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Helping New Minnesotans is Good Policy

September 26, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Minnesota’s large and growing Somali population and people from other war-torn and drought-harmed countries are still struggling to find ways to send money to relatives and friends back in “the old country” or in refugee camps.

This is a problem important to all Minnesotans because of the state's a role as a destination point for people looking to escape countries in turmoil. A year ago, the Minneapolis-based international American Refugee Committee (ARC) thought it had worked out problems with money transfers. This was a coordinated effort it lead with Oxfam America and refugee and immigrant groups, international organizations—nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—and the U.S. federal government.

That didn’t work out, said Daniel Wordsworth, ARC president and chief executive officer. “It gets harder all the time,” he said.

Banks that were supportive of the Somali community have stopped participating in money transfers in fear they, or their bank customers, might get in trouble with U.S. authorities because there isn’t careful surveillance of the money paths between here and there.

This is a problem for Minnesota’s Somali population—the largest assemblage of Somalis outside of Africa (32,000 counted in the 2010 Census). Minnesotans are still helping relatives “back home,” said Abdirahman Hassan, community organizer for the Somali Action Alliance in Minneapolis. But they are doing so by using banks and money transfer firms in San Diego and Virginia, he said.

The complication comes from lack of international oversight to make sure the assistance gets to the intended party and “not in the hands of the bad guys,” said ARC’s Wordsworth. Somalia, in a constant state of war since the early 1990s, has no central bank or banking operations that would meet international standards for transparency.

In the absence of modern-era banking practices, Somalis use a system of remittances that is a continuation of ancient Arabic and North African trade systems, called hawala, that effectively transfers what international institutions now usually call “drawing rights” where money on deposit allows money transfer recipients to access local currencies, goods and services.

The Somali money transfer problem is a federal, not a Minnesota state problem, Hassan said. Yet recognizing the local impact, Minnesota’s political leaders and local groups have been supportive and continue to seek solutions, he added.

As an example, the Minneapolis City Council last January approved a resolution calling on “all concerned parties to find an amicable solution that facilitates the normal flow of remittances without compromising the safety and security of the United States.”

Money transfers are just one way, Minnesotans show their support for newcomers. This welcoming reputation has earned international attention. In early September, a delegation of nine Somali Danes, Swedes and a Norwegian visited Minneapolis to study how Somalis are integrating into the civic and economic life of the city. Laurie S. Fulton, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, and the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration, arranged the exchange.

Just this week, the Advocates for Human Rights organization in the Twin Cities launched an online survey of people living in diaspora communities to learn their concerns about human rights issues. The Advocates plan to use the information gathered to provide tools for diaspora communities and their leaders.

“Diaspora communities are increasingly engaged in their countries of origin and ancestry,” said Advocates’ attorney Amy Bergquist in announcing the survey. She cited Iraqis and Afghans who have returned home to rebuild their countries. And, she added, “Somalis in the diaspora drafted the country’s new constitution, and next year the Kenyan diaspora will even be eligible to vote in Kenya’s presidential elections.”  

Where the next waves of New Minnesotans may come from will be influenced by geopolitical and climate influences. Some might appear predictable. Other sources of conflict and famine may not now be evident in a world undergoing rapid change.

Minnesota will continue to be a destination point because we do have a track record in offering a welcoming handshake for new residents. Faith-based and NGO organizations make Minnesota’s reputation greater than its numbers to oppressed and harmed people. ARC is a leader on the ground, working on development, health, anti-hunger, education, and sanitation efforts—often in collaboration with North American and European government assistance programs.

In many ways, this international citizenship outreach is merely Minnesota history repeating itself. Old Minnesotans still know ethnic folk songs and stories carried forward over time. A classic example is the Scandinavian immigrant song, Helsa dem darhemma, where older Minnesotans sing instructing a little bird to fly home:

“Greet all those at home, Greet father and mother, Greet the green meadow, Greet little brother.” “Swallow, think of me also, I would like to fly with you. The meadow must be green at home, Oh, swallow, hear my plea.”

Most Minnesotans, regardless of ancestry, identify with such sentiments.

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