First person testimonials: A lifeline hanging by a thread

Published February 27, 2015 by Anne-Marie Schryer-Roy

We asked people in Somalia how they felt about recent bank closures in the United States and elsewhere. This is what they had to say.

Idil Bashir Ahmed, Adeso staff member – We’ve become the new lifeline!

With one of the last banks in the United States facilitating money transfers to Somalia halting all transactions last week, many Somalis living in the US are trying to figure out how to send money to their relatives back home. As an Adeso staff member living and working in Somalia, I had been asked to monitor the situation on the ground and let my colleagues know how the closures were affecting people’s daily lives. Little did I know how quickly my own life would be directly affected.

Last week, my mother, aunts, and uncles residing in Virginia and Minnesota started calling me to ask me to send money to my relatives here in Somalia. I have grandparents and cousins who my family have been supporting for years. They count on this money to live their daily lives. Luckily, I’m here on the ground and I can help facilitate the transfer of money. Basically, my parents deposit the money in my account in the US, and next time I travel to Nairobi I’ll be able to withdraw it from a local bank.

I’m not alone in this situation, and other colleagues have had similar requests from relatives living in the US. For them, we’ve become the new lifeline! But it’s a short-term fix that’s only available to a select few. We still need a long-term solution as too many lives hang in the balance.

Muna Dahir Dalmar, Director General of the Ministry of Women, Puntland, Somalia.

The effects of banks closing the accounts of remittance companies are grave. Over half the population of Puntland is unemployed – most of them survive off money that is sent from abroad. What we fear the most is that this recent closure foretells something far more damaging. First it’s the UK, then America, and then what? It’s Europe, then Australia, and the rest of the world shortly after. The people of Somalia, who rely so heavily on these remittances, will essentially be isolated. If we don’t stop this now, I’m scared of the consequences. I’m afraid it will cause more crime in the region. I’m afraid it will affect the dynamics of the households, and cause rifts between families. I’m afraid for the women I fight to protect on a daily basis; some of which are victims of gender based violence, and many are the heads of their households – all of which depend greatly on their families abroad to help them survive.

These closures are taking place to stop terrorist activity, but what do you think will happen when you have taken people’s only resource? It will breed more terrorists and cause more instability in Somalia. Some regions of Somalia are relatively safe like Garowe and we worked hard to attain this peace. By closing these hawalas, you are disrupting people’s livelihoods, and what do you think will happen then?  This isn’t a nation where there are an abundance of opportunities. I believe this will have ripple effects on the people, the economy, and the safety and stability of this nation. It will be felt from the very top, all the way down to the animals in search of grazing land. Something must be done to stop this. The world cannot watch while Somalia withers away.

Hawo Ali Jama, 33 years old, Garowe, Somalia

“I get my money easily – currently it’s fast and efficient. I used to even collect it when I was a pastoralist, grazing animals. I use the money to educate my children and to take care of our basic necessities. I heard from the radio that they were closing and I was in shock. I just kept thinking of all the ways it would affect us. My children all love school; I don’t know how I will break it to them and tell them they can’t go to school anymore. That’s the thing I think about most.”

Halima Ismail Hirsi, Garowe, Somalia

Every month, Halima, a 41 year old supporting a family of 11, collects money from Dahabshil. “I was born and raised in Garowe. I depend on the money from abroad to sustain my family and myself. I am so grateful to my mother and my siblings – all of whom send money every month. I have been receiving this money for years.  I don’t work and neither do my family members. There are no other sources of income other than these remittances. I depend on this money, my family depends on this money. That money pays for my kids’ school fees and gives us enough money for food. How will I eat?”

Mariam Mohamud Ali, Badhan, Sanaag region of Puntland, Somalia

Mariam, who at the age of 65 still supports a family of six, depends on remittances as her unique source of livelihood. “I get anywhere from USD 400-600 sent a month from my children back in the United States. I use the money to sustain our whole lives through buying food, paying school fees, and paying basic bills,” she says. “No one in my family works, jobs are scarce in Somalia, so we are dependent on the money we get from abroad,” she adds. Mariam describes how she grew up in Laas Qoray by the ports, where she used to purchase food and other basic items from the income she earned from the livestock she owned. With the outbreak of the civil war in 1991,  times got hard and her family, had to sell their livestock to survive. Eventually, they moved to Badhan to get support from other family members.

Mariam recently heard about the bank closures in the United States, as it is a hot topic of discussion in the town. “I just don’t understand why they would think it’s a good idea. The United States government should feel responsible for these people, they are elderly, senile, and sick – how do they expect them to support themselves? If I could say one thing to them it would be to rethink their decisions, and understand that families like myself would not be able to survive if the money stopped coming in,” she states. Like many families in Badhan she is scared for her future and wants to know what will happen if remittances can no longer reach Somalia

Mahamoud Mahamed Omar, Badhan, Sanaag region of Somalia

Mahamoud supports his wife who has developed Alzheimers and who’s condition is worsening. He receives USD 100 a month from one of his sons who live in the United States. “I help the family, which consists of my extended family, with the money, but mostly I use it for medicine and food. I obviously cannot work so this money is my contribution to my growing family to help with basic needs,” he says. He had previously not heard about the bank closures, but was very upset to hear that it was even a possibility. “I can’t believe they would think to stop the money coming to Somalia. We don’t have the same benefits as those living abroad. I cannot work, I am too old, so what is a man like me to do, if that money stops?” he asked. Mahamoud would like foreign governments and banks to know that their actions will directly affect his family’s livelihood.

Adan Abdi Adbale Mahamed, Badhan, Sanaag region of Somalia

Like many of the town’s older residents, Adan he is no longer able to work. “I get USD 100 a month sent from my son in the United States. With that I am able to buy food, water, and medicines that not only helps me but my extended family as well. I heard about the bank closures on the radio, and was very shocked. This is my whole life, my life would end if this money stopped coming in,” he added. Adan knows that this is going to cause a problem for the Somali community. “Most people in Somalia live off of money sent from their relatives abroad. Without it there would be no life for many like myself. Somalia would be in a worse shape that it is in now,” he explained. Like many members of the community, he believes the situation in Somalia would get worse if remittances stopped, and he fears that people will not realize the impact until it is too late.

Mariama Ali Yusuf, Badhan, Sannag region of Puntland, Somalia

Mariama first heard about the bank closures in the United States from friends and neighbors in Badhan. “Many people are talking about it, they are scared to see what will happen if their money stops coming in. I get about USD 200 a month and that’s all the money we have coming in. No one in my family works, so we have no other options,” she says. She explained how every month is different in terms of the amount she gets. Her sister in the UK sends her whatever she can afford to on a monthly basis. Mariama uses the money to pay for food, water, medicine, and her electricity. “If these banks decide to close, my family’s life will stop, we have no other source of income. I know that the life we live  is up to Allah, but I really want those people to know they play a part as well and closing remittance [channels] is not good for anyone in Somalia,” she adds.

To learn more about the importance of remittances to Somalia:

Read Adeso, Global Center on Cooperative Security and Oxfam’s latest report on the issue.
Read a blog post by Degan Ali, Adeso Executive Director, and Ed Pomfret from Oxfam here.
Read the 2013 Keeping the Lifeline Open report.