In paradise, does the government prevent you from feeding your family?

By Coco McCabe
Sadiq Yusuf Mohamud worries about what his alternatives might be if he is no longer able to send money to his family in Somalia through the money transfer operators he has relied on for years. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam

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Banking rules could threaten to cut the flow of money hard-working members of the Somali diaspora in the US send home to their families each year. 

Sadiq Yusuf Mohamud was barely in middle school when he first began to hone the survival skills that allowed him to endure the terror and deprivation of the early years of Somalia’s civil war. Eventually, he found his way to Minneapolis, Minn., where he has built a new life for himself.

Now, at 36, as he looks back on that time of hardship, what Mohamud feels most ardently is a deep responsibility to family members struggling to survive in a country that is once again on the precipice of disaster. He is not alone.

Across this city which is now home to more than 32,000 people of Somali ancestry, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters worry about the fate of those left behind. As they work hard to establish themselves here—often driving taxis or doing janitorial work—they are doubly motivated: Every extra dollar they can scrape together is an extra bit of money they can send home.

Globally, the diaspora sends about $1.3 billion a year to family and friends in Somalia, officially reaching about 40 percent of the population. But experts suspect that the money stretches a lot farther than that, with many Somalis in country sharing those precious dollars with their even poorer neighbors. From the US alone, the flow of money into Somalia from people like Mohamud is about $215 million a year—an amount that exceeds what the US government contributes to the country in all development and humanitarian aid combined.

Maybe it’s $50 a month or $200, $500, or even $2000, whatever families in the US can spare from their own lean budgets they carefully set aside and transfer to relatives, many of whom have no other income.

“The entire community wouldn’t exist if there was no interdependence,” says Mohamud. “Back home, there is starvation, death, destruction.”

But now, that lifeline is beginning to fray—and could snap all together. Under enormous pressure from the US Treasury Department, the California bank that has handled most of the money transfers to Somalia during the last two years plans to shut down the accounts of many Somali-American money transfer operators. The closures are set Sept. 30, and could put some of the operators out of business. If they continue, Somalis will have no legal way to send money home. Other large companies, like Money Gram and Western Union, aren’t practical options in Somalia.

The idea that government red tape could force them to abandon their families appalls and terrifies members of the diaspora here.

“What other alternative will there be?” asks Mohamud. “It is sanctioning people to crumble, to death, to despair, to hopelessness.”

The horrors of war

Pulling out his phone, Mohamud scrolls through photos of important people and moments in his life—the scholarship he received, his college graduation—and finally lands on the one he is looking for: his father, now dead. The photo is the only one Mohamud has of him.

It was with his father that Mohamud weathered months of shelling and anguish when the civil war swept into Mogadishu, the capital and their home. He remembers well the day and time his old life vanished: it was noon on Dec. 26, 1990. He was at school when he heard shots fired, and then a big boom.

Mogadishu shows signs of the years of conflict that have embroiled this Somali city and helped to plunge so many of the country’s people into poverty. Photo: Hassan Noor/Oxfam

“That was the last day anybody in Mogadishu went to school,” says Mohamud. “That day was the last day people in Mogadishu had peace of mind.”

All services in the city ground to a halt. Without a bus, Mohamud walked hours to reach his brother’s house, and the next morning continued the journey to his father’s, dodging bullets in the deserted streets.

For a year he stayed with his father, the horrors of war exploding around them. He remembers the death of an entire family when heavy shelling hit their neighborhood.

There was nothing to eat. Not even humanitarian aid was making it through, he says.

Families displaced by drought in 2011, the year of Somalia’s famine, wait by the side of the road in Mogadishu after heavy rains destroyed their shelters. Photo: HIJRA
One day, Mohamud went at 6 a.m. to fetch water. The lines were torturously long and he waited for 12 hours until it was his turn to fill a jerry can from the tap. Shoving the precious water home in a wheelbarrow, he came to a battle line and as he tried to dash across it to safety, the water spilled and his entire day’s effort sloshed to the ground. His tears streamed after it. A neighbor who had been with Mohamud on the same arduous mission offered to share his supply.

Supporting families back home

Finally, Mohamud decided he couldn’t endure any more. He asked his father for help getting out. Borrowing whatever he could to cover the cost, his father packed Mohamud off on the back of an open truck for the long trek into Kenya—the shillings offered to the driver only a fraction of the fare. The driver took Mohamud anyway.

Mohamud says he had no plan at all—other than to escape the violence and find safety in Kenya.

There, supporting himself as a waiter, he began to hear people talking about immigrating to the US.

“We thought US is this kind of paradise,” Mohamud recalls. When the offer of a sponsorship came from a sister who had already made the crossing, he decided to take the chance and go. The parting words from his father, whom he reached via radio in a farewell call, were “don’t lose your identity and do well.”

In the years that followed, those words guided Mohamud through high school—he bravely started ninth grade when he was 18—into college and on to the master’s degree he earned in education.

Now married and, until just recently, carrying both a full-time job and a part-time one, Mohamed sends every spare cent home.  The $600 he transfers monthly is divided among five families. In addition, Mohamud sends money to cover school fees and medical bills for a range of relatives.

In a way, sacrifice is the definition of being a member of the Somali diaspora. As enterprising as they are, many don’t have savings, says Mohamud, because of the extended family members and friends they help to support abroad. And as much as Mohamud would love to own his own house, he hasn’t been able to save enough to make that happen: Family responsibilities have always come first.

That’s why the treasury department’s clamp down on banks servicing money transfer operators—without concern for the consequences that could affect countless Somali families—is so galling.

“There has to be a solution. This is a lifeline for close to 20 million. If the government has concerns, let them spell out their concerns and come up with a mechanism to monitor,” says Mohamud. “People are wondering why, if there is a legitimate [system], would the government make it difficult for them to send money to their loved ones? I’m appealing to the United States government: They shouldn’t make people’s lives difficult. Already people are malnourished.”

Stand with Sadiq Mohamud and tens of thousands of others like him in the US who are working hard to help their families back in Somalia:Tell the US Treasury Department to keep the lifeline open.

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