Student wires sustain families abroad

Vadim Lavrusik

Five days a week, Shafik Hassan walks along Cedar Avenue South to get to Suuqa Al-Karama, a Somali mall on the West Bank.

As Hassan entered the mall last week, he greeted a group of Somali women working in their cubicle-sized shops where oriental rugs cover the walls.

“Right this way,” Hassan said, as he zigzagged past the computer shop, around the corner to a sign that read, “Xawaaladda Mustaqbal, N. America Money Transfer.”

Hassan, 23, a University engineering student taking time off from school, works at a hawala, a money transfer shop that isn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet.

He sat behind a glass wall.

“It’s for protection, since we deal with money here,” he said.

The shop is one of many in the Cedar-Riverside area that transfer thousands of dollars each month to countries almost anywhere in the world. Many Somali and Oromo students feel obligated to send money in support of their families back home, on the horn of eastern Africa.

Hassan is from Mogadishu, the capitol of Somalia. He fled to Minnesota with most of his family because of civil war and lives in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. His dad still lives in Mogadishu and owns a grocery store there.

“I send my dad money sometimes,” he said. “I got a big family and a lot of my brothers are still there.”

Hassan said the biggest transaction he’s seen was $1,000. That money goes a long way in Mogadishu. A person could buy a nice car with even $100 there, he said.

Hawalas, “in trust”

The banking system collapsed in many parts of Somalia because of the civil war. Hawalas allow Somali immigrants to send money to their families for a small fee.

Hassan’s shop charges 5 percent of the total amount. Other hawalas vary, but the rate is cheaper than other money transfer systems such as Western Union.

Hawalas operate through an honor system of money transfer and means “in trust” in Hindi.

People give their money to a hawala broker, who then calls a broker at the destination. The caller tells the broker abroad the amount and promises to settle the debt later. Then the hawala broker at the destination gives money to the recipient.

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, said the system is crucial to families in Somalia.

“After the institution disintegrated, including the bank system, these kinds of services came up in order to make up for the banking, so people can still wire money,” Jamal said.

Most people send money to help support their families, while some wire money to support politics, warlords and even terrorism, he said.

The federal government almost closed the shops, in fear that the loosely regulated transfer system funded terrorist cells in Somalia and elsewhere, he said.

“That’s not an issue anymore,” he said.

Most hawalas will remain open because of stricter regulations, he said.

“Anyone that looks at it can look at it with a suspicious eye,” he said. “It’s not clear who the sender is or the recipient, so the feds became suspicious.”

But most people send money to their families to help fund basic necessities such as weddings and houses, he said.

Bill Walsh, a Minnesota Department of Commerce spokesman, said most of the money transfer shops are licensed and the department receives few complaints.

Family in Oromia

Because there aren’t many hawalas in Ethiopia, most Oromo students send money through Western Union, said Gada Beshir, Oromia Student Union president.

Beshir said the younger generation is culturally obligated to support the elders.

“They don’t have any retirement system, no medical care. They have to pay for all of that,” he said.

He used to send $50 a month to his mother, who still lives in Oromia, but now he doesn’t work and is unable to, he said.

“I don’t talk to her as much anymore because all you hear is bad news like, ‘He got arrested, he got shot, the government came,’ ” he said. “It’s hard sometimes.”

Western Union is a little more convenient because people can make the transfer by phone and don’t have to go to a shop, he said. The person receiving the money can pick it up at any time.

Senior chemistry student Midhasso Foge said he pays for his two brothers’ private education in Oromia.

Foge, who left Oromia in 1998 because of persecution from the Ethiopian government, said he spends $4,000 a year for his younger brothers’ tuition and provides for their living expenses as well.

“It’s kind of an obligation for everybody,” he said. “Family is expected to support other family members back home.”

His brothers are in 11th and 12th grade at a private, Christian school run by Americans.

Money back home

Many Somali students feel the pressure to support their families as well.

Jibril Hamud, Somali Student Association president, said students send money to help pay for the basic needs of their families.

Some students feel the stress and obligation so much that they drop out of school to work and support their families in Somalia, Hamud said.

His father still lives there but doesn’t pressure him to send money because he is doing well, he said.

“He wants me to focus on education instead.”

But many students and families rely on the hawalas scattered in the Cedar-Riverside area, he said.

“If they closed the money exchange, there would be a lot of people who would suffer,” he said.