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Local Caribbean Market Uses Internet to Reach 1 Million Customers

Owner and CEO, Andrew Morris, stands at the register at Sam’s Caribbean Market in West Hempstead, New York.

by Christina Thorne, Jamaican Beat Reporter —

Andrew Morris takes the name of his business very seriously – over the past 18 years his ethnic market has become much more than just a place to buy groceries.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace in West Hempstead, NY is a meeting place. It is a community destination where bumping into an old familiar face from back home in the Caribbean becomes inevitable. It closes the 1500-mile gap between its Caribbean American regulars to their families in the West Indies. It is a marketplace, in the literal sense.

“I know that [Sam’s] could be the community for people who are native to the Caribbean and have just arrived in the United States,” said customer Kiarra Lynn Smith, 23.

From the outside, Sam’s modest size makes the store look like a local operation – especially compared to New York City’s largest grocery chains. But some of Sam’s customers might tell you differently. Especially the man that lives in Poland or the woman that lives in Japan. According to Morris, Sam’s 1 million customers live in nearly 60 different countries around the world and in almost all 50 states.

“Even though I am far away, I still feel a sense of amity towards Sam’s,” said Smith, who is loyal to the store despite living all the way in St. Louis, Mo.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace is clearly not a mom and pop anymore, even though it started that way.

Morris, owner and CEO of Sam’s, moved to Long Island, NY from Jamaica when he was 18 years old to attend college, and later graduate school. He decided to open the market in 1994 to cater to the Caribbean-American population in his community after witnessing the success of a local Jamaican-Chinese restaurant called Nakisaki.

Morris obtained his start-up capital primarily through a susu fund, an old Jamaican tradition that works somewhat like an interest free loan. A group of 20 tight-knit friends and family (read: trusted; the susu agreement holds no legal bindings) agree to contribute a weekly “hand” – meaning they throw in a sum of roughly $100 every week for an indefinite amount of time. Each person in the group has a turn to take all of the money in the pot. Many Caribbean immigrants use the susu fund to finance homes, cars and education. Morris used his turn to help build Sam’s nearly 20 years ago.

Inside Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace there are rows and rows of Barbadian spices, Jamaican jerk sauces, Guyanese herbal remedies, and Trinidadian teas. The exotic produce is probably unrecognizable to most, including ackee, yams and plantains. On an aisle endcap sit an assortment of Dutch pots and coal stoves, making up the housewares section.

The aisles of Sam’s Caribbean Market are filled with Barbadian spices, Jamaican jerk sauces, Guyanese herbal remedies, and Trinidadian teas.

Basically, “if Sam’s doesn’t have it – you don’t need it,” one customer famously said.

Playing on the radio in the store is Ska music, a marriage of Caribbean Calypso and American Jazz that originated in Jamaica during the 1960s.

“We stream it live from a radio station in Kingston,” said Morris. “We’ve been streaming it since back in the day – before most people even knew what the Internet was and you had to dial up and wait for the connection.”

Because most of Sam’s customers weren’t always “plugged in,” they used to meet at the store years ago to listen to the music and dance. Morris said that people would also gather at Sam’s to tune in to the not-so-local five-o-clock news, which was broadcasted live from Jamaica’s capital city.

Streaming music and news from the Caribbean all the way to his store in Long Island was one early initiative that led Morris to recognize the potential and power of the Internet. He started to think about how else he could leverage the digital space to grow his business.

“We try to look at the technology that’s out there – even things we’ve never seen in a Caribbean store,” he said. “Any way we can use technology to help us.”

In 2003, Morris took advantage of that untapped technology after realizing that a large number of his customers were gradually moving away.

“Every week someone would come in and say that they were moving. I was thinking that pretty soon we would have no customers,” he said.

And so Morris took on the most difficult business expansion he had ever attempted, the development of the website Sams247.com, an e-commerce extension of Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace. Although Morris was armed with an M.B.A. from Columbia University, he worried that he wasn’t tech-savvy enough to start his own website.

“I spent countless, sleepless nights thinking about it. How do I even get a picture up? And once it’s up, how do I get it to stay in the same place?” Morris chuckled.

The website, now seven years old, is not just a promotional brand site; it allows customers to actually purchase Sam’s products from hundreds of miles away. The site allows shoppers to live-chat with a store representative and even has live weather updates for Caribbean travellers. Although it was originally developed to reach the customers that were moving across the United States, it has since proven to be much more and has hugely impacted Morris’s business.

“[The website] was down for a while a few weeks ago,” he said. “We definitely felt it. It now contributes to about one third of our profits.”

The site also sets Sam’s apart from its competitors, few of which have any digital presence at all. In fact, of the nine Caribbean or West Indian markets that turned up in a local New York City business search, not a single one had a branded company website.

Vincent Huggins, the president of the Caribbean American Business Association, sees the opposite among members of the organization.

“Most of the businesses we work with do use the internet as a tool,” said Huggins. “But they’re not all small businesses.”

Huggins admitted that he primarily only sees larger “national” companies utilizing online marketing techniques and that there are not any local Caribbean grocers affiliated with the Caribbean American Business Association at this time.

About three years after the website launched, Morris began developing Sam’s social media presence, at the suggestion of an employee. Sam’s now has digital bragging rights, with over seven thousand Facebook fans and a blog. You can even tweet Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace to ask questions or check to see if products are in stock. Morris uses these outlets to drive interaction with his cross-country, and cross-continental for that matter, customers by using contests, sharing coupons and pushing out valuable content like recipes and music.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace moved to a much larger space in a new town this past February. The move to West Hempstead was due largely in part to the success and increased revenue from the website.

Stephanie Moise, 31, says that her go-to grub from Sam’s is the coconut bread. Moise has been a devoted customer for ten years.

“Since they moved I have to drive further but I don’t care,” she said. “I do it anyways because it’s worth it!”

The community of West Hempstead welcomed the arrival of Sam’s with open arms. Manny Martinez is a Sam’s regular, making weekly visits to the store to pick up his favorite beef patties. He is also a member of the West Hempstead Chamber of Commerce. The organization recognizes the importance of local businesses like Sam’s to the people in the city and supports these businesses through education, networking events and community outreach.

“When we heard that Sam’s Caribbean was going to open up we held a ribbon cutting ceremony,” said Martinez. “The idea is to create a buzz about the new business. We bring in local politicians and invite the community to check out the business.”

The new location at 225 Hempstead Turnpike includes new features like a quick-service restaurant, a café and an ice cream stand. Additional services to connect local shoppers with their far away friends and family include an international money wire service, international calling cards and cell phone minutes and a “Pack & Ship” station that allows customers to pick out products and merchandise from the shelves and have them shipped anywhere in the world, right there in the store. No need to drive over to FedEx.

Morris prides himself on always looking for new and innovative ways to expand his business. He is planning to roll out new services from Sam’s in as little as two months. One of Morris’s short-term goals is to launch a local delivery service, using a platform comparable to pizza delivery companies. Customers will be able to place orders both online and over the phone.

“If you’re in your office and you need something, we’ll bring it to you,” Morris said. “If you’re having a party and you need something, we’ll bring it to you.”

And the long term?

“I always said that when we get to be 20-years-old, we’ll look at franchising the store,” said Morris.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace will celebrate its 19th birthday this December.


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Sikhs Educating New Yorkers About Their Religion

Photo credit: AP Images. Sikhs in New York are educating people about who they are and what they believe. Sikhs have been the target of violent crimes since 9/11, and they want people across America to know they are a peaceful group.

by Colleen McKown, Indian Beat Reporter —

Amid a recent spate of hate crimes, Sikh organizations in New York City are seeking to raise consciousness about their religion by giving awareness presentations at schools, workplaces and community centers.  Sikhs are sometimes mistakenly associated with terrorism because they wear turbans and long beards.  Organizations like United Sikhs and the Sikh Coalition say they want the public to understand that Sikhism is a peaceful religion.

Mankanwal Singh, national community empowerment director of United Sikhs, said that when the organization first wanted to go into schools and workplaces after 9/11 to educate people about Sikhs, the public wasn’t interested.  “It took awhile to get people to listen,” he said.

“People misunderstand our practices,” said Singh. “It is always hard in a culture where the predominant culture is not yours.”

Hate crimes against Sikhs spiked after 9/11, and still continue. Last August, six were shot and killed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Schools, businesses, police stations, and houses of worship eventually started opening their doors to presenters as they recognized the need for educating the public in the post-9/11 years. Now, Sikh organizations conduct presentations in the greater New York City area and throughout the country.

Inder Kohli, a volunteer with the advocacy group Sikh Coalition, presented Sunday, October 14 at First Presbyterian Church in Rutherford, N.J.  Kohli explained Sikh beliefs and practices and brought in children to sing stanzas from Sikh scriptures during the service. Afterwards, he answered questions from the audience.

First Presbyterian asked Kohli to come in after some members saw him at an interfaith “community solidarity” event that followed the August shootings.  At his gurdwara, or temple, in Glen Rock, New Jersey, Kohli gave back-to-back Sikh Awareness Presentations on the Sunday after the shootings.

“There are no overtones of religious conversion in these talks,” Kohli said.  “Nothing is about conversion. The belief itself does not have conversion.”

“We are just explaining the way we worship,” he added.

The Sikh religion began in the Punjab region of what is now India about 500 years ago.  At the time, Sikhism broke with Hinduism in part because Sikhs rejected the caste system.  Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, and Sikhs believe in equality, service, self-restraint and modesty.  The turban is one of the Sikh articles of faith–Sikhs wear it over their uncut hair. Sikhs avoid cutting their hair or beards to honor the creator’s intention.

Kohli was trained through the Sikh Presenter’s Course at Sikh Coalition. The group has been conducting presentations for the past seven years. His presentation at First Presbyterian was the first he gave to a church group.  In the past, he has spoken primarily to students at both the high school and university level.

The school presentations are designed to “fight ignorance and bullying,” Kohli said.  “The younger generation faces this the most.”

Manbeena Kaur, education director at the Sikh Coalition, said there is a huge disconnect between television and real life. Images of turbaned, bearded terrorists, such as Osama Bin Laden, were splashed all over American news broadcasts for years.  While Americans therefore associate the appearance with terrorism, Kaur said that “99% of the people you see with a turban and beard are actually Sikh.”  She added, “We couldn’t be further from terrorism.”

School presentations typically include a short video on why Sikhs wear turbans and a power-point presentation on the story of Sikhs in America. For younger students, presenters will sometimes bring Punjabi food for students and teach them how to write their names in Punjabi.  They also sometimes do a turban-tying demonstration.

The turban-tying “demystifies what is underneath the turban,” and allows the students to observe with what “care, respect, and love we tie the turban,” Kaur said.

Presenters are brought in at the request of parents, counselors at the schools, and students themselves to combat bullying.  “Eighty percent of the time, it is preventative,” Kaur said.

Robin Stolar, a guidance counselor at P.S. 161 in Queens, said Sikh students faced a lot of bullying in years past.  She credits the presentations with helping to cut down on the bullying.

“Students have a positive reaction to the presentation because it talks about prejudices in all cultures,” Stolar said.

Kaur said the Sikh Coalition went through a multiple-round vetting process before deciding on the content and format of the talks. The group was careful not to use the language “Sikhs aren’t Muslims” because the point of the presentations isn’t to place blame or associate Muslims with terrorists, but to increase understanding of Sikhs.

Tejpreet Kaur, director of community development at the Sikh Coalition, leads the Junior Sikh Coalition for Sikh youth. The group conducts Know Your Rights workshops that teach students how to respond to bullying. Young Sikhs learn to identify what bullying is, how to stand up for themselves, and who to turn to. While a school is required by law to report a bullying incident within 24 hours, Tejpreet said this doesn’t always happen.

Tejpreet said the Sikh Coalition is preparing to begin training students to give their own Sikh Awareness Presentations at schools. “They all know why they practice the way they do,” she said. The students’ challenge will be “translating and articulating that to a non-Sikh audience.”

Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America and a prominent leader in New York’s Hindu community, is heavily involved in interfaith initiatives in the city.  She said that the issues Sikhs face come down to misunderstanding and lack of education.   She recounted an incident when a student group came to tour a Sikh temple in Flushing, Queens. They were uncomfortable with covering their heads in the temple, and refused to go in.

Mysorekar said the incident illustrates the importance of information and understanding.  “I don’t blame the students. It came as a shock,” she said.  “The teachers should have explained this rule to them before they even went so they wouldn’t be surprised.”

Manbeena Kaur said she has received an overwhelmingly positive response to the presentations, and that audiences react with curiosity and intelligent questions.  While presenting, she said, it’s important to “be alive, animated, and genuinely be there because you want to teach them the beauty of the religion.”


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Persian Rug Industry Changing, Sanctions Not Only Cause

by Rebecca Sanchez, Iranian Beat Reporter —

In the last decade, the Persian rug industry in New York has taken a severe hit, but rug company owners say the tightening U.S.-lead sanctions against Iran are only partly to blame. The struggling economy, a still massive inventory, and trends moving away from the traditional designs are the chief causes.

Darioush Yaraghi, regional manager of the rug and furniture giant Safavieh, says the local market has been dry for about 13 years, but not necessarily because of the sanctions.

“Whenever there is an economic boom, the rugs become more popular, and the last boom was with the dotcom bubble burst in the 1990s,” Yaraghi said.

In the 30 years since its inception, his family’s company has grown to distribute products across all 50 states, Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia.

Safavieh used to buy direct container rugs, which included massive quantities of handmade Persian rugs—more rugs than could be sold in a short period of time. Now, while they can no longer import, their inventory spans across 2.5 million square feet of warehouse storage space in Long Island.

A portion of Safavieh’s Persian Rug inventory on the second floor of their Broadway and West 20th Street location in Manhattan.

Similarly, Rodney Hakim, vice president of the Persian Gallery of New York, which has one of the largest inventories in the United States, says that his company’s stock was not recently imported.

“The rugs we deal in are antiques,“ Hakim said,  “and were exported from Iran roughly a century ago, so their current sale in the U.S. and Europe has no bearing at all on present day Iran’s economy.”

According to Yaraghi, the massive remaining inventory is also due, in part, to Persian rugs’ costly nature and to fluctuating trends in home décor. He says that, while the Persian rug remains a sort of status symbol for many who can afford it, the majority of consumers’ taste has shifted away from the classical look of the Persian rug and more toward plain, modern designs that are less expensive. Where Safavieh was largely built on its Persian rugs, today’s international company finds the rugs making up only about .75% of sales.

Still, for the few who can afford such flooring luxury, Yaraghi says, if anything, Western sanctions have made the rugs more appealing.

“They still have a beauty that you can’t compare with anything else,” he said. “The embargo is actually increasing rarity. It’s sort of becoming a Cuban cigar thing. There’s nothing wrong with a Dominican [cigar], but because you can’t have a Cuban, you want it more.”

This elevation in desire also changes the kind of customer that makes such an expensive purchase. Like the Cuban cigar, the Persian rug becomes not just a financial status symbol, but a cultural one as well.

Kevin Karagulian, a 15 year-long manager of one of Safavieh’s retailers, located on Broadway and West 20tth Street in Manhattan, says that these days the typical Persian rug shopper is not simply a wealthy passerby.

“The people who are buying these are aware of the detail and durability, and they buy them for the cultural significance,” he said.

But Koorosh Yaraghi, another member of the Yaraghi family and CEO of the Internet rug retailer, Rugs USA, pointed out that the prices of rugs have remained relatively flat.

“For the most part there is so much inventory of Persian rugs in the USA that the prices have not increased by much if any,” he said.

Store manager Kevin Karagulian points to the price tag on one of the company’s vintage Persian rugs.

On a global scale, Yaraghi says the trend shifts have made the embargo somewhat ineffective. Between the still plentiful assortments of rugs already in the States, a decline in American consumer interest, and the current state of the U.S. economy, Iran has found a larger market in the East—in places like Japan and Korea. He says the sanctions have also contributed to a kind of Persian rug black-market, whereby Iranian rugs are transported to Pakistan, re-labeled as “Made in Pakistan,” and then can be smuggled into forbidden countries.

“People do find ways to bring them into the country, this way or through Canada,” Yaraghi said. “But we don’t necessarily do that because we choose to go with the consumer trends.”

According to Iran’s Mehr news agency, Tehran exported approximately $600 million worth of carpets in the year starting March 2011, after the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which President Obama signed on July 1, 2010, went into effect. The Mehr news agency says the industry expects to see export increases up to $1 billion by the end of the sales year, in March 2013.

While business in Iran seems to continue relatively unscathed, the Oriental Rug Importers Association, based in Secaucus, New Jersey, says that millions of U.S. dollars in revenue loss has been debilitating for Iran’s economy, affecting weavers in rural communities and small cities where carpet weaving is the predominant mode of income. In response to the hardening sanctions, the association released a statement appealing to the U.S. government to exclude Persian rugs from the prohibition on trading goods.

According to Hakim, one way that the sanctions are having an effect on the American Persian rug industry is by way of overseas restoration to antiques. He says that under these sanctions, his company can no longer export the carpets for maintenance.

“The best restoration services are currently offered outside the U.S., and at much better prices than what one would pay for inferior restoration work that is done here,” he said.

With all domestic economic considerations at hand, Yaraghi says he does not think the sanctions will do any considerable damage to the Iranian economy.

“The design will last,” Yaraghi said. “It is a classic that will never fade away. Time won’t wash that away. It is ingrained in our culture and the embargo won’t change that.”

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The Last Italian Market on 18th Avenue

A typical afternoon at Frank and Sal’s in Bensonhurst

by Yvonne Bang, Italian Beat Reporter — 

“It’s not for this store!” Francesco “Frankie” Casamento repeated, a little more emphatically this time. Casamento, a 35-year-old co-owner of the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market in Bensonhurst, was standing in front of the dairy display case arguing with one of the vendors who serviced the store. The young, dark-haired vendor was trying his best to push another order of three-pack mini muffins. But he’d sold the store a bunch the week before, and many of them had come in expired.

Casamento later said of the product, “It’s a cheap, inexpensive item. This store—we have good quality.”

In Bensonhurst, where 99-Cent Stores have proliferated in recent years, a store that refuses to compromise on quality has become a rarity. Frank and Sal’s is one of the last remaining businesses in the area to stubbornly refuse to substitute quality for lower prices. Cathy Casale, who has lived in Bensonhurst for 49 years, grumbles that she can’t buy well-made items on 18th Avenue anymore.

“A lot of these [99-cent] stores put other stores out-of-business,” she said.

Eighteenth Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Bensonhurst, still has a butcher shop, a pastaria, a couple of fish markets, and plenty of fruit stands that cater to the area’s historic Italian population. Even ten years ago, there were still many Italian-owned businesses. But with that population shrinking, the number of places where you can buy authentic ingredients for traditional Italian dishes like the Sunday sauce—a meat marinara gravy—has shrunk down to one: the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market. Frank and Sal’s is the last Italian market on the street.

The market has been in Bensonhurst for over 22 years, since Casamento’s father, Franco, opened the store with two butchers, Frank Gassoso and Salvatore Civiletti. Hanging from low-slung rafters are baskets and Italian flags, bags of pasta, and over the deli, strings of sweet, dry sausages and rounds of cheese. The store specializes in Italian products and produce, like fresh green olives the size of kumquats, ample bouquets of dried, imported Oregano, and Sicilian eggplants, which are bulbous and as large as cantaloupes. Products like salted, dried capers will be difficult to find in most markets, and containers of sundried tomatoes won’t come as cheaply elsewhere. Some shoppers say they have the best Mozzarella in the area—fresh, hand-stretched, and made from cow’s milk, the way it’s supposed to be. But for all its success so far, the future is uncertain, as Bensonhurst has been changing over the last 10 years.

A large demographic shift and a general unwillingness to spend have weakened the competitive capacity of specialty stores that once catered to a solely Italian population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there has been a 57 percent increase in the number of Asian-Americans in Bensonhurst. Chinese-Americans make up almost 32 percent of the neighborhood’s entire population. Nancy Sottile, who runs the Federation of Italian-American Organizations main office six blocks north of Frank and Sal’s, agrees that many Italian-owned small businesses have closed. But she believes it’s because other ethnic groups do not shop at Italian markets.

“Chinese-Americans do not go to [Italian] markets,” she said. “I guess we did the same thing when we first came to America.”

And people don’t spend like they once did. A store called Exclusive V.I.P. Fashion, has been on the avenue for 26 years. The business—selling and designing elaborate wedding dresses for brides and events—has been affected as much by a changing culture—more people nowadays rent dresses or prefer to purchase them online—as by a relocating clientele base. Seated behind a jewelry display case in her store, the owner, who identified herself as Sally, was surrounded only by dresses. She acknowledges that many of her clients, of mostly Italian descent have moved either to Staten Island or New Jersey.

“This in itself is a dying business,” she said. “It’s an item that people just don’t have the money for—a luxury, not a necessity.”

But stores on 18th Avenue have also closed for other reasons. Second generation Italian-Americans opt out of taking over the family business when their parents reach the retiring age. A longtime favorite, Trunzo Brothers Meat Market and Salumeria, which remained rooted on the street for over 30 years, shut its doors in 2009; a Grocery and 99 Cents store took over the location. In an online rumination, Brian Trunzo, the son who pursued law instead of a life behind the meat counter like his father wrote, “I never wanted to be a butcher in the first place; it’s just not my vibe.”

On a recent Tuesday, Frank and Sal’s was busy well before the traditional afternoon rush most grocers expect. Shoppers with carts greeted Casamento on their way in; some shook his hand and patted him on the back. He picked up a jar of Nutella for a customer in line who’d dropped it on the floor.

Despite the fate of other shops along the street, Frank and Sal’s does well these days. Casamento remarked, “We still do good. There has been a drop off. People have moved out of the area. There is competition in the neighborhood. But we have our own niche.”

Later that afternoon, up the street at the Avenue Fruit Market where the owner Tony sells only produce, a sharply-dressed elderly gentleman with bronze-tinted Hunter Thompson glasses and white hair sleekly combed back inspected and pinched red peppers displayed in boxes on the street. The products were displayed on a corner, where auto and foot traffic easily kicked up dust and where flies were free to roam and land. The man, who declined to state his name, described Frank and Sal’s products as first class. When asked why he was browsing at the Avenue Market instead, he replied, “Convenienza di prezzo”—the low price, and nothing more.

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Arab Stigma Towards Mental Illness

Many Arabs in the Middle East are uninformed about the existence of mental illnesses and how to live with them. But one organization is trying to change that in New York City’s Arab Community. Jaslee Carayol reports from one such center in Brooklyn.

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The Reality of Remittances for the Senegalese Community

Association of the Senegalese in America, on 116th street.

by Eleonore Hamelin

With two ID pictures and his Senegalese passport Ibrahima Sall recently opened a bank account in Senegal from a desk in Harlem.

The desk was setup by the financial branch of the Senegalese Post in Dakar at the Association of the Senegalese in America, a meeting space in New York for the community. Postes Finances provides checking or saving accounts and money transfers.

Every month, Sylla sends more than half of the money he earns as a New York City cab driver to Senegal where his wife and his 2-year-old daughter live.

“Two or three times a month I send about $1,000,” Sylla said. On a good week, he said, he could make up to $700. Back in Dakar, at least 20 people depend on his money.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I am responsible for them and I am the only one to bear the burden.”

Sylla is one of many Senegalese immigrants who send money back home. In 2009, remittances to Senegal amounted to $1,2 million according to the World Bank. It is nine percent of the country’s GDP, almost twice including the informal cash flows.

The Senegalese migrants in the United States contribute almost eight percent of total Senegalese remittances.

For Sylla and many others there is a sense of security in using a familiar bank. The Senegalese Postes Finances launched its campaign in New York on Sept. 9. Aida Diagne – whose laptop is plugged with an American adaptor – came especially from Dakar to promote the service.

“The idea is that, even while you’re abroad, you can control your life back in Senegal,” Diagne explained.

Postes Finances allows the Senegalese to directly pay their water, electricity and telephone bills from the United States. They can also keep money in Senegalese saving accounts; the interest is 3.5 percent.

Sylla subscribed to this last option to be sure he has money on the side when he goes back to Senegal for vacation. Sylla is in his early thirties. Unlike the other Senegalese in the rooms chatting about the upcoming Senegalese elections, Sylla does not wear the traditional “boubou” – a long colorful robe, but blue jeans and a tight with T-shirt.

“ It is very easy to spend money freely here. I’d rather save up in my country,” said Sylla.

Diagne emphasized the importance of visibility for the undocumented migrants, as they hardly ever return to their hometowns.

“We responded to the community’s need for transparency about their money,” she said.

“I have heard the most amazing stories,” Diagne added. “I met a women who had sent money to her relatives in order to have a house built. She regularly received pictures of a house under construction. When she came back to Senegal, she discovered the house in the photos was not hers. And all her money had been spent.”

Among the Senegalese community, Postes Finances is seen as a public service. It is well known, and above all, has the largest presence of any bank in the country.

An American company, Choice Money Transfer, manages the affairs of Postes Finances. Located in the Empire State building, the firm is in charge of transferring the money, just like their main competitor, Western Union.

Bara Fall, who asked that his real name not be used, is originally from Senegal. As the vice president at Choice, he created this partnership.

“Working with Poste Finances is an opportunity for us to develop the loyalty of our

Senegalese customers,” Fall said.

Last month, around 10,000 Senegalese people sent a total of $6.4 million to their country via Choice. Fall said the majority of Senegalese transmit money regardless of the state of the economy.

“People thought that during the financial crisis immigrants would send less money,” observed Fall. “But from what I see on my computer, they didn’t.”

He said the Senegalese would rather sacrifice their own comfort then deprive their relatives of basic services.

To Fall, they are key contributors to the Senegalese economy.

“The money goes to people that wouldn’t survive without it,” he said.

One out of two Senegalese households rely on the diaspora’s money, according to the International Organization for Migration. And it is mainly assigned to daily consumption.

Fall has lived in the United States for 12 years and is now an American citizen. He is married and has two young children born here. In his office, African paintings hang on the wall next to American Baseball calendars. Also an accomplished businessman, he embodies the American dream.

But even if his family is here now, and his parents have died, he sends at the very least $625 a month to his relatives and friends in Senegal.

“We have to do this. As immigrants, it is our duty,” Fall said.

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