There is a common and compelling narrative regarding the power of immigrant remittances: A busboy or chambermaid supports their entire native village by wiring money back home. We love these stories because they affirm the economic superiority of our circumstances, as well as the continued robustness of the American dream—through gumption and hard work, anyone can earn a relative fortune on these shores.
Yet as is always the case, the reality of the situation bears only a passing resemblance to the likable myth. Immigrants often chafe at the demands placed upon them by their relatives back home; they find it difficult to provide as much money as requested, and the resulting feuds can lead to the fracture of familial bonds. This excellent study (PDF) of Somali immigrants in Southern Maine drives that point home, particularly in this account of a young woman’s burden:
According to Somalis in Lewiston, one of the reasons that pressure on those living in the diaspora to send money to their relatives is so great is because people living in and around Somalia do not understand how difficult it is to earn a decent living in the West. Kaltun, whose mother and close relatives live in Ethiopia’s Somali region, says that she tries to send as much money as she can as often as she can. She recalls, “I once sent my mother $300 and she refused to take it, saying it was too little. I could live on that much money! It is more than 2500 birr [in Ethiopian currency], and a Doctor’s salary is 500 birr… [But] she has twelve people living with her (four children of her brother who died and seven grandchildren and one other [child of one of her siblings]. I am the only child who is outside, so she depends on me, but she thinks that I have more money than I really do. I want to bring her here to show her how we live. She won’t want to stay. But at least she will see how difficult it is for me. I worry so much, I have so much stress about being able to earn enough money that I have gained a lot of weight. If I went back I would lose it I am sure.”
It will be interesting to see whether that sort of stress convinces some Somalis to return home, as this group is now urging members of the nation’s diaspora. Things do seem to be looking up in Mogadishu, after all. Whichever returnee from Maine establishes the first lobster shack at Lido Beach could make a fortune.
(Image via Bates Magazine)