Maine's Somali Community Fears Loss of Financial Lifeline to Families Back Home
PORTLAND, Maine - Maine is home to an estimated 5,000 Somali immigrants, many of whom send regular payments to family members back home. This represents an important financial lifeline for many in Somalia, and for that nation's economy.
Recently, however, life got a lot tougher for Somalis trying to send money home. And lawmakers, aid groups and Somali immigrants are concerned that a major crisis could unfold if the situation is not resolved.
High school teacher Abdullahi Ahmed of Portland has lived in the U.S. for 16 years. For as long as he's been able to, he's been sending between $150 and $200 every month to his sister back in Somalia.
Ahmed says she has seven children and few options. "She and her husband do not have any source of income, other than what I send to her."
And that money, he says, is crucial. "That is the only way that she and her kids are surviving and can go to school."
Ahmed - who's now a U.S. citizen - says pretty much every Somali in Maine who can afford it wires money back home on a regular basis, "because back in Somalia there is no government or help system out there, so this is a very important aspect of the livelihood of Somalis back home."
And, according to international relief agencies, these types of payments are an important part of the overall Somali economy. "Critical, absolutely critical," says Scott Paul.
It's an issue familiar to Paul, a senior humanitarian policy adviser with Oxfam America. Paul focuses on east Africa. "Globally, Somalia receives at least $1.3 billion a year from its Diaspora." he says.
That's more, he says, than the country receives in humanitarian assistance, development aid and foreign direct investment combined. "Most of that money is used to meet people's basic survival needs - so food, water, shelter, school fees, basic healthcare and the like," he says.
In February Merchants Bank of California closed the accounts of Somali-American money transfer operators, and Merchants was the last major financial institution in the U.S. to offer the service.
Some immigrants - including Abdullahi Ahmed of Portland - are still managing to find ways to wire money home, for now. But without the help of major banks, it's more costly and harder to do.
U.S. banks have been distancing themselves from Somalia. "The issue around this is, banks have suspended this money transfer because they're worried money could fall into the hands of terrorist groups," says Maine 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree.
Pingree says there's little evidence that groups like Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based organization behind a recent massacre of university students in Kenya, is actually getting much of this money.
"Our understanding is, in the amount of time that's been going on in the last two decades, I think," Pingree says, "there have been only two cases where a very small amount of money went to Al-Shabaab."
Pingree has joined with others in Congress in urging the Treasury Department to find a way around this problem.
"It's not as if there was a significant problem," she says. "It's more that the banks are worried about the risks that they're taking for being liable if the money gets into the wrong hands. So we've made suggestions that maybe there's some way to relieve the banks of the responsibility, or maybe the federal bank could have some involvement in this. We have not found a solution."
Pingree, and others, warn that the economic isolation of Somalia could actually help terror groups like Al-Shabaab, as more people flock to join their ranks out of economic desperation.
Maine's other congressional delegates have also been giving their reaction to the situation. Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin represents Maine's 2nd District, which includes Lewiston, where many of Maine's Somali immigrants live. In a statement, he says that, as a member of the Bipartisan Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Funding, he'll be looking closely at the Somali payments issue. At the same time, he says it's important to protect those who are trying to help their families achieve better lives.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins - a Republican - and independent Angus King - issued a joint statement, underlining the importance of balancing both those two interests.
While all parties hope to see this issue resolved soon, Oxfam's Scott Paul says, in the long term, there's only one solution, "and that's for Somalia to develop a sustainable and inclusive banking system" - one that's considered trustworthy and reliable by the international community.