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Frustrated by Minnesota banks' refusal to deal with Somali wire transfer businesses that send money to Africa, some members of the Twin Cities Somali community are taking action.
Scores of Somali-American customers went to a Minneapolis Wells Fargo bank branch Friday afternoon to close their accounts to protest the bank's policies regarding the money wire outfits, also known as hawalas. Others are considering legal action to try to force a change.
The number of local Somalis who have closed their Wells Fargo bank accounts in what organizers dubbed "Somali Family Move Your Money Day," was not immediately known. But the purchasing power of Minnesota Somalis has been estimated between $150 million and $300 million annually, according to Bruce Corrie, business professor at Concordia University who studies the economic impact of immigrant groups.
In another move to end the impasse, a group called the Somali-American Humanitarian Relief Association formed earlier this week to assess a possible legal challenge to U.S. government regulations on banks.
Years ago, several Minnesota banks had accounts with the Somali money service businesses. But amid tightened federal regulations designed to crack down on funding streams for terrorists, the banks discontinued their business connection. Wells Fargo officials and Somali leaders are planning to meet next week to discuss their concerns.
Until recently, only one local banking company -- Sunrise Community Banks -- did business with the hawalas. That changed on Dec. 30, when Sunrise, too, closed its accounts, citing fears of being held liable should money from those accounts fall into the wrong hands. Without a bank, the Minnesota money service businesses have been shut down, and many Somalis say they now have no other way to send money that their families in Africa depend on to survive.
Sunrise officials have been in talks with members of the Somali American Money Services Association, a coalition of hawala owners, and with federal officials to try to find a way to reopen the accounts.
But with no solution yet, some Somali-Americans are demanding that other banks step in and restore their services.
"Wells Fargo, shame on you," the protesters shouted Friday, marching back and forth in front of the branch office at 3030 Nicollet Av. S. Bank officials, with the help of a Minneapolis police officer, allowed the protesters to enter the bank one-by-one to close their accounts.
Ibrahim Nur, of Edina, closed his account worth $750 after eight years of banking with Wells Fargo.
Nur said he hasn't been able to send money to his relatives in Kenya since the shutdown. He said he fears they will be evicted from their apartment next week because can't pay the rent.
Staci Schiller, regional spokesperson for Wells Fargo, said members of the bank's regional leadership team will meet on Wednesday with Somali community leaders who requested the meeting to discuss their concerns.
She would not say how many Somali-American customers closed their accounts Friday, or how much money was in those accounts.
Wells Fargo cut ties with the hawalas in 2008, she said, calling it "a business decision." Asked if Wells Fargo would consider doing business again with the hawalas, Schiller said: "At this point, we don't want to speculate on what the future holds."
Relief association's goals
Meanwhile, the newly formed Somali-American Humanitarian Relief Association has been working behind-the-scenes for more than a month. It has three goals: evaluate the constitutionality of the Patriot Act and Bank Secrecy Act in connection to banks closing accounts with money-wiring businesses, negotiate a waiver to allow banks to reopen the accounts, and pursue legal action if a quick and satisfactory solution can't be found, said attorney Bruce Goldstein, who has been retained by the association.
Aman H.D. Obsiye, a University of Minnesota law student and community activist, is the group's acting chairman. He said the group has no beef with Sunrise Community Banks. Other banks shut down accounts after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, amid increased federal regulation designed to combat the flow of money overseas to terrorists.
In a statement, Sunrise Banks said it was aware of the association and had been in contact with Goldstein's office.
"We are receptive to reviewing and studying any potential solution they may put forth. At this time however, we do not know the details of their proposal," according to the statement.
Obsiye said the association's focus is on the regular folks who are not able to send money to loved ones in Somalia.
"We have the constitutional right to send money to relatives in times of great despair," he said. "At the end of the day, it's the people versus the Patriot Act."
The association has created a website (www.sahrafund.org), set up a defense fund and held informational meetings. In recent weeks, Goldstein said he has talked or sent e-mails to a variety of local and federal officials about relief solutions. He is concerned about stories he's starting to hear about people sending money through banks in other states and Canada, which is only a temporary and possibly an illegal measure.