LEWISTON — Once a month, Anisa Dol wires $200 from Lewiston to her parents in Somalia to help pay for their food and rent. It’s not an extravagant amount of money by American standards, but $200 means survival in Somalia. If her parents didn’t have that, she worries they’d be kicked out of their home. Or worse.

“They won’t have food to eat,” Dol said. “Nobody else can help them.”

But Dol may not be able to send that money next time she tries.

Cash transfers to Somalia have been all but shut down, leaving Dol and thousands of other Somali men and women in Maine with few, if any, options for sending money to relatives back home.

“I worry a lot,” Dol said.

Sending cash to Somalia has been tricky for years. There is no functioning banking system in the war-torn East African country, and Western Union and other international money transfer services don’t operate there.

To send money home, Somali families have historically relied on “khawalas,” informal networks that accept cash and deliver it to people in Somalia. Over the years, those informal networks formalized, becoming licensed, registered and regulated American companies, according to aid group Oxfam America, which has been tracking the issue since 2012.

But to get cash to Somalia, khawalas must work with banks that can do the actual wiring through America’s Automated Clearing House. In recent years, under pressure from federal agencies concerned about money going to terrorists and criminals instead of widows, orphans and elderly parents, banks began shutting down their wire services to Somalia.

Merchants Bank of California was the last American bank to handle a significant number of cash transfers. Late last week it shut down its Somali wire service.

“The companies were saying basically for the past year that Merchants was handling between 60 and 80 percent of their volumes of transactions,” said Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam.

Other banks will do wire transfers to Somalia, but they deal with few khawalas. And one by one, even they are shutting down.

In Maine, Amal is the largest khawala known to the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, which oversees such companies. Based in Georgia, it has offices in Portland and Lewiston. Amal works with three banks. One is Merchants, which has stopped wiring money to Somalia.

The second is Sunflower Bank in Kansas, which has said it will stop wiring money to Somalia on Feb. 27.

The third is First American Bank in Illinois, which has said it will stop wiring money to Somalia on March 31.

“The ripple effect from Merchants bank, it’s just taking a toll on us,” said Liban Hersi, compliance officer for Amal. “We’re in dire need of banking.”

He said Amal did everything Merchants asked in an effort to prove cash was going to the needy and not to terrorists or criminals, including providing details on both senders and receivers, offering information on deposits and submitting to independent audits.

“Everything we were transparent on,” he said. “Nevertheless, it’s like our effort did not give fruit.”

Hersi has heard desperation from clients. He understands it because he’s one of them. He supports his sister in Somalia and helps send her children to school.

“People are worried. They have dependents they left behind,” he said.

In Lewiston, Somali residents talk of supporting brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents or children on $100 to $300 a month sent through a khawala and wired to Somalia. The money often goes to buy food or pay rent, but some people also pay for school fees or medical care.

“There’s no other way. That is the only way. (Without the ability to wire cash) all has collapsed. There is no way to send the money,” Ali Hassan said.

Mohamed Omar sends $200 a month to family in Somalia. He believes Lewiston residents have already started to see the impact of Merchants’ decision, but he expects it will get much worse very quickly.

“This just happened right now. They already sent their money for the first month, so the next month is when it’s going to start,” he said.

Oxfam, which will release its second report on the situation Thursday, estimated that 25 to 45 percent of Somalia’s economy relies on cash sent from other countries. It believes the situation is no less than a looming humanitarian crisis.

“It isn’t a stretch to say (wired cash) is a lifeline to the Somali people,” Paul said.

He believes cutting off wire transfers will lead desperate families and khawalas to resort to more risky options, such as cash-filled suitcases taken on flights.

“The shocking part of that is that’s an option that people who work in the federal government have actually proposed as a solution. They say, ‘Well, you can always use cash couriers,'” Paul said. “The reality is it’s incredibly unsafe and incredibly costly. And when cash is moving in suitcases, that makes the system less secure, not more secure.”

Paul believes there are answers to the problem. Long term, he said, the answer is for Somalia to get a transparent, functional banking system. Short term, he would like the federal government to intervene, possibly by having a public fiscal agent, such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, handle the wire transfers to Somalia.

Last week, three U.S. senators and nine U.S. representatives, including Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry pressing for such a solution. They are expected to meet with Kerry next week to discuss the situation.

In the meantime, Lewiston residents wait and hope their next cash transfer will get through.

“If it’s closed, the situation will be harder for us to support the family,” Hussein Muktar of Lewiston said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to do that. It’s affecting a whole community. Not only a whole community but a whole country.”

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