Hashtag to U.S. Government: Sending Money Home Isn’t Terrorism
Last week, 25-year-old Ifrah Ahmed created the hashtag #IFundFoodNotTerror and posted the following Twitter message alongside it: “The money I send back to Somalia helps my siblings go to school, and it helps buy them food. They are not terrorists.”
Her hashtag, created Feb. 6, has since spawned #Somalis4Remittances and thousands of tweets in response to what she and many others argue is an unfair antiterrorism banking regulation by the U.S., which pressures banks to discontinue wire-transfer services to Somalia, one of the world’s poorest countries. Merchants Bank of California, which is responsible for approximately 80 percent of all money-transfer operations between the two countries, is the most recent bank to shutter its service.
Ahmed was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, grew up in Seattle, and attends law school in New York City. The founder of Araweelo Abroad, an online magazine for Somali women living overseas, Ahmed sends between $100 and $300 to Somalia each month to support her family, including her father and two younger siblings.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” she told Al Jazeera America. “Even though you send remittances to one person, the amount of people that money affects is incredible. If we send money to my aunt, not only will she feed her children, she will feed her neighbors as well, because they may not get remittances from abroad.”
Somali Americans and Somalis in the states send up to $215 million in remittances every year, according to a report by Oxfam. While these payments are most commonly used by recipients for necessities such as food, shelter, and schooling, the efficiency and anonymity of the money-transfer process to Somalia makes it ideal for those looking to move illicit funds without a paper trail. The way the U.S. government sees it, expanding antiterrorist financing methods is a means of preventing money flow between the states and designated terrorist groups. But according to Oxfam’s report, agents who oversee wire transfers “devote significant time and resources to compliance with U.S. federal and state regulations,” and customers are regularly asked for identification and checked against the Specially Designated Nationals List, which names individuals who might be tied to terrorism.
Without financial support from family members abroad, Somalians who depend on remittances could soon be facing a humanitarian crisis. “It’s just like seeing a famine coming and not being able to do anything,” Aynab Abdirahman, chairman of the Washington state Refugee Advisory Council, told The Seattle Times. “A lot of people are going to die.”
As some individuals point out on Twitter, a shortage of funds to provide food, education, and shelter for families is one reason people turn to terrorist groups like al-Shabaab in the first place. “Depriving the means for many Somali citizens to stay afloat is basically handing over many poor recruits to al-Shabaab,” wrote Twitter user @MareejoXaamud.
There is no banking system in Somalia, which leaves residents and their relatives abroad with few options for sending and receiving funds. The same day the hashtag was started, a group of 12 U.S. Congress members sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the immediate and long-term effects of cutting off wire-transfer services.
“With Merchants [Bank of California] closing, you will see less money to people who need it, and the flows that do go through will be going underground and become much more vulnerable to criminal networks,” Scott Paul, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America, told the Los Angeles Times—adding that the same networks that “the U.S. is intent on defeating in Somalia are going to have a huge opportunity.”