Somali-American students say hawala shutdown hurts them

Recent crackdowns on money transfers to Somalia affect those sending cash to relatives.

Amanda Bankston

Sharif Farah said supporting his family in Somalia âÄî including seven young children âÄî inspires him to get up and go to work every day.

But he said his motivation and ability to support them has quickly faded over the past month.

Farah is a manager at one of the 15 Minnesota money wire businesses âÄî known as hawalas âÄî that stopped accepting money transfers to Somalia during the last week of December.

He said now he can only send emergency funds with small dollar amounts from Somali-Americans in the neighboring Cedar-Riverside community to their families in the war-torn country in the midst of a six-month, drought-induced famine.

Somalia has been without a functioning government or banking system for more than two decades, so members of Somali diasporas use hawalas to send their earnings home.

But following a recent U.S. crackdown on terror financing and the trial of two Minnesota women found guilty of providing support to al-Shabab âÄî a terrorist group at the center of violence in Somalia with possible ties to al-Qaida âÄî many big banks have stopped handling the transfers.

Now Farah said business is dwindling. He is making less and sending less to his family, and he is not alone.

âÄúThis affects everybody in the community,âÄù he said through an interpreter. âÄúWhen people come to you and ask to send money to their families and you have to turn them away, itâÄôs frustrating.âÄù

âÄòThe least we can doâÄô

Less than a mile from where Farah spends his workday, Faduma Abdulle is settling into a new semester of classes at the University of Minnesota.

But she said itâÄôs hard for her to think about her coursework with the needs of her family in Somalia also on her mind.

âÄúSending money is the least we can do. Now the least we can do is being taken away,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs like weâÄôre forcefully being disconnected from our community back home.âÄù

Abdulle, vice president of the UniversityâÄôs Somali Student Association, explained that for her and most of her Somali-American classmates, setting aside money to send to family members in Somalia is an obligation and a source of pride.

She said many families have a system where all working members pool their money to cover rent, food, health care or other needs for relatives.

In addition, she said she and her friends have been fundraising for victims of the drought and famine in the country, and are now left without a way to send the money.

Her college-aged cousins in Somalia are âÄúconcerned and confusedâÄù because they donâÄôt know why the blocks have been imposed, Abdulle said.

Sunrise Community Banks, the institution that handles most of the money transfers from Minnesota to Somalia, discontinued the service at the end of last year because it feared it could be at risk of violating the governmentâÄôs terrorism financing regulations.

Abdulle said many people donâÄôt tell their families in Somalia that the blocks stem from U.S. fear that the funds will go to terrorism because their situation is âÄúalready very heartbreaking.âÄù

âÄúAll the dominos are falling, one by one,âÄù she said. âÄúFirst the drought, then the famine âÄî this could not come at a worse time.âÄù

Farah said customers have told him that without the money at the beginning of the month, Somali refugees in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia âÄî also affected by the block âÄî couldnâÄôt pay rent and have been living on the streets.

He said the owners have stopped coming into the store to avoid having to turn people down, and some days they donâÄôt even open for business.

âÄúWhen I came to America in 1996, they told me this was the land of opportunity,âÄù he said. âÄúNow theyâÄôre telling me I canâÄôt send money home to my family in need. What happened to those rights I was promised?âÄù

âÄòSuffering for the actions of a fewâÄô

Farah welcomed Fadumo Jama into his office on Tuesday afternoon.

On the verge of tears, Jama explained that she could âÄúhear the pain in her family membersâÄô voicesâÄù when she spoke with them over the phone. She said she hoped the $100 she planned to send would help.

Like many hawalas, FarahâÄôs office re-opened to allow small money transfers for emergency reasons.

Before the hawalas re-opened, Jama joined community members in a scramble to find a new way to send money.

Like Abdulle, she sent money to another state so it could be re-wired to Somalia or a neighboring country and sent a larger amount at the end of December.

Jama, a 66-year-old mother and grandmother, said the shutdowns are punishing the wrong people.

âÄúThey donâÄôt keep families from sending money to Mexico or Cuba because they fear the cartel will get it,âÄù Farah said. âÄúThis is unfair to the whole country. A lot of people are suffering for the actions of a few.âÄù

âÄòProtest creates changeâÄô

Abdulle said young people are organizing as they have in the past to support their relatives in Somalia.

âÄúI know protest creates change, so thatâÄôs what IâÄôm hoping will happen,âÄù she said.

Sunrise Community Banks released a statement on Jan. 5 saying their âÄúcommitment to the Somali community has not waveredâÄù and that they âÄúcontinue to work with determination and hope to discover a solutionâÄù that the bank, the government and the community can agree on.

Abdulle attended a Jan. 6 rally and protest and began sending emails and putting out calls to encourage people to contact politicians and spread word about the issue.

She said she is hopeful, but the situation has put many young Somali-Americans in a compromising position.

âÄúI consider America my country now,âÄù she said. âÄúBut now my country is taking away my ability to help the country I come from and love. ItâÄôs way too much.âÄù