Since late December, Somali Americans living in Minnesota have experienced great difficulty sending financial support–a much needed lifeline– to their families in East Africa.
They have either unable to send any money or (more recently for some
) only very, very small sums to their loved ones. Late last year, a small community bank stopped working with Hawalas, the community-based financial institutions that are the only practical method to transfer funds to famine-stricken Somalia.
Minnesotans for a Fair Economy has been working with Minnesota’s Somali-American community on this urgent situation, along with SEIU Local 26, and supportive members of the broader faith community.
On March 3rd, more than 500 Somali Minnesotans packed the Abubakar Asiddiq Islamic Center to discuss next steps in the campaign. The community had hoped to reach a solution with U.S. Bank prior to the meeting but were unable to celebrate such a development. They continue to ask for assistance from U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo and those in attendance at the meeting pledged to withdraw personal funds from the banks should a resolution not be reached by May 11.
The Star Tribune offered an update prior to the meeting.
Allie Shah | Star Tribune | March 3, 2012
The embattled money transfer shops used by Minnesota Somalis to send funds to their loved ones in East Africa are now courting U.S. Bank to help them stay open.
Most of the 14 businesses have found ways to reopen since losing banking services in December from Sunrise Community Banks — the main Minnesota bank working with the Somali-owned money brokers.
But reports that at least one Somali-owned money service businesses closed recently, in part because of the banking problem, have raised fears that the rest will eventually suffer a similar fate.
“They’re very worried,” said Sadik Warfa, a community activist who will be speaking at a public forum on Saturday in Minneapolis to discuss the money wire crisis. “I sense they’re really worried about how things are progressing. The longer it goes on, the less optimistic they are.”
The surviving money operators are handling smaller transactions, using out-of-state banks or running on credit.
“The money service is working but really they are struggling a lot,” said Hashi Shafi, executive director of Somali Action Alliance, a nonprofit group serving the local Somali community that has been active in the money wiring issue. “Some of them are close to going out of business. So really it’s tough.”
Meantime, the money wire operators are in talks with Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank to explore possible ways to work together, Shafi said.
“At the request of leaders in that community, we met with them recently to discuss the gap between their existing process and what is required by federal law,” U.S. Bank spokeswoman Nicole Garrison-Sprenger said in an e-mail Friday. “Our goal is to help them identify new ways of sending money to friends and family in Somalia that comply with federal regulations.”
Ibrahim Nur, one of the organizers of Saturday’s community meeting, said he hopes that U.S. Bank will step up and agree to provide banking services to the money transfer operators. “The last couple weeks we’ve been going back and forth and meeting with U.S. Bank. They haven’t responded yet with a green light. We are waiting,” he said.
He has pledged to work to mobilize people in the Somali community to open accounts with U.S. Bank as an enticement for doing business with the money transfer shops.
Somalia has been without a functional national government since 1991, the start of a civil war that led the resettlement of tens of thousands of Somalis in Minnesota.
Somalis in the United States send an estimated $100 million in remittances every year to Somalia, according to the United Nations. Shafi said most of that money originates in Minnesota.
The money transfer businesses act as brokers between the people who want to send the money in Minnesota and the banks that do the actual wiring of the money overseas.
In recent years, stricter rules designed to cut off funding of terrorist groups have prompted American banks to sever ties with the money service businesses that send money to Somalia.
Sunrise closed its bank accounts with the Somali-owned money service businesses in Minnesota on Dec. 30, citing newly identified security risks and liability concerns.
The closings sparked protests in the Minnesota Somali community — the nation’s largest — as people who wire money to support families in their famine-stricken native land wondered how their relatives would manage to pay their bills without their monthly remittances from Minnesota.
Said Maalin, chairman of the Somali American Money Service Association, said one money transfer shop — Qaran Express — closed about two weeks ago. Another one, Taran Express, closed its doors in December after losing its bank and has yet to reopen. “We lost all our customers,” said Fosi Hassan, Taran’s general manager.
On Friday, at the Amal Money Wire in Minneapolis, Sadia Adan watched as the branch manager prepared her transaction. She said she sent $300 to Mogadishu to her mother and father, who are in their 70s and rely on the money she sends to pay for their basic living expenses.
Adan said she is the only one in her family who is living outside Somalia. “If I don’t help them, they will die. How are they going to eat?” she said.
The fate of the money wire businesses weighs heavily on the minds of others such as Katra Arale, a janitor who says she sends money every month to her relatives in Somalia.
“If they’re open or closed, still I’m worried about it,” she said.
The public meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Abubakar Asiddiq Islamic Center, 2824 13th Av. S. in Minneapolis.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488
Here are our reports from January:
More than 100 members of the Somali community in Minnesota gathered at a Wells Fargo Bank branch in midtown Minneapolis on January 13, drawing attention to an increasingly dire situation facing their loved ones.
Following a brief rally in front of the branch, a number of Somali Americans in attendance entered the branch and closed their bank accounts.
Organized by Somali community activists with support from SEIU Local 26 and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, the action drew news coverage from CBS Minnesota (WCCO), the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Washington Post via the Associated Press.
Since late December, Somali Americans living in Minnesota have been unable to send financial support — a much-needed lifeline — to their loved ones living in East Africa. At that time, a small community bank stopped working with Hawalas, the community-based financial institutions that are the only practical method to transfer funds to famine-stricken Somalia.
Wells Fargo is one of the largest banks serving the Somali community in Minnesota and was one of the first banks to stop working with Hawalas in the mid-2000s. Faced with an opportunity to take on a leadership role and provide assistance, Wells Fargo has thus far not been willing to work with the community and their unique financial needs.
As a result, hundreds of Somali Americans gathered on January 13 in front of the Wells Fargo branch to once again ask for a meeting to discuss the situation. Not being granted a meeting at that time, many in the crowd chose to close their accounts until the situation is finally resolved and Wells Fargo assists the community in their time of need.
Sadik Warfa of Minneapolis is a Somali community activist. “This is a crisis affecting our families and we need a resolution as soon as possible,” Warfa said. “Wells Fargo has the opportunity to take a leadership role in solving a humanitarian crisis and we have come here today to ask them to do just that. For nearly a month now, a lifeline for millions of people has been temporarily severed, placing those lives in jeopardy. We cannot wait any longer, this must be resolved today in order to save lives.”
Ismael Farah of Minneapolis has a sick mother in Somalia. He sends about $200 a month to her to pay for medical expenses. As of today, he has been unable to send anything to continue her care and she has been unable to purchase the medications she needs. “My family members keep calling me,” Farah said. “I don’t know what to do, I feel so helpless. There has to be a way to solve these problems. We need Wells Fargo and other banks to help us. Without their help our families will continue to suffer.”
Shukri Hassan of Minneapolis works hard in order to support her family, both here in Minnesota and in Somalia. “Without the assistance I provide, my family in Somalia is unable to makes ends meet,” Ali said. “Today I join with my Somali brothers and sisters in asking Wells Fargo to work with us and do the right thing to stop the suffering.”
Abdirahman Muse is a community activist who signed a letter on behalf of the Somali community which was sent to Wells Fargo executives earlier this week. Muse sends money back to his family in Somalia as well. “Many members of our community, who work hard to support families here and in their home country, have been loyal Wells Fargo customers for years,” Muse wrote in the letter. “Many were not even aware that you had closed the accounts that allowed money to reach their relatives because another bank provided the service. Now that this (much smaller) bank is no longer available, a humanitarian crisis has resulted.”
The text of Muse’s letter is included below.
January 11, 2012
Chief Executive Officer
Wells Fargo Minnesota
90 South Seventh Street
Minneapolis, MN 55402
Sent via Facsimile
Dear Mr. Kvamme –
For the past several weeks, members of the Minnesota Somali community have attempted to find solutions to an ongoing crisis facing our families. As you may be aware, we currently are unable to transfer funds to our loved ones in Somalia, greatly jeopardizing their health and safety.
In late December the remaining financial institution willing to work with us in wiring funds to Somali through Hawalas, the community-based financial institutions that are the only practical methods to transfer funds to Eastern Africa stopped performing the transactions. The decision by Sunrise Community Banks and their subsidiary, Franklin Bank, was devastating to us. It is our strong desire to engage in a dialogue with you, utilizing your significant resources in the Minnesota banking community to find a way in which to send funds to our loved ones.
Many members of our community, who work hard to support families here and in their home country, have been loyal Wells Fargo customers for years and were not even aware that you had closed the accounts that allowed money to reach their relatives because another bank provided the service. Now that this (much smaller) bank is no longer available a humanitarian crisis has resulted.
Last Thursday, a number of us visited your branch at 2600 East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis to close our bank accounts. In doing so, our hope was that leadership within Wells Fargo would realize the urgent and serious nature of this situation. We were pleased that Wells Fargo representatives suggested a possible meeting with us to discuss finding a solution to this crisis.
Please contact me at your earliest convenience to schedule a meeting with representatives of our community. As each day passes, more and more lives are placed at risk.
My full contact information can be found below. Thank you for your immediate attention to this matter.
[contact information redacted for publication of letter]
Cc: Jon Campbell, Head of Social Responsibility, Wells Fargo Minnesota
John Stumpf, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Wells Fargo N.A.
On Friday, January 13, members of the Somali community will gather in front of the Wells Fargo Bank branch at 3030 Nicollet Avenue to move their money as a plea to work with the community and their unique financial needs.
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While famine continues to ravage Somalia, Somali Minnesotans face significant challenges in sending financial support to their loved ones. The bank has not assisted in the transfer of funds through Hawalas, the community-based financial institutions that are the only practical method to transfer funds to Somalia.
Although some community members visited Wells Fargo last week and closed their accounts to highlight the urgency of the situation, the crisis is becoming more dire each day. Thus, more Somali community members will close their accounts Friday at the Nicollet Avenue location.
More than 300 members of the Somali-American community in Minnesota gathered at the State Capitol last Friday, calling on banks and government officials to take immediate action to find a solution to this ongoing crisis.
Watch this Uptake clip about the urgent life-and-death situation confronting Minnesota’s Somali families: