AT FIRST BLUSH, the crossroads of Pacific Highway South and South Military Road, just a few blocks north of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, doesn’t appear to be a center of global finance.
There’s a thoroughly working-class air to this scruffy neighborhood of Somali cafes, taquerias, halal meat shops, African clothing stores and international phone-card vendors.
People quietly go about their business and would appreciate it if you minded yours.
But neighborhoods like this one and others that dot the Seattle area feed into a fast-growing, half-trillion-dollar, international money-transfer industry known as remittances. That’s the term used when immigrants and foreign migrant workers in wealthy nations send money to their poorer home countries to help support loved ones they’ve left behind.
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In some of these countries, formal bank branches and big transfer brands like Western Union and Money Gram are scare or too expensive to use.
To get money home quickly and safely, sometimes your best option is to bring your cash to the mom-and-pop transfer agencies hidden in plain sight at places like the junction of Pacific Highway and Military Road.
The only obvious financial institution at the junction, though, is a Key Bank, with that telltale red key on its roof.
The remittance agents, by contrast, seem hard to find by design, operating on a need-to-know basis with repeat customers.
After watching a man turn over a small stack of cash at one such business, I’m given the brushoff by the agent behind the glass window who says the proprietor is off that day. He’s not being truthful. I’ve gotten that same rebuff numerous other times.
The transfer agents are suspicious for good reason. Since 9/11, the U.S. government and governments around the world have been monitoring and cracking down on informal money-transfer networks, which often make use of big, multinational banks along the way, because militant groups and drug gangs sometimes use them to funnel cash. Officials suspect that groups such as al-Qaida, with affiliates in places like Somalia, have used these networks to pay for terrorist attacks such as the recent bloody siege of a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
But there is another, less shadowy side to the global money-transfer business.
Every day, more than a billion dollars flows through these networks to law-abiding, impoverished families in Asia, Latin America and Africa, totaling an estimated $414 billion this year alone, according to the World Bank.
Behind the dramatic headlines, behind the modest local storefronts and behind every $100 wired halfway around the world are everyday stories of struggle, survival, yearning and connection.
“WE WALK, walk, walk, walk, walk — all day and in the night, too.”
Flor de Maria Barahona came a long way to be able to send money back home to her native country, El Salvador.
Nine years ago, her father and niece pooled their meager resources and gave her the $6,000 she needed to be transported by bus to Guatemala, by boat to Mexico, by foot to Texas and by car to Seattle. Her job at a pharmacy in El Salvador paid $200 a month, too little to support her two young daughters, she says.
Speaking in Spanish and English by phone after a day of working as a housekeeper in the Seattle area, Barahona recounts a tale of near-cinematic struggle to reach America. At night in the mountains of Northern Mexico, she and the others slept on blankets on the bare ground and tucked themselves into oversize garbage bags to help insulate them against the chill. As they trekked through rangeland, they drank from water basins used by grazing cattle.
But the grueling journey was worth it.
“My father is old, and my mother is old. They don’t have jobs. No hay trabajo,” Barahona says: There’s no work in El Salvador anyway.
Every month since coming to Seattle she has sent money to El Salvador to help support her kids and parents.
Her housekeeping work pays about $200 a week. She sends $100 of that home, via money transfer. Her weekly transfers have become a personal ritual — but that’s not all.
Barahona may not realize it but that $400 she sends home every month just might be helping prop up her entire country.
Remittances represented 16.5 percent of the gross national product of El Salvador in 2012, according to the World Bank. The Multilateral Investment Fund, an organization that promotes poverty reduction and economic development in Latin America, reports that more than a quarter of adults in the country receive remittances.
A huge portion of the $4.2 billion sent home to El Salvador or the $5.4 billion sent to Guatemala or the $22 billion to Mexico last year went to basics like food, clothing, health care and education, a recent report by the Pew Research Center showed.
“Only the necessary things!” Flor says.
If there are indulgences, they are tiny gestures writ large with meaning. One time, she says, she sent extra cash with instructions for her daughters to buy a little cake for their grandmother.
Because Salvador’s currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar, even basics cost a lot more than they should.
“For my mother,” Flor says, “it’s $7 here and $7 there. And not for meat . . . They’re eating eggs, beans, maybe cheese.”
But this isn’t just about dollars and cents.
When Barahona, 39, first arrived in Seattle she missed her daughters and the rest of her family so much that she prayed to help cope with the pain, calling home every day.
Today her other ritual is attending Light of the World Church in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, where on one cold night in January the congregation wept not just out of evangelical fervor but for what’s missing.
Just about everybody there can tell a similar story.
In order to provide for the family she hasn’t seen in person for nearly a decade, Barahona lives frugally here, sleeping in a rented room in another family’s house in South Seattle.
When asked what it means to send money home to daughters she’s had to watch grow up via Skype, Flor starts to cry.
But she doesn’t want to bring her daughters, now 18 and 13, to Seattle the same way she came — too dangerous and expensive.
She might go back to El Salvador, maybe in another year or so, Barahona says.
She starts to cry again.
“I miss my family.”
MOST PEOPLE who send money home don’t boast about it. Nor do they consider making money to support two or three different households out of the ordinary.
Ericka Vazquez, a chef, says she tries to send $200 a month home to her mother in Mexico. Her brother there has a job but his pay isn’t enough to help others.
“It’s hard because I have to pay all of my bills here,” Vazquez says.
But her mom lives in an unfinished house that has no shower, no hot water.
“It’s not like here — here you get help from the government,” she says. “You can go to food banks.”
Things are different back home: It’s become a refrain. So you send the money and don’t complain.
“Ninety-nine percent of Somalis that I know, they have family back home that they send money to,” Hamza Mohamed says by phone from San Diego. The Somali-born husband and father of two makes his living as a semitruck driver, traveling between Seattle and Southern California every week.
“Considering where I came from, when I look back, I think it’s a blessing,” he says of his ability to send money to Somalia. “So you forget all the pressures.”
“Of course, I send money home,” a middle-aged Somali man tells me outside a money-transfer shop in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, as if the question were preposterous. “If you don’t send money home, people think you’re a loser, that you’re up to no good.”
If you walk behind the East African clothing and DVD displays at the front of the humble Maka Mini Market on Rainier Avenue South, you will come to the desk of money-transfer agent Yusuf Islam.
The transfer operation he represents is part of a complex and somewhat off-the-grid banking system that goes back centuries in much of the developing world. It involves moving cash person-to-person across great distances and, as such, depends heavily on the honor system. In Muslim countries, the system is known as “hawala.”
One of largest hawala companies in East Africa is Dahabshil, which has branches in Seattle and Tukwila. Tawakal Express, which operates the transfer kiosk at Maka Mini Market, is another.
Wiring money here is an easy process, with checks built into the system, Islam says.
To send an overnight transfer, a customer needs to present a password, an ID and Social Security number along with the name and number of the recipient. If the amount the customer wants to send seems too high, Islam might refuse to go through with the deal.
The recipient in say, Mogadishu, Somalia, will receive a call from a local transfer agent to say that money is waiting. The recipient will need to show an ID and provide the name, password and phone number of the sender. Transfers usually cost about $5, possibly more for larger amounts.
The cash turned over in Seattle winds up in an account in a middle city like Dubai. Under the honor system, senders entrust their cash to transfer agents, and transfer agents on the receiving end trust that the amounts they pay out locally will be reimbursed.
Small amounts go a long way in Somalia, says Mohammed Ahmed, a Somali who was hanging out at the market while Islam worked.
“In Somalia, $2 can feed a family for a day; here $2 is nothing,” he says.
Islam says he agrees that added scrutiny can help weed out those who could undermine the industry, like terrorist groups.
“The security, it’s good for me — not just you,” he says. “We don’t want terrorists any more than you. They kill people in our country.”
GIVEN THE analog quality of traditional money transfers and the increased concerns about security for the billions of dollars worth of transactions involved, it’s not surprising that entrepreneurs have jumped at the chance to offer an equally convenient and safe way to send remittances: the mobile phone.
Two Seattle-based companies, CoinFling, which mainly serves African immigrants, and Remitly, which serves the Philippines, are leading the way, attracting big-name investors like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (a Remitly backer).
CoinFling co-founder Roble Musse, a Kenyan formerly of Microsoft, says his phone app takes advantage of the widespread use of “mobile wallet” technology in East Africa that turns even basic cellphones into debit cards. Because of safety concerns in that region, many people pay for goods and services on their phones instead of with cash.
With CoinFling, an African in Seattle can send a minimum of $20 and a maximum of $2,950 from the app, which accesses the sender’s bank account, directly to someone’s mobile wallet on the other continent. The app charges $4.99 to send up to $150, $9.99 for up to $500. The money is available almost instantly. During that split-second transaction, Musse says, CoinFling’s software runs a security check on the sender.
CoinFling was still in beta phase this winter, but Musse says the technology holds great promise. Hamza Mohamed, the truck driver, uses it when on the road.
In Somalia, Musse says, “It’s out of necessity because they have no banking system . . . And for Africa, it’s really a huge revolution.”
At the same time, Musse wants brick-and-mortar transfer agents here and in Africa to stay in business, too, saying, “There’s room for everybody.”
JULIE MCGUIRE is the smiling face that greets you at the front desk of the Filipino Community Center in Rainier Valley, on a strip of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South that is a kaleidoscope of Asian, Latin and African small businesses, including a few low-key money-transfer sites.
McGuire, a widow, came to the Seattle area for a visit 15 years ago but wound up getting married and staying. She and her husband, Dave McGuire, live in Renton.
It was a sacrifice to leave her young daughter and two older sons behind in Luzon, the island where she’s from, but she thinks it was her destiny to live in the States and provide for them in a way that wasn’t possible even with the good job she had working in local government there.
Her daughter, now grown, lives in California. But her sons share a family home in Luzon, where unemployment is high and remittances represent a huge financial lifeline.
McGuire and her husband send money to the Philippines to cover school fees for her two grandkids, as well as an “allowance” to help her sons with other basics. She sometimes sends money to other relatives and friends in need, too.
McGuire uses technology, in the form of Skype, to keep in touch with family, but she sends remittances the old-fashioned way.
Every first and 15th of the month, she carries whatever money she can send to the Philippine National Bank Remittance Center down the road from where she works, fills out a transfer form that helps the bank keep a record of her transactions and hands over the cash, which can total hundreds of dollars per visit.
“We are banded, family and friends,” McGuire says. Not by money but by a love that stretches across the international date line.
McGuire is proud of what she’s able to give. There’s just one problem, she says: “If I could only give more.”
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.