Remittance Stories: Abdul from Somalia

April 4, 2016

At TransferGuru we’re always going on about the importance of remittances – but there’s only one way to do it properly. Hearing from the people that use them. That’s why, following on from the success of our photo series, we’ve widened the net. We got in touch with people with interesting remittance stories and asked them to tell us what simple money transfers means to them. Now we can proudly present the first entry – Abdul, from Somalia.

My memories of Somalia are few. There are so many things I think I remember, but I’m not sure why. Walking through central Mogadishu, holding my mum’s hand as we made our way through the colorful crowds in Bakkara mall is one of them. 

Earlier that day, my mum had received a call from Olympic, a local Somali transfer company. She was informed that someone had sent her money from the Netherlands. We were struggling to eat at that point, and I’m pretty sure that call made my mum’s week! She dressed up hurriedly, grabbed me by the hand, and within minutes we were out of the door, with me still in my school uniform.

At that point, Somalia was 10 years into its civil war. Unemployment was sky high and local tribal militia were constantly contesting territory, but the bulk of the fighting had actually ended. A large section of the society depended on money being sent from abroad. And given that the banking sector had collapsed a decade prior, this key service was being provided by small private transfer companies. Some of these companies had actually begun as individuals in the diaspora leveraging relationships they had with people back in Somalia. They took full advantage of the fact that there were businessmen in Somalia who were desperate to get their money out of the country, and that others abroad were desperate to get their money into the country (to feed their families).

My sister and my brother, both living in Europe, were amongst the desperate who needed to send money back home. A few years ago, I asked my sister about her monthly trips to “Wembley Square” where she’d send us money through a company called Dahabshil. This was routine for her. She did agency work through the month – sometimes working double shifts – she got paid, then she took a sizeable chunk of her money straight to the transfer company, and a fraction of that hard earned cash went to the transfer company as commission. My sister’s story is echoed in the stories of thousands of Somalis who had made it to Europe or North America in the 90s and were burdened with sending money back home, when they themselves didn’t have the skills or the cultural capital to financially succeed.

When we were refugees in the 90s, travelling from country to country in search of asylum, I feel that remittances genuinely made it easier for our family abroad to watch over us. Regardless of where we were, they had a way of getting money to us. It was safer too, we have never needed to carry around wads of cash, cash that would have certainly landed us dead in a ditch somewhere. In Yemen, in Saudi, in Syria, in all of these places, my family abroad made sure that my mother, my siblings and I had enough money to live.

Since the late 90s, Somalia’s economy and security have gradually improved but remittances still constitute a lifeline for millions of Somalis that have no other income other than what their families send them from abroad. According to a report by Oxfam, it is estimated that in 2015 the Somali diaspora sent $1.3 billion back home. Remittances are also aiding the effort to rebuild a country that has spent the better part of three decades embroiled in a civil conflict. It is estimated that remittances constitute 50% of the gross national income and 80% of all investment into the country.

I’ve interviewed family members for the purpose of this article and I have found that the majority of them have used a single transfer company for the past two decades to send money back home. The flat 6% commission seems to have been accepted by most of them, and they do not feel that they have much of a choice. The argument that I wanted to make to my family was that this was their earned cash and that they should have choices as consumers to find a better rate. I’m thinking of my sister doing unskilled temporary work for agencies through the entire month, and then being forced to give 6% because she felt that she had no choice. Well, she didn’t then. But she does now.

Written by Abdul-Rahman Jama

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