We’d get the most calls starting two weeks before Ramadan. Advancements in long-distance calling made shouting unnecessary, but my parents shouted anyway, as if to indicate they were very far away. Sometimes I picked up and heard the voice of a relative I didn’t know existed. I kept our conversations brief, embarrassed at my poor grammar in Somali, then listened to my mom chat knowingly and intimately.
“Do you know who that was?” she would ask when she hung up. After a detailed, confusing explanation of how we were related, she explained why they were calling. The stories were always different, and at times almost too tragic to seem real, like the visually impaired cousin with no husband taking care of her niece’s orphaned children. But ultimately, they all called for the same reason: They needed money and we were in a position to give it to them.
My family immigrated to Canada early in 1989, two years before I was born, making me the only person in my family to be born Canadian. My mom had come alone with my three siblings at the suggestion of my father, who wasn’t able to emigrate at the time. The civil war hadn’t fully destroyed their native country of Somalia yet, but my dad knew political unrest meant it wouldn’t be wise to stay in the country. My mom knew people who had settled in Canada years earlier with success, so she decided to immigrate to Ottawa. Despite arriving in the dead of winter, my family had come at an opportune moment; it was before the mass exodus of Somalis and we were relatively financially stable. My parents had to work hard to make sure we lived well, but we were still fortunate refugees, and when my father joined us two years later, he secured a job with the Canadian federal government.
For my parents — and for many other first-generation immigrants from the developing world — it was expected that they would work to provide for their families. From a young age, both my parents were already sharing their earnings from teaching and bank telling with their families. Coming to Canada didn’t change that obligation, besides giving them more money to share. I grew up steeped in this practice, though I didn’t know what it was called until fairly recently: remittance.
Remittance is typically defined as a foreign worker sending money to their home country. The World Bank estimated that in 2010, 3% of the world’s population were involved in sending an estimated $440 billion worldwide. In a survey conducted by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, of about 800,000 Somalis living abroad, on average we send about $2,040 annually, more than other African migrants. It’s more than the 20 in your birthday card from grandma. It’s a lifeline and one of the largest sources of foreign humanitarian aid.
Somalia depends on its diaspora, but some banks and governments have frozen the accounts of emigres due to regulatory concerns. After the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya, the government of Kenya suspended 13 Somali money transfer agencies in Nairobi, leaving aid organizations rallying for their re-opening. Even in the U.S., banks have closed the accounts of Somali transfer companies out of fear they’ll be penalized for supporting money laundering. These obstacles make it increasingly difficult for us to navigate how we’ll continue supporting this tradition.
I only realized how weird the idea of remittance seemed to my friends who weren’t the children of immigrants when I was late to meet a friend because I had to deposit money into my dad’s bank account. “Is this like a sponsorship family?” she asked. “Like a Somali World Vision?” I told her it was simply one of those immigrant things she wouldn’t understand.
Growing up in Canada, we’re told we’re a part of a “cultural mosaic,” a group of cultures and languages that co-exist — distinct from America’s melting pot of cultural assimilation. The trouble with the mosaic approach is that being different is the last thing anyone wants growing up, no matter where you or your parents were born. I was Canadian enough to not be an outcast, but there were still constant reminders that I would never be seen as fully Canadian. Some things, like my skin color and headscarf, seemed to give others permission to ask where I was really from. As I grew older, remittance became one of the most subtle and most meaningful reminders of my heritage.
My parents didn’t need to sit me down for “the talk.” We’re Muslim, and one of the major tenets of our religion is charity. Charity, we are often told, does not decrease wealth. Meaning: If you were in a position to give, your status would always be elevated in the eyes of God. If you were in a position to spread your wealth, it was an honor.
Once I had been working more steadily for a couple of years, my mom began to ask how much I had in my account. I was 17, and my fast-food habit meant there wasn’t much left over before my next paycheck. She never had to force me; it was very much a “give what you can” request. I didn’t always know who the recipient would be or what they needed it for, but I trusted my mom wouldn’t ask us to give away our hard-earned money for no reason. Sometimes, I would hear what happened with the money sent — anywhere between $50 to $350 depending on how much we made — but usually I would forget all about it by the time it had reached whoever it was that called.
For much of my life, the entire process felt like going through the motions, like paying a bill or doing my taxes. Neither pleasant nor unpleasant, just something I did sometimes without putting much thought into it. Now that I’m an adult, I realize how formative this tradition is to what I value now.
Three years ago, my mother was on the phone with her mother, the only grandparent I’ll ever know. My grandmother was a Canadian citizen, but she would bounce around from any one of her 10 children situated around the globe. At the time, she was with her two daughters in northern Somalia, which is relatively safe and stable. My mom put me on, and my grandmother and I talked for a bit about what we were up to. Then she spent a solid two minutes praying for me. This was how we ended all our conversations: She’d pray for me to have a long life, for wealth, a good husband and family. I said amen after each prayer and passed the phone back to my mom.
Then I eavesdropped on the rest of their conversation. “Yes, Sarah’s working full-time! She makes good money, she’ll send it — all she does is buy junk food and shoes anyway! What does she even have to pay for?” I’d never sent money to my grandmother before, but it didn’t feel any different at the time.
By the time the money had reached her, my grandmother had died of natural causes. The money was used for her burial. A few times, when she thought I was out of earshot, my mom bragged about my generosity. But I didn’t feel like I’d done anything extraordinary. If my brother or any of my sisters had been in the room, they would have been the ones to send it. Saying “OK” and forwarding money keeps me close to my faith and lets me do the bare minimum, as someone born into a privileged society, to give back. It taught me that I have the freedom to not be too attached to money.
I’ve never been to Somalia. But through the money I earn, I have a connection I didn’t realize I needed to the home I wish I had. The brief phone calls with my aunts or cousins kept me connected to my roots, and the country I should have known.
I remember when Google Earth was introduced, I watched my dad look at satellite images of Somalia. He’d show me an aerial view of what was once his workplace or the path he walked on his way home from school, all of it reduced to brown rubble. My parents didn’t leave Somalia by choice, and everything they once loved about their homeland — everywhere they made their memories — is destroyed. All of it is gone. What wouldn’t they spend to keep their ties to what they left behind?
Want to read more essays from Inheritance Week? David Dobbs explained the genetic research industry’s exaggerated picture of genetic power. Susie Cagle wrote about the difficulty of selling her grandmother’s clothes and the worth of vintage. Syreeta McFadden reflected on what it's like being brown in a world of white beauty. Sharon H. Chang wrote about society’s fixation with mixed-race beauty. Chelsea Fagan compiled lessons on love and money from our parents. AJ Jacobs wrote about planning the world’s largest family reunion. And finally, Rosecrans Baldwin wrote about reciting poetry at public gatherings, something he inherited from his grandfather.