— a gesture kids don’t grow up with here.

He enjoys it.  His smile is big.  And the warmth of a smiling child? That, at least, is universal.