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Egyptians in U.S. struggling to send money home

Marketplace Staff Jun 3, 2011

Egyptians in U.S. struggling to send money home

Marketplace Staff Jun 3, 2011

Steve Chiotakis: The revolution in Egypt maybe over, but the country’s economy is still in turmoil. Unemployment and food prices are up. Tourism is down because of security concerns.

One big part of Egypt’s economy is not actually from Egypt, but from overseas. Roughly 3 million Egyptians work abroad and send money home to their families. 300,000 of them work right here in the United States. And many of them are not sending that much money back to Egypt.

Marketplace’s Stacey Vanek-Smith reports.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Ali El Sayed is cooking mackerel with onions and tomatoes at the Kebab Cafe in Astoria, Queens. El Sayed opened the cafe more than 30 years ago. He’s known as the unofficial mayor of New York’s Little Egypt.

When the revolution broke out, Egyptians crowded into the Kebab Cafe to watch the news unfold on TV. Now people come to El Sayed for advice about what they feel to be a cultural obligation: Sending money to family in Egypt at a time when it’s hard to find work and make ends meet in New York.

Ali El Sayed: You should send it if you can do it, if they need it, you should send it. If you send $100 a month, it’s fine just to help them to survive.

It’s been a rocky few months Egypt. Unemployment and food prices have soared. About one in five Egyptians can’t afford bread. And that makes money from overseas relatives all the more crucial.

Mohsin Khan: Remittances play a role almost like social welfare. They basically allow households to keep consuming enough to survive.

Mohsin Khan is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He says right now, many Egyptians live on roughly $2 a day, so even getting $50 a month from overseas can make a huge difference.

Khan: Remittances have become far more important than foreign direct investment, they’ve become far more important than aid.

Thirty-five-year-old Mona Darwich has been sending money to her family in Egypt for more than a decade. Darwich married an American and came to the U.S. from her home in Port Said in 1997. She’s the oldest of 10 children and she says most of her siblings went overseas to find work.

Mona Darwich: I’m here in the U.S. I have seven siblings that left Egypt to Brazil, because the economy is so bad in Egypt.

When Darwich’s father passed away, her mother, sister and autistic brother back in Egypt had to rely on money from Darwich and her brothers in Brazil. From her job at a bookstore, Darwich was regularly sending home about $200 a month.

Darwich: As a woman I felt very proud. I felt I have power. I can help the family, and in a way, I felt like I deserve to be respected.

Darwich’s remittances paid for half of her brother’s private school tuition, a computer for her mother, so they could Skype and treats for birthdays and holidays. Darwich says she was never exactly sure how much her family needed because, culturally, Egyptians consider it rude to talk about money. She said even her mother wouldn’t ask — not directly anyway.

Darwich: No, she wouldn’t. God forbid she needs anything. Between me and my sister, she knows how I am, so she tells me exactly what she needs. But my mom, she might not say it, but she will send my sister to tell me what she needs.

Four years ago, Darwich got a divorce and her financial situation changed completely.

Darwich: Your philosophical way of looking at money changes. So I had a lot of priorities I had to take care of, like getting a place, getting a car and saving and I had to go back to college. So my family’s needs kind of went to the background.

Darwich put herself through school and got an administrative job at a mental health agency. And took care of her two boys. She continued to send what she could up until two years ago, when the agency cut her pay by about $400 a month.

Darwich: I did let the family know, I was like, “I’m not in an easy situation either.” Every penny I have, I have to make sure it goes where it needs to go, whether it’s to pay my student loan or the bills or helping my kids. Every penny, I know where it’s going.

At one point, Darwich’s situation got so bad, her Egyptian family had to send money to her. Darwich says since the revolution, she’s been worried about her family, but her finances are just too tight to send money like she used to. So she’s letting her brothers do the heavy financial lifting for now.

Darwich: You want to feel needed. And very new to me, to stop sending money to my family and let some other family pick up the help. Yeah, it was hard. I’m the oldest. I want them to depend on me, but it got to a point where I need to survive in order to help you guys in the future.

Darwich says she hopes to be able to resume sending money to her family in Egypt soon.

In New York, I’m Stacey Vanek Smith for Marketplace Money.

Chiotakis: And you can read more about remittances to the Middle East here. You’ll find a breakdown of amounts being sent from overseas.

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