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U.S. Somalis Lose Only Means Of Sending Cash Home

Dec 17, 2011
Originally published on December 17, 2011 10:13 pm

Just north of downtown Minneapolis stand two cement, skyscraper apartment buildings covered in faded pastel patches. Most of the people who live there are part of the city's large Somali community. Once a month, many of them walk across the street to the small, blue shop that houses Kaah Express, a money-wiring business that links Somalis in Minneapolis to relatives in camps throughout East Africa.

Soon, however, the patrons of Kaah Express will have to find a new way of getting money to East Africa. The last U.S. bank to work with Somali money-wiring companies has announced that it's planning to eliminate that service, and Somalis in Minnesota warn that cutting off remittances could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

Back at Kaah Express, Abde Mussa, a cashier at a convenience store, is sending $100 to his sister, who lives in a refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya, with her two children. Remittances like Mussa's add up to millions of dollars that have gone toward supporting millions of Somalis through civil war, mass famine and terrorism.

Mussa says that without the remittances, his sister's family could starve.

Losing The Last U.S. Bank

Somalis in the U.S. have always worried about remittances getting into the hands of terrorists. They only trust African-owned money-wiring companies like Kaah Express to get money to East Africa, but the money-wiring companies need to work with an American bank.

"It has essentially become an epidemic; banks avoiding us, banks terminating us," says Aden Hassan, who does the books for Kaah Express. "So we knew, you know, that something had to give."

In 2008, the Minneapolis Somali community approached local, family-owned Sunrise Community Banks for help. Bank President David Reiling agreed to work with the money-wiring companies, and soon Sunrise was the only U.S. bank legally sending money to Somalia.

But now Sunrise says it's ending the service. According to Reiling, his bank will close money-wiring companies' accounts by the end of December.

"If you look at it from a legal basis," he says, "it would've made sense to close the accounts down immediately."

Reiling says he got worried last year when two Somali women in Rochester, Minn., were convicted of aiding the terrorist group al-Shabab in part by sending money through wire transfers.

The conviction prompted Sunrise Banks to examine its records to see if its systems had been used in the same way. To Reiling's relief, they found no illicit transfers.

"But could we have we stopped them from taking place?" he says. "The fact is that the people in either of those two cases were not on any particular list that would have flagged them in our systems."

Waiting For Word From Washington

Reiling admits he's closing the money-wiring companies' accounts to push the federal government to improve security. Until then, he wants Washington to offer his bank protection from prosecution.

"It can come from the Treasury Department, the State Department, the Department of Justice and maybe the Department of Homeland Security," he says.

Minnesota's congressional delegation has been trying to sort that out with letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and calls to the White House. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is one of two Muslim members of Congress. He says he doesn't know whether the federal government will be able to act before the bank's deadline, but it does need to find a long-term solution.

"Are there better ways to maintain safety and to facilitate transactions that really do need to be made in order to keep starving people alive?" Ellison asks.

The congressman says the welfare of millions of people in East Africa shouldn't rest on the shoulders of one bank president in Minnesota. He and others point out that if Somalis can't send money legally, remittances will be forced underground, making them far more likely to fall into the hands of terrorists.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Somalis living here in the U.S. are frantically trying to find new ways to get money to East Africa. That's because the only U.S. bank that helps wire transfers to Somalia says it's getting out of the business. Somalis in Minnesota say there will be a humanitarian crisis in their home country if their relatives are cut off. Minnesota Public Radio's Rupa Shenoy has this report.

RUPA SHENOY, BYLINE: Two cement skyscraper apartment buildings covered in faded pastel patches stand just north of downtown Minneapolis. Most of the people who live there are Somalis. Once a month, many walk across the street to a small bright blue shop called Kaah Express.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

SHENOY: This is just one money-wiring business that links Somalis here to family who remain in camps throughout East Africa.

ABDE MUSSA: (Foreign language spoken) $100. Nairobi, $100.

SHENOY: Abde Mussa is a cashier at a convenience store and today is sending money to his sister living in a Nairobi refugee camp.

MUSSA: Every month, from my income, I help the family. She has two kids.

SHENOY: Mussa's money will get bundled with other 50- and 100-dollar remittances. It adds up to millions of dollars that's kept millions of people in Somalia alive through civil war, mass famine and terrorism. But Mussa's heard that flow of money is at risk.

MUSSA: We are very scared about that.

SHENOY: He worries that without remittances, his family will starve. Somalis in the U.S. have always been worried about remittances getting into the hands of terrorists. They only trust African-owned money-wiring companies like Kaah Express to get money to East Africa. And they're the only banks operating inside Somalia. But the money-wiring companies need to work with a U.S. bank here. Aden Hassan does the books for Kaah Express.

ADEN HASSAN: It has essentially become an epidemic - banks avoiding us, banks terminating us. So we knew, you know, that something had to give.

SHENOY: In 2008, the Somali community here approached local family-owned Sunrise Community Banks. Bank President David Reilling agreed to work with the money wirers, and soon, Sunrise was the only bank legally sending money to Somalia. But now, Sunrise says it's ending the service. Reilling says his bank will close money wirers' accounts by the end of December.

DAVID REILLING: If you look at it from a legal basis, it would've made sense to close the accounts down immediately.

SHENOY: Reilling says he got worried last year when two Somali women in Rochester, Minnesota were convicted of aiding the terrorist group al-Shabaab in part by sending money through wire transfers. Sunrise Banks examined its records to find out if its systems had been used, and to Reilling's relief, they hadn't.

REILLING: But could we have stopped them from taking place? And the fact is is that the people in either of those two cases were not on any particular list that would have flagged them in our systems.

SHENOY: Reilling admits he's closing down the money wiring accounts to prompt the government to improve security. Until then, he wants Washington to offer his bank protection from prosecution.

REILLING: It can come from the Treasury Department, the State Department, the Department of Justice and maybe the Department of Homeland Security.

SHENOY: Minnesota's congressional delegation has been trying to sort that out with letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and calls to the White House. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison is one of two Muslim members of Congress. He doesn't know if the federal government will be able to act before the deadline. Either way, Ellison says the federal government needs to find a long-term solution.

REPRESENTATIVE KEITH ELLISON: Are there better ways to maintain safety and to facilitate transactions that really do need to be made in order to keep starving people alive?

SHENOY: Ellison says the welfare of millions of people in East Africa shouldn't rest on the shoulders of one bank president in Minnesota. And he and others point out that if Somalis can't send money legally, remittances will be forced underground, making them far more likely to be used by terrorist groups. For NPR News, I'm Rupa Shenoy in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.