Somalis caught off guard when more than a dozen Minnesota businesses stopped accepting wire transfers said Friday they were scrambling to find a way to get money to relatives in East Africa and options mentioned by the U.S. Treasury weren't realistic.
Somalis in the U.S. use the businesses, known as hawalas, to send money to relatives in the famine-stricken nation and nearby refugee camps because Somalia hasn't had a functioning government since 1991 and has no banking system.
But 15 Minnesota hawalas stopped accepting wire transfers Thursday because the bank that handles the majority of the transactions planned to close their accounts Friday. Minnesota-based Sunrise Community Banks has said it fears unintentionally violating complex regulations designed to combat terror financing.
Abdirahim Hersi, 27, of Minneapolis, was among the Somalis who thought they could still send money Friday. He went to a money service business with the money in hand and was surprised to find the transfers had already stopped.
"I don't know what to do," said Hersi, 27, who sends $500 every month to his mother, daughter and siblings in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, near the Somali border. He usually sends the money at the start of each month, so his December transfer is running out. "I'm confused. I talked to my mother and she's also confused. ... I'm really sad."
He and hundreds of other Somalis gathered to protest in a park, many holding signs with pictures of hungry children and messages such as "I am starving _ banks blocked transmitting money to me" and "Banks block me from feeding my family."
The U.S. Treasury said there are other legitimate and transparent ways for Somalis to send money home. They include setting up accounts with other U.S. banks or sending money through other money transmitters or U.S.-based banks to clearinghouses or hubs in Dubai, which arrange for payouts in Somalia.
Another option, it said, is that Somalis could declare the money and legally ship cash or money orders to those same hubs for payout in Somalia.
Minnesota has one of the largest Somali populations in the U.S., and residents there said those options weren't practical.
Abdulaziz Sugule, former chairman of the Somali Money Services Business and now a consultant on the issue, said sending cash would be even more risky than wire transfers, as it would be tough to document and might not reach its intended destination. People handling the cash risked being robbed or killed, he said.
Going through multiple money service businesses, such as one in the U.S. and then one in Dubai, adds layers of cost and time to each transaction, he added.
Sunrise Community Banks' decision to stop the transactions came weeks after two Minnesota women were convicted in October of conspiracy to provide support to al-Shabab, a group at the center of violence in Somalia and one the U.S. says is tied to al-Qaida. Evidence at their trial showed the women used the hawalas to send money to the terror group.
The bank said Friday it would consider an extension of the service if it received some sort of way to minimize its risk. No solution was reached at a meeting Friday with Somali community leaders, money-service business owners and government officials.
U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones said a waiver isn't possible.
"The Department of Justice doesn't give anyone a free pass right up front for possible future criminal activity," Jones said. "Federal prosecutors don't give waivers."
Somalis at Friday's rally were trying to come up with their own solutions. Samatilis Haille, who lives in Washington, D.C., but was visiting friends and family in Minneapolis, said he was thinking about using Western Union to send money to Nairobi and asking a friend there to pick up the money and send it on to Somalia through a hawala.
But he said that plan has its own risks: He's worried if his friend learns how much money he sends back, his friend will ask for more. And, he said, he's unsure if his friend, who is a refugee, has the identification required to pick up the money.
Kamal Hassan, of Edina, said he has been sending almost half of his income to family members in the Dadaab refugee camp, as well as family inside Somalia. But without the hawalas, he can't think of a way to get it there.
"I blame al-Shabab. Because it is the terrorists' fault," he said. "But the thing is, is this the best way to deal with it?"
He said if the U.S. government does not provide a waiver, members of al-Shabab will seize on this as a way to justify their hatred of the U.S. "They will take advantage of this kind of grievance," he said.