First Person

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. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+