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Video: Somalia’s lifeline depends on you

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Somali-Americans’ greatest fear isn’t that they won’t be able to find the money to support their families—it’s that US government regulations may prevent them from sending it.

By Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam America.

Life in Somalia is hard for many Americans to imagine. The Somali people I’ve met in my visits to the country are extraordinarily determined to maintain a sense of normalcy and dignity, despite decades of war and drought. And yet, juxtaposed against this apparent normalcy is the unsettling sense that survival is a regular struggle. There is no social security program in Somalia, no social safety net, other than the generosity of family and friends. Death seems to be a single misfortune – or bank account closure – away.

The plight of Somali-Americans supporting their families is a story that will feel more familiar. Most of us have stood by the bedside of a loved one wondering what else can be done to prolong her time on Earth, or pored over options for financing a child’s education or a parent’s care.

But instead of one or two people with extraordinary needs, most Somali-Americans provide for the regular income of extended families (supporting more than 10 people is not unusual). And while coming up with the needed funds is difficult, requiring many families to forego saving or home ownership or to hurt their credit, Somali-Americans’ biggest fear is not that they won’t be able to find the money—it’s  that US government regulation will prevent them from sending it.

On July 31, the bank handling most money transfers to Somalia will close the accounts of Somali-American money transfer operators, putting Somalia’s lifeline in severe jeopardy. I find it hard to imagine these bank account closures without hearing the voices of Halima Ahmed, the janitorial worker who knows her family will not survive if her monthly remittance doesn’t get through, or Jamal Hashi, the accomplished chef who depended on help as a refugee boy and knows today that his money is keeping his nephew safe and in school.

They’re just two of the people featured in a new video, above, co-produced by Oxfam America and Adeso. Their stories have moved us to action, and we hope they move you as well.

As Oxfam’s senior policy advisor working on the Horn of Africa, I’ve heard these stories firsthand – scores of them. Many people I’ve met have no income other than the money they receive from family. Some of them are receiving money to pay for urgent, unforeseen medical needs, or to start new businesses so they can support other, poorer relatives. All of them say they’re not sure how they’d get by without it.

What we need now is a commitment by the Treasury Department to ensure that this vital lifeline remains in place. Hamdi Abdulle of Renton, WA, has started a petition: add your voice here.

Somali-Americans have often tried to impress upon me that this kind of responsibility for family is normal in Somali culture, and that there is nothing extraordinary about it. But, no matter how common, the sacrifice that they make every day to help their families survive and prosper is extraordinary.

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  1.'Liam Lacey

    I support your efforts to keep money flowing to poor Somalis…What I’d like your staff reports to also address is the issue of ensuring that these banking channels are not use to fund terrorism, as happened with Sept 11th etc.


  2.'paul tse

    dear sir:
    My concern is that those funds may fall
    into the wrong hands and end up
    affecting America and the world.
    Chinese immigrants had sent money to
    china before. this is nothing new.

    1.'Scott Paul

      Liam and Paul, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You’re both concerned about money falling into the wrong hands – and rightly so! Money laundering is a serious concern, particularly in countries where armed groups and criminal networks are operating.

      In this particular case, I’m happy to say that keeping Somali-American money transfer operators’ bank accounts open actually furthers the prevention of money laundering. If these accounts were to close, the entire US-Somalia money transfer corridor would go underground. Informal money transfer networks would fill the void previously occupied by licensed and regulated money transfer companies. These networks would operate in the shadows, outside the view of regulators. They would not cooperate with law enforcement officials, as Somali-American money transfer companies do.

      No legal regime is capable of completely eliminating the risk of money laundering. But one thing we do know is that pushing the entire formal money transfer sector underground will hurt people sending money to their families and greatly benefit criminals who want to abuse the system.

  3.'GlendaRae Hernandez

    I am completely in the dark as to why the US would want to cut off the ability of people here sending support to their families in Somalia. It does not make any sense. This aid is not from the government; it is from family member to family member. It does not seem as though the money would be going to the “wrong” people. Please do not allow these rules to be changed so that money cannot be sent.


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