Members of Seattle’s Somali community are in a state of subdued panic, after the last remaining financial lifeline to their home country was cut earlier this month.
On Feb. 6, Merchants Bank of California discontinued its services in Somalia due to the U.S. federal government’s strict international banking regulations. Merchants Bank was the only remaining money transfer organization (MTO) that was handling international transactions in Somalia.
“I was asking myself, ‘is this real?’” said Hodan Mohamed, president of the UW Somali Student Association (SSA). “I was shaking.”
Somalia is in a particularly vulnerable situation, as it has no commercial banking system. Oxfam, an international organization working to end poverty and injustice, estimates that remittances make up 25 to 45 percent of Somalia’s economy.
Most of the money goes toward food, water, and shelter, as well as education and start-up loans for women with small businesses. Faced with a preventable famine, a few weeks without money could mean life or death for many Somalis.
Despite the urgency of the situation, and the fact that currency channels have been closed for nearly a month, the response from politicians, media, and the public has been slow: something that doesn’t seem to surprise local Somalis.
“It’s a symptom of the fact that we are self-reliant people,” Mohamed said. “We don’t ask the government for money. It’s all through family.”
The local community is pressuring lawmakers to react. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray addressed Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter, urging him to meet with Washington state’s congressional representatives to develop a short-term emergency plan.
Murray’s letter asked for the two leaders to “discuss how to move toward a sustainable, longer-term framework for facilitating lawful money transfers through transparent channels.”
Terrorism in Somalia moved into the local public eye last year, when a group of women in Kent were charged with using MTOs to fund the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
“The larger Somali community only wants peace and unity,” SSA volunteer Roda Sugelle said. “It is unfair and unjust to make a community suffer because of these ludicrous people.”
It is clear that Somali-Americans can’t simply stop sending money home. Oxfam has expressed concern that currency channels will move underground, into the hands of criminal networks that seek to exploit the system, which is exactly what anti-terror regulations seek to prevent.
Mohamed described her grandma, who lives in a rural area of Somalia, and travels to the city to pick up her remittances, on which she is dependent.
“We have to find a way,” Mohamed said. “We can’t just stop sending money to our grandmas.”
Jonathan Scanlon, senior advocacy advisor at Oxfam America, met with the Senate offices of Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell on Monday. He said they have seen elected officials start to react.
Currently, there are several viable temporary solutions on the table. Possible options include the federal government creating special regulations that apply only to Somalia, or the U.S. Federal Reserve becoming the bank that handles these transactions.
The most important thing students can do is put pressure on lawmakers, according to Scanlon. Citizens who write to their members of Congress are making this time-sensitive issue a priority. Social media is being used as a platform to raise awareness through hashtags like #Ifundfoodnotterror. Oxfam also has an online petition to keep Somalia’s lifeline open.
“I have hope for America,” Sugelle said. “I think of us as a nation that comes up with brilliant strategies to combat these problems, instead of isolating minorities.”