Saturday, December 24, 2011

Keeping Hope Alive


Nigeria Independent  Weekly 

Abdillahi 'Mash' Abdirahman  
Abdillahi 'Mash' Abdirahman

Abdillahi Abdirahman, aka Mash, comes to the rescue of impoverished Somalis through direct remittance from a coffee shop in Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts, United States

By Abdulrafiu Lawal/ Massachusetts, USA

A group of eight Somalis sat in a corner of the coffee shop sipping green tea and discussing developments in their country. Mohammad Moussah who has been in the United States, US, for eight years saunters into the café, sights his friends, exchanges pleasantries with them and goes off to another section of the café where he hands over some money to the man behind a thick glass window. This is a monthly routine for Moussah who sends money to his mother in Mogadishu for the upkeep of his siblings and father.

Welcome to Butterfly Coffee Shop in Roxbury, situated inside the Roxbury Crossing Orange Line Train Station, Boston, Massachusetts, where Abdillahi Abdirahman aka Mash holds court. This is not just a coffee shop. Apart from serving different kinds of tea, coffee and pastries, the café also serves as a mini-cultural centre for Somalis in Boston and the office of Dahabshil, a local money transfer company, otherwise known as Lifeline Somalia, where people can send money to their friends and families in war-torn Somalia and other countries in East Africa.

“You don’t only send money here, it is a kind of meeting point for us to socialise. If you have not seen your friend who is Somali in the last few weeks due to work schedule, you are likely to run into him here. It is either he has come to send money home or to relax over a cup of coffee with friends after a hard day’s job,” Moussah explained.

Mash who set up the business 10 years ago said he was inspired by the challenges of the civil war in Somalia to find ways of helping his countrymen. “Money, food and other basic things of life have been a problem for families in their homes and refugee camps. So I thought of doing something to minimise the effect of the hardship caused by the war,” he said.

Maganow Hassan, another Somali who has lived in the US for eight years, said without Lifeline Somalia there would be no way for them to send money to their parents and relations back home. Depending on cash flow, he sends money to his cousins and grandparents three or four times in a month. “They use the money I send to buy food and other supplies to keep body and soul together. They are not working. At this time in Somalia, it is really hard, no water and food,” Hassan told the magazine.

Louai Alidrissi and Habeeba Mohammad, customers of Lifeline Somalia, were both beaming with smiles at Butterfly Coffee recently shortly after receiving money from their father. Mohammad who has only been schooling in the US for five months discovered that Lifeline Somalia is cheaper compared to other forms of money transfer. “We come here monthly to collect money sent and the people working here are also very friendly to customers,” she said.

Lifeline Somalia is one system that has succeeded where others seem to fail. This is because despite the lawlessness and instability in the country for over a decade, it has agents in all nooks and crannies of Somalia, including refugee camps. However, Mash’s business is now challenged by the downturn in the US economy. The lean times mean a decline in remittances in the last four years, by about 30 to 40 per cent. “People are losing their jobs, others are not getting enough hours. If a person is unemployed, he can’t send money to his family back home, so it has an effect on us. If you have a job, you have something to spread to your family,” he said.

Khalif Mohammed, another Somali resident in US, who sends between $300 and $500 every month, said the bad state of the economy is having an adverse effect on him. “The economy has changed everything, life is expensive. I make more money than four or five years ago but life got tough and families are bigger,” he said.

Mash has a device that ensures that money sent through Lifeline Somalia did not get to terrorist organisations as he has software that detects people linked with terrorist organisations. Apart from this, the Somali community in Boston is closely knit that he knows most of his customers on first name basis, what they do for a living and perhaps when they came to the US and their addresses.

The success of Lifeline Somalia is due largely to Mash’s sheer determination and courage to succeed as a young man with a humble background. One of nine children, Mash travelled to the US in 1982 and obtained a degree in Business Administration. Upon graduation, he thought of what he could do to add value to the society. He worked with Bank of Boston for a while and a big supermarket. All the while he thought he could do better working for himself. In 2001, he decided to set up Butterfly Café. He now has nine employees.

Mash says his vision in the next five years is to set up a community bank for the people of Roxbury. “I have experience in this financial business and I want my immediate community to benefit from my knowledge. Hopefully two to three years down the road I should have realised this dream,” he said.

Mash has encountered some challenges on the road to success. He accused banks of closing his account without any reason. “I am licensed, legal and I have more compliance than many businesses here,” he said. Mash had few years back tried taking a shot at politics. He attempted running for city councillor-at-large, but fell short of signatories. “Over 100 years ago what the Irish people went through in America is what I am going through. I am not discouraged in any way and I will continue to try,” he said.

Gbenga Ayoola, a Nigerian student in Boston, says Mash’s story should be a source of inspiration to young Nigerians who believe getting a job from government is the only way to succeed: “Our people should begin to explore new areas in crop production, animal husbandry and other small scale businesses because the country has so many untapped opportunities.”

United Nations, UN, estimates show that monthly money transfers to families from relations in America, popularly known as remittances, are part of the foreign investment in developing countries and a way of maintaining family ties. According to the estimates, Somalis send something in the neighbourhood of $1.5 billion to their war-ravaged country yearly. These remittances, which come in bits and pieces, help fund the education and upkeep of many families in Somalia. For most Somalis, the more their family members in the land of opportunities, the better their chances of getting a better quality of life.

To Mash, it is a thing of joy helping to keep the hope of many families alive. “I feel great because I am the line, bridge that connects the people back home and the people working to earn a living here and support their families. I unite the two different worlds that exist.”

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