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U.S. Somalis Lose Only Means Of Sending Cash Home

Just north of downtown Minneapolis stand two cement, skyscraper apartment buildings covered in faded pastel patches. Most of the people who live there are part of the city's large Somali community. Once a month, many of them walk across the street to the small, blue shop that houses Kaah Express, a money-wiring business that links Somalis in Minneapolis to relatives in camps throughout East Africa.

Soon, however, the patrons of Kaah Express will have to find a new way of getting money to East Africa. The last U.S. bank to work with Somali money-wiring companies has announced that it's planning to eliminate that service, and Somalis in Minnesota warn that cutting off remittances could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

Back at Kaah Express, Abde Mussa, a cashier at a convenience store, is sending $100 to his sister, who lives in a refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya, with her two children. Remittances like Mussa's add up to millions of dollars that have gone toward supporting millions of Somalis through civil war, mass famine and terrorism.

Mussa says that without the remittances, his sister's family could starve.

Losing The Last U.S. Bank

Somalis in the U.S. have always worried about remittances getting into the hands of terrorists. They only trust African-owned money-wiring companies like Kaah Express to get money to East Africa, but the money-wiring companies need to work with an American bank.

"It has essentially become an epidemic; banks avoiding us, banks terminating us," says Aden Hassan, who does the books for Kaah Express. "So we knew, you know, that something had to give."

In 2008, the Minneapolis Somali community approached local, family-owned Sunrise Community Banks for help. Bank President David Reiling agreed to work with the money-wiring companies, and soon Sunrise was the only U.S. bank legally sending money to Somalia.

But now Sunrise says it's ending the service. According to Reiling, his bank will close money-wiring companies' accounts by the end of December.

"If you look at it from a legal basis," he says, "it would've made sense to close the accounts down immediately."

Reiling says he got worried last year when two Somali women in Rochester, Minn., were convicted of aiding the terrorist group al-Shabab in part by sending money through wire transfers.

The conviction prompted Sunrise Banks to examine its records to see if its systems had been used in the same way. To Reiling's relief, they found no illicit transfers.

"But could we have we stopped them from taking place?" he says. "The fact is that the people in either of those two cases were not on any particular list that would have flagged them in our systems."

Waiting For Word From Washington

Reiling admits he's closing the money-wiring companies' accounts to push the federal government to improve security. Until then, he wants Washington to offer his bank protection from prosecution.

"It can come from the Treasury Department, the State Department, the Department of Justice and maybe the Department of Homeland Security," he says.

Minnesota's congressional delegation has been trying to sort that out with letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and calls to the White House. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is one of two Muslim members of Congress. He says he doesn't know whether the federal government will be able to act before the bank's deadline, but it does need to find a long-term solution.

"Are there better ways to maintain safety and to facilitate transactions that really do need to be made in order to keep starving people alive?" Ellison asks.

The congressman says the welfare of millions of people in East Africa shouldn't rest on the shoulders of one bank president in Minnesota. He and others point out that if Somalis can't send money legally, remittances will be forced underground, making them far more likely to fall into the hands of terrorists.

Copyright 2020 MPR News. To see more, visit MPR News.

Rupa Shenoy