Holding signs with pictures of emaciated children and messages such as "Somalis are starving because of U.S. Bank Policy," more than 200 people rallied Friday to protest the severing of a cash "lifeline" to Somalia.
Cars honked in support as drivers sped past the rally at Minneapolis' Peavey Park. The demonstration was organized by the Somali American Money Services Association (SAMSA). Protesters called for a legal fix that would allow Somali-owned hawalas, or money-transfer businesses, to start wiring money overseas again.
"It's wrong to close off the lifeline!" shouted U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who attended the rally.
Minnesota's 14 hawalas, used by countless Somali-Americans to send money to relatives in Africa, have suspended their services because they lost support from their bank.
The hawalas stopped collecting cash Thursday because their Minnesota bank, Sunrise Community Banks, set a Dec. 30 deadline to close all hawala accounts. Sunrise officials fear the accounts put the bank at risk of violating federal rules intended to stop terror financing. Two Minnesota women were convicted in October of conspiring to help terrorists in Somalia by sending $8,600 through hawalas.
The closing of Minnesota hawala accounts comes at a time when the Horn of Africa is still reeling from famine, provoking concerns that the humanitarian crisis could worsen without Minnesotans' remittances. The state is home to the country's largest Somali population.
For weeks, elected leaders and the Somali money transfer operators have been lobbying federal officials to grant a waiver that would enable Sunrise to stay involved with the hawalas without a liability risk.
Just hours before Friday's protest, a conference call took place among members of the U.S. State and Treasury departments, Sunrise Community Banks, SAMSA, Ellison and members of Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office, said Hindia Ali, a SAMSA spokeswoman.
While there was no waiver, Ali said, at least there was interest in resolving the issue.
"The really good thing is in the 11th hour, all the involved parties were on the line trying to make things better," she said.
Officials are helping the bank company craft a request for relief in order to reopen its hawala accounts. "It can't be a get-out-of-jail-free card," Ali said.
Ellison, who supports the waiver idea, also posed another solution at the rally. He said the Somali-American community needs to have its own banks.
Many banks used to have money wiring accounts with hawalas, but closed those accounts amid tightened banking rules after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Omar Jamal, First Secretary of the Somali Mission to the United Nations, said the real problem is Al-Shabab -- an insurgent group in Somalia classified by U.S. authorities as a foreign terrorist organization.
Abdulrahman Adem, a protester, said it was unfair for banks to pull their support based on only a small number of cases involving funds sent through hawalas going to terrorists. "What is that in perspective of 70,000 of us here?" he asked, referring to community estimates of the number of Minnesota Somalis.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488