Cash-to-Africa services frozen

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2011 - 8:47 PM

The hawalas that Somalis depend on to send money to relatives are losing their banking connection.

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Hashi Yusuf, left, was upset that he couldn’t send $300 to his wife and children in Somalia on Thursday at the Dahabshiil money-transfer office in Minneapolis. Jama Awed, center, wanted to send $350 to his wife and kids in Kenya, and Haji Mohamed, right, was planning to send $500 to four families in Somalia.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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At the Karmel Square branch of one of the largest Somali-owned money wire businesses, customers stood outside the teller window Thursday with wads of cash in their hands and weary looks on their faces.

"I wanted to send this money to my wife," said Hashi Yusuf, whose wife and children live in Somalia. "When I ask this guy to send it, he said to me, 'No more we send the money.'"

Yusuf said the $300 he sends every month pays for his family's food. It's the only income they receive, he said. Without it, he's not sure how they will survive.

More than a dozen hawalas, money transfer businesses used by countless Somali-Americans to send money to loved ones in Africa, suspended money-wiring services Thursday -- a day earlier than the Dec. 30 deadline when their Twin Cities bank, Sunrise Community Banks, said it would close the accounts.

Bank officials cited concerns that the accounts put them at risk of violating federal rules designed to halt terror financing.

The decision to stop wiring money overseas caught many customers off guard on Thursday. Many people showed up with bundles of cash, expecting that the services would stop on Friday.

Fears of being a target for robbers caused the businesses to stop collecting money for wire transactions a day early.

In a statement issued Thursday, the Somali American Money Services Association (SAMSA), which represents 14 Minnesota money-transfer businesses, announced that they would be suspending remittance operations in Minnesota, effective Thursday.

"SAMSA members will resume services as soon as we address this matter. We regret any inconvenience the closure might cause to our customers," the statement said.

Money-transfer business owners and their supporters plan to stage a protest Friday afternoon at a south Minneapolis park to call attention to the closings, which they argue will worsen the humanitarian crisis in famine-stricken Somalia.

The bank announced in late November that it planned to close its hawala accounts Dec. 15, after two Minnesota women were convicted of conspiracy to support a known terrorist group in Somalia, wiring $8,600 through hawalas. But amid public outcry, bank officials extended the deadline to Dec. 30 in the hopes of working with government officials and community leaders to come up with a way to keep supporting the hawalas.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Keith Ellison lobbied the State Department and the Treasury Department to intervene. One proposed solution would have granted Sunrise a waiver from liability.

The bank said in a statement Thursday that "We continue to work tirelessly with the community and government officials to create a temporary legal and regulatory solution."

But with time running out and no waiver or other solution on the horizon, Minnesota hawala owners say they are uncertain of their long-term fate.

"Probably, we'll be out of business," said owner Said Malin, owner of Amaana Money Transfer Company, a money wire business with eight offices in Minnesota and more in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and Nebraska.

Those who use the hawalas say they are a lifeline for millions of people living in Somalia, a war-ravaged nation that has no formal banking system, much less a functioning national government.

According to the CIA World Fact Book, money-transfer services have popped up throughout the United States, handling up to $1.6 billion in remittances annually. Minnesota has the largest Somali-American population in the country, so much of the money flowing to Africa originates in Minnesota.

Abdisalam Adam, a local community leader, said he has been using the hawala for decades to send money to his relatives in Somalia. Every month, he gets one or two calls from someone who needs money for food, clothes or medicine, he said. Currently, he is supporting four families.

He said he worries that reports of U.S. regulatory policies preventing people from sending money to starving people in Somalia will be fodder for terrorist groups, which have been preaching that the American government is waging war on Muslims.

"We know a lot of this counterterrorism effort is a battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world," he said. "This will be counterproductive."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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  • Jama Awed, left, couldn’t send $350 Thursday to his wife and children in Kenya from the Dahabshiil money-transfer office in Minneapolis. Owner Mohamed Nor, right, tried to explain to Awed and Haji Mohamed, center, who wanted to send $500 to four families in Somalia.

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