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Somalis face ‘a hopeless situation’

This news story was published on January 9, 2012.
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Allie Shah, Star Tribune, Minneapolis –

Every day, Mohamed Muse grows more fearful for his family.

The Minneapolis cab driver hasn’t been able to send the $200 to $300 his wife and two children in Somalia have come to rely on each month to pay for rent, food, electricity and other basic supplies since the Somali-owned money transfer businesses in Minnesota shut down recently.

“There is no way I can get them their monthly bill that I give them,” Muse, 25, said last week. “They’re really scared.”

Anxiety and frustration are mounting in Minnesota’s Somali community, the nation’s largest, as people struggle to cope with the Dec. 30 shutdown of the local money service businesses called hawalas. They have been the lifeline between Somalis here and relatives in their war-ravaged homeland, a country without banks or a functional central government.

That lifeline was severed, at least temporarily, when Sunrise Community Banks decided to close the accounts of the money-transfer companies for fear they might come under suspicion of funding terrorism. The decision came just weeks after a jury found two Minnesota women guilty in federal court of conspiring to support known terrorists in Somalia.

Muse and other Somalis here now must figure out whether to try to use hawalas still open in other states, such as Georgia and Virginia, or find more creative ways to send money back home. Many are in disbelief, said Hassan Warsame, a Virginia-based consultant working with the Somali American Money Service Association, a coalition of money-transfer operators.

“Some blame the banks. Others are blaming the U.S. government and the regulations that have led to this,” he said, referring to tougher federal banking rules enacted in recent years to cut off funding for terrorist groups.

Waiting, worrying

While talks continue in hopes of finding a way to reopen the Minnesota accounts, the uncertainty weighs heavily on Muse, who is the sole provider for his wife, Samira, and their two children, Omayma, 5, and Abdullahi, 1.

He last saw them in 2010, when he flew to Nairobi, Kenya, where they were living at the time.

Later that same year, Samira moved back to their native Somalia to live with her mother and children in Mogadishu.

She and the children live together in one room of a modest home in a neighborhood where Omayma does not dare attend school for fear she may get shot along the way, becoming another casualty in the decades-long civil war.

Muse fled Somalia with his parents in 1991, after his uncle was shot by warring tribes in front of the family home, and his father was wounded, he said.

They escaped to Yemen first, then to Kenya, living as refugees. “It was a roller coaster,” Muse said, recalling their journey to safety.

In Nairobi, he lived with his parents and went to high school, hoping to study political science in college.

But in 2006, when he saw a chance to join his older sister in the United States, he took it.

Even though it meant leaving his pregnant wife behind.

Within a few months of arriving in Minnesota, he landed a job at a Target store. Since then, he has worked as a personal care attendant, a school bus driver and at a fish cannery in Alaska.

All the while, he has dutifully sent a portion of his earnings back to Africa to support his family, he said.

Muse hopes to bring Samira and the children to live in Minnesota soon, once he has prepared a place for them.

“When they come it will take a lot to take care of them,” he said. “I’m planning to become a truck driver so my life can be better, my income is better. I can become middle class.”

Family health emergency

Muse typically sends the money to Mogadishu around the first of the month so Samira can pay the bills.

But the hawala closings caught him off-guard and he wasn’t able to send the January amount before the shutdown.

Making matters worse, his wife told him that money is especially tight this month because of a health emergency. Their son recently had a high fever and needed to go to the hospital. She had to pay the hospital cash up front to have a doctor see the baby, because there is no health insurance system in Somalia, Muse said.

His son is better now, but his wife owes money to the neighbors, who loaned her the cash for the hospital visit.

“I’m very worried that my kids are over there and there is nothing I can do for them,” Muse said. “I have the money in my pocket and there is no way for me to send 1/8it]. It’s really a hopeless situation. There is nothing I can do.”

He says he will try to contact his relatives in other states and in Europe, where Somali-owned money transfer shops are still open. He will ask his relatives to cover him this month and send the money to Mogadishu. He will pay them back.

Muse learned from Samira and other relatives in Somalia that the news about the Minnesota hawala shutdown is the talk all over their neighborhood.

“They said all the people are complaining,” Muse said. “There are a lot of people in the same situation. They can’t get money from Minnsota.”

People there think the U.S. government shut down the money transfer system to Somalia, Muse said.

He says he tried to explain over the phone that this is not the case. “I told them it’s the bank system,” he said. “Other states are willing to send the money.”

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