The interior of the 24th street mall in Minneapolis, Minnesota is reminiscent of the bazaars found more often in Mogadishu than in the Midwest. Shoppers walk through rolls of colorful cloth on display, small electronics stores, tea shops and money transfer windows.
During the month of Ramadan, the predominantly Muslim Somali community in Minneapolis adapts to the ritual daylong fast and midnight prayers — starting the day later, going out more at night.
As the tea shops and cafes lie empty, money transfer windows bustle with people sending more money home for the holiday.“We’re not terrorists, we’re not supporting terrorists, we just want to send money to our families.”
But sending money to family can be more difficult when home is in East Africa, where concerns about funds falling into the hands of terrorist groups like Al Shabaab can impede money transfers.
Banks are wary of facilitating money transfers, also known as remittances, to countries like Somalia, because banks can face stiff penalties under anti-money-laundering or anti-terrorism funding statutes.
Merchants Bank of California, which accounted for 60-80 percent of remittances to Somalia from the U.S., announced in February they would be terminating accounts of companies conducting remittances for Somali immigrants.
The World Bank says immigrants around the world sent a total of $583 billion back home in 2014. Nearly $1.3 billion are sent to Somalis in the form of remittances each year according to Oxfam, $215 million of which are sent from the U.S.
While Somali remittances are just a small slice of money being sent worldwide — an estimated 40 percent of people in Somalia depend on remittances to get by.
We spoke to Somali Americans in Minneapolis, the city with the largest population of Somalis in the U.S., and asked what would happen if they were no longer able to send remittances home to their families in Somalia.
Maryan Abdi sells cloth, rugs and scarves at a Somali mall in Minneapolis. The money she makes from her business helps support her family in the U.S. as well as her brothers, uncles and aunts back in Somalia.
Normally Abdi sends back $300 to $500 back to Somalia each month.
“The kids cannot go to school, no food … if they close the remittances it’s going to be a problem,” she said.
Daaho Egal came to Minneapolis from Mogadishu in 2007. She works 12-hour days, sometimes six days a week. She sends about $200 every month to her brother, who still lives in Mogadishu. She sends more on holidays like Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr.
“I love him, he’s my brother, and I want to do my part, not just for me but for the majority of Somalian people all over the world,” she said, standing outside of a Somali mall where she had just been to send her brother money. “This is something that’s very important to us to support our families back home.”
The possibility that she may not be able to send money to Somalia in the future scares Egal.
“My brother, he can’t work, he has a knee injury, he’s supporting his family, he’s doing all this and raising kids,” she said. “It’s already hard in this country. Imagine somewhere you can’t really give your kids what you really want to give them, so for that to be taken away is kind of hurtful.”
Taqi Hassan immigrated to Minneapolis from Mogadishu eight years ago. Every month, he sends back an average of $350, which is used to help support 18 people — buying food, paying tuition fees for school and medications, he said.
He worries about what could happen if more banks exit the remittances business. “We don’t know the future, but I think it will be a severe consequence,” he said.
As the family’s only source of income, if blocked, he said, “that means you’re killing them.”
Abdi Salad works as a truck driver in the Twin Cities and sends money to Ethiopia where his wife is living until she can come to the US.
“We’re not terrorists, we’re not supporting terrorists, we just want to send money to our families,” he said.