In February 2015, Merchants Bank of California shut off the final pipeline for electronic remittances to Somalia after ongoing pressure from the U.S. Government. It is widely believed these money transfers have been funding terrorist activities in Somalia. The Somali community abroad, concerned human rights groups, and other NGOs have expressed worry that this latest move could send the country spiraling into a humanitarian crisis by blocking support funds from family members of Somali citizens who rely on the assistance from their US-based relatives for their survival.
This issue hit very close to home for Ifrah Ahmed, a Somali woman from Seattle currently living in New York City to attend law school. Ifrah and her family routinely sent money to relatives still living in Somalia to help pay for food, education and housing. Upon hearing about the final remittance prohibition, Ifrah turned to social media to reach out to her community for support. What began as an impromptu tweet that came to her out of the ether, has turned into a viral hashtag campaign: #IFundFoodNotTerror. In creating this hashtag, Ifrah has elevated the concern to an international consciousness and pulled others into the dialogue around this burgeoning social justice movement. As a young woman who embraces her cultural identity, Ifrah is amplifying this issue beyond the Somali diaspora to champion and bring attention to the hundreds of thousands of Somalis reliant on family support through the electronic remittance process.
Ifrah took some time with STACKEDD to answer questions about #IFundFoodNotTerror and to talk about next steps for a movement that is suddenly getting a lot of attention, in and out of the Twitterverse:
STACKEDD: The hashtag you created – #IFundFoodNotTerror – has taken on a viral life of its own and served to elevate this issue to public consciousness. As not only the creator, but a Somali woman living in the US, how has it been for you to watch the awareness of the impact of the remittance prohibition on families grow?
IFRAH AHMED: It has been incredible to see the response to #IFundFoodNotTerror. It has also been amazing to see the outpour of support from non-Somalis. Sometimes there is a fear that if an issue doesn’t impact someone they might not care. However, it’s been moving to see the solidarity from our non-Somali brothers and sisters as well as the strong outcry from Somalis all over the globe. Once folks become aware of the situation, it’s shocking to them that Somali families are being punished in this manner. Everyone can identify with wanting to provide for his or her loved ones, and this hashtag speaks to the heart of the matter. As a Somali woman in the U.S., it is shocking how many people don’t know entire Somali communities exist in the United States. So for me, this hashtag is a way of saying ‘we’re here, we’re your neighbors, and we just want to help our families back home’.
STACKEDD: During the so-called “Arab Spring”, the world learned what a powerful role social media can play in mobilizing individuals who are otherwise disconnected from one another. What role do you see social media play as you work on expanding the narrative around remittance restrictions currently in place?
IFRAH AHMED: Social media is incredibly useful in expanding the narrative around the remittances issue. If mainstream media covers this issue, it is usually focused on terrorism or whatever the U.S. government’s view on the issue is. There are many Somalis on the Internet, especially Somali youth with a strong and vocal twitter presence. Social media helps us challenge the mainstream narrative and to voice exactly what a detrimental impact this will have on each of our families as well as the country of Somalia itself. Mainstream media only provides one side of the story, but social media has been utilized by young Somalis to talk about the human cost of this decision to end remittances to Somalia. Additionally, it has helped connect like-minded Somali activists and their supporters so that they mobilize around this issue.
STACKEDD: A quick Twitter search shows the rapid expansion in the use of the #IFundFoodNotTerror, including use by influential tweeters and NGOs such as Oxfam International. How do you hope to work with these individuals and organizations to continue to build the movement?
IFRAH AHMED: It has been encouraging to see support from larger organizations. I am interested in seeing the capacity in which they can support this movement. However, I am firmly rooted in the idea that this needs to be led by Somalis both in the diaspora and back in Somalia. Especially Somali youth. We have such brilliant, educated, and vocal youth activists who have a lot to say on this issue and it is important that they lead moving forward. NGOs are good allies, but at the end of the day it is Somali activists who know exactly how the end of remittances impacts their families and their community and they are the ones who have to live with it. I believe that those most impacted or marginalized by something should always be the ones to lead.
STACKEDD: What future plans do you have around organizing and mobilization of supporters?
IFRAH AHMED: Well, it’s not anything I can comment on publically yet. But, there are definitely plans in the works to mobilize folks both online and physically. It is important that we utilize the internet, but that there is also good old fashioned physical mobilization.
STACKEDD: You are a woman who is exceptionally proud of your heritage, and rightfully so. What do you want others to understand about Somali women? Likewise, what would you want people to understand about Somalia & its culture?
IFRAH AHMED: Somali women are resilient and gracious. Somali women are the reason Somalis have survived. They are warriors. They are the backbone of Somalia. As a people, we are very proud and we have survived many things. We always find a way to survive. I want people to understand that Somalis are tough and they are a beautiful people. I am very proud to be Somali, and I identify with Somaliniimo first and foremost. It is with this love that I co-founded Araweelo Abroad online magazine. Anyone who wants to learn more about Somali women, especially Somali women in the diaspora should check it out! It is a space for Somali women, created by Somali women. www.araweeloabroad.com