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Goth Ali, 28, works at a cellphone shop in the Village Market, a Somali-American mall in Minneapolis. Ali says he wires $400 to $500 every month to relatives in east Africa, including his older brother who lives in the Puntland region of Somalia. (Matt Sepic / MPR New)

Bank decisions will cut support from Somali-Americans to relatives

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Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

MINNEAPOLIS — Every month, 28-year-old Goth Ali manages to scrape together $400 to $500 to send to his siblings in east Africa.

As soon as Ali is paid by the cellphone shop he works for in the Village Market, he uses a service known as a hawala to wire the cash to his family.

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Ali, who came to the United States at age 16, said his older brother in Somalia struggles to feed his five children, even though he owns a small business.

“It’s not enough to provide for his family,” Ali said. “(But) the money we send to Somalia is a lifeline.”

That lifeline soon will be cut. Merchants Bank of California, one of the last U.S. banks transferring money from Somali-Americans to relatives in their homeland, is getting out of the business.

Hawalas need bank accounts to operate. But most American banks are reluctant to work with the money wiring firms because of tough federal laws aimed at thwarting money laundering and terrorist financing. Merchant’s Bank plans to close the accounts of hawalas it works with late next month.

Merchant’s Bank officials could not be reached for comment.

The bank’s decision will have serious ramifications for hawalas in the Twin Cities, which already have seen other banks drop their business and must abide by ever-changing government regulations.

“If somebody walks in right now, first I require identification,” said Shakir Huseein, owner of North American Money Transfer. “Even if you’re sending $50, I have to get identification.”

Every year such businesses help Somali-Americans send more than $214 million dollars to relatives in their homeland, according to the charity Oxfam International, a worldwide development organization that aims to lift people out of poverty. A total of $1.3 billion flows into Somalia from migrants around the globe.

Remittances may account for as much as 40 percent of Somalia’s entire economy, according to Oxfam.

This critical source of economic support could be cut off as Somalia struggles to regain stability following a quarter century of conflict. President Barack Obama plans to appoint an ambassador to Somalia who will work out of the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Kenya.

For many Somalis, money from relatives overseas often can make the difference between eating and starving, said Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, an African charity and development agency based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Those households that tend to be the most vulnerable in Somalia are oftentimes those who don’t have a relative abroad who can send a regular remittance,” Ali said.

U.S. banks are dropping hawalas because many bankers are afraid that any mistake in complying with government regulations could result in severe consequences, said Bert Ely, a banking consultant in Alexandra, Va.

“There’ve been some banks, particularly large banks that have been fined very significantly for violations in this area,” Ely said. “So the safe way to play it is just not to do the business.”

A bill from Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison that passed the Republican-controlled House last month and is now in the Senate would let state bank examiners enforce some federal rules. Ellison has said the measure is designed to streamline regulation and could reduce banks’ fear of working with hawalas.

On top of the financial threat looming over Somalia, there’s a natural one. Lack of rainfall may lead to drought and then famine. Aid officials are worried about a potential repeat of a drought-related famine that killed more than a quarter of a million Somalis a few years ago.

Remittances were an enormous help during the 2011 famine, said Jaylani Hussein — a board member of the Twin Cities-based American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa. He said it is urgent that Congress pass legislation aimed at making it easier for banks to handle remittance payments.

Hussein said if Somali-Americans are able to continue sending money to relatives in need, aid organizations like his will be able to focus more time and energy on preventing a repeat of the last famine.

“This is an issue that just needs to be resolved now,” Hussein said. “Otherwise we’ll be talking in August and talking about the number of people we’ve lost, that we could have easily prevented (from dying). And we have something we could do today to save lives.”

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM or online at MPRNews.org.

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