Financial Inclusion Efforts Turn to Refugees

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When someone enters Wells Fargo's branch in the Beaverdale neighborhood of Des Moines, Iowa, they might say, "interpreter Burmese" to the staffer standing near the entrance. And they'll be directed to a qualified translator.

The 22 branch employees speak 23 languages collectively to help cater to a surprising niche in the Midwestern community: refugees from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and from other countries who live in the neighborhood but may not speak English and could have limited exposure with a bank.

The effort to hire multilingual employees to serve refugees in the branch is largely the brainchild of Ty Dunker, a project management manager in the technology and operations group at Wells Fargo who works from one of the bank's corporate buildings. Dunker also volunteers with refugee youth to help them do things like deposit their first paychecks. One day he was thinking about what would make refugees feel more comfortable banking with Wells and decided to walk into a local branch to ask if anyone there spoke Burmese. He got a not yet. Now, the branch currently staffs three refugee tellers who speak several languages, including Burmese.

With this initiative, Wells Fargo is part of a small but growing movement to improve access to financial services for emigres who have escaped war or persecution.

The Digital Finance Institute, for example, is a new not-for-profit organization studying the growing demographic worldwide. It is researching payment technologies, such as digital currencies, that could be of immediate assistance to individuals whose lives have been shattered by disaster.

"Overnight, you go from being banked to going unbanked," said Christine Duhaime, DFI's co-founder and executive director. "You're leaving everything behind, including a bank account.

"The problem keeps getting larger."

Statelessness, which happens to individuals fleeing to foreign countries because they cannot go back home due to war or persecution, contributes to financial exclusion because people can't get jobs, bank accounts or housing without an ID, said Duhaime. So DFI wants to explore technologies like biometrics that could potentially help identify and enroll people and digital value storage and transfer systems such as Bitcoin that could assist in, say, areas where banks and ATMs have been blown up if they existed in the first place.

Duhaime said she believes understanding the financial inclusion needs of refugees has been "woefully underrepresented in studies and reports on financial inclusion, and underserved in terms of global solutions."

So DFI plans to recruit experts from the financial services community to identify the problem and brainstorm technology solutions for refugees that will vary by region and the infrastructure available there.

"You have to imagine places where there is no Internet," said Duhaime, a lawyer based in Canada with a specialized practice in counter-terrorism-financing and anti-money-laundering law.

In early June, DFI is hosting an event in Vancouver that will explore, among other things, ways to help refugees. Sam Maule, DFI's chief inspiration officer, will present on the banking refuges program at the event. He envisions DFI becoming a hub for tackling the money movement issues that inevitably follow international crises.

"Thinking ahead is so important," said Maule, whose day job is emerging payments practice lead for Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group.

A planned white paper is DFI's first step. Longer term, the group seeks to establish a rapid response task force to respond to emergency situations that might do things like distribute funds to people, including aid workers. DFI is also exploring the idea of bringing an innovation lab into a refugee camp to help develop longer-term solutions to people who need to rebuild their lives.

"You never know, the next Google might come out of a refugee camp," said Duhaime.

Meanwhile, the Wells Fargo branch in Des Moines is learning valuable lessons in how to cater to a community living in the U.S. years after they fled their countries.

The Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center estimates that more than 6,000 Burmese refugees are living in Iowa – a stat that includes secondary migrations, which the government doesn't track. Individuals who have fled persecution and have potentially grown up in refugee camps in neighboring countries, come to live in the area because of the organizations that help refugees resettle there in addition to word-of-mouth about the jobs available in the region and potentially family members who live there, among other reasons.

Several of the employees who work at the Beaverdale location are refugees themselves, including Htee Say.

Say, who was born and raised in a refugee camp in Thailand, speaks Burmese, Karen, Thai and English and has a knack for making emigres feel comfortable banking at the branch.

"They line up for her," said Dunker.

She's among the teller recruits Dunker discovered among connections made through his church volunteer work for refugee children and teenagers.

Say and other tellers who speak refugees' native languages can help overcome apprehensions for people who may have lived in places where they were threatened with guns or lost everything they owned in less than 24 hours.

"There's a mistrust," said Wells Fargo's area president, Marta Codina, who knows the difficulties firsthand. Decades ago, her family fled Cuba with nothing but her parents' desire to help her have a life outside of a communist regime.

The Wells Fargo branch has earned a reputation for its specialty through hard work.

"You can't slap an ad up there that says 'we welcome refugees'," Codina said.

In addition to staffing language experts, the branch regularly runs financial education classes on subjects close to many American hearts but potentially foreign concepts to outsiders, such as checking and savings accounts and how to build credit. Interpreters are always on hand.

"We can help the community understand what it is like to be financially successful," said Jeramy Bethards, the store manager.

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