“It feels like our relatives back home are being sentenced to starve,” says Somali American and Capitol Hill resident Ifrah Ahmed. “Everyone is in shock.” Thousands of families across Seattle are in a panic, trying to find a way to keep their loved ones alive. This is a crisis that has been brewing for three years, and February 5 was the day that the worst-case scenario became a reality.
Payments sent by relatives living abroad is a vital part of the world economy. But for the Somali American community, these remittances have come to an end. The largest processor of remittances in the country and the only one to process transactions from Washington State to Somalia, Merchant Bank of California, announced last week that as of February 5 it is no longer going to be doing business in Somalia. This change resulted from pressure by the US government, which fears that money from remittances could be used to finance the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab is a real threat not only to Somalia but to the whole of East Africa. However, these remittances don’t currently appear to be a significant part of that threat. Of the $1.3 billion in remittances sent each year to Somali families, there have been only two prosecutions in the US and none in the UK for using any of the banks handling remittances to fund al-Shabab.
Blocking remittances will do more to support terrorism than the actual remittances ever could. There are no banks in Somalia. It is a cash economy. In this war-torn and poverty-stricken country, remittances account for up to 40 percent of Somalia’s GDP (PDF). The Somali economy will go further underground. Any money that is dispersed is likely to be forced to go through the very terrorist groups the world is trying to defeat.
Ahmed shares these concerns: “If young folks don't have food or education or job opportunities, then al-Shabab will promise to give them all those things. They'll do it to deal with the poverty that they are experiencing.”
With 40 percent of Somalis depending on these remittances, even if people don’t turn to underground economies, the lack of funds for food and basic supplies will bring about devastating famine and undermine any stability that the Somali government has managed to cling to. This can destabilize the entire region, as it has in the past. And as the last few years have seen an increasing amount of young Somali Americans leaving for Somalia to join al-Shabab, the images of hundreds of thousands of starving Somali men, women, and children due to the perceived indifference of the US government will be an excellent terrorist recruiting tool.
Most importantly, many of these people who seem so far away to many of us are friends and family of the approximately 30,000 Somali Americans living in Seattle. We aren’t just talking about abstract political theory of terrorism, we’re talking about the people who members of our community love. Somali Americans all around the greater Seattle area work hard to save the money that they know will feed their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. I’ve met many Somali parents living in Seattle who are sending every penny they can to feed, educate, and shelter their children living in Somalia.
“There is not one family that doesn't send money back home. It is a part of our culture to take care of our relatives, no matter how distant they may be,” explains Ahmed, “My little brother and sister have nothing to do with terrorism. They deserve to eat and to go to school. The money we send helps with that. Now they no longer have access to that.”
The government has known for the last three years that its increasingly tough regulations are impossible for any bank to meet when doing business with a country that has no real central government and no banks. So far, our government has made no real steps to address this issue that it openly admits can lead to devastation in much of Somalia. Somali members of our community have been pleading for something to be done, but the rest of us have not been listening.
Many Somali Americans like Ahmed feel that they are invisible to the rest of Seattle. “Living on the Hill, going to school at Seattle University, and being in feminist circles, you would be truly shocked at how many folks don't realize that an entire Somali community exists within the larger Seattle community. Our children go to school with your children, you visit our restaurants, we are your neighbors, we are your coworkers and your peers. We often provide services to Seattleites—whether it's as your teacher, or working at the airport, or being your doctor, or your barista, or driving taxis, or providing child care. We have made Seattle our home.” For us to allow this lifeline to disappear without a fight would be a betrayal of every Somali man, woman, and child living in this city.
Ahmed perfectly sums it up, “When those in your community are suffering and you do nothing to stand with them, then the community isn't a community after all.”