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The Great Refugee Wire Transfer The Great Refugee Wire Transfer
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The Great Refugee Wire Transfer

by Brian Merchant

July 29, 2010


File this under "Good to Know": Western Union can get your cash to a refugee in need as easily as you can pull money out of an ATM. Even if your refugee friend has no bank account or I.D. The catch is, you have to get it to the right branch.

Even after Samy was arrested and then released, it would be weeks before he could get home to the refugee camp. Which is why I’d insisted on sending him a little money—the equivalent of $90 U.S., which would be enough to charter a private car back to the camp and bribe Thai authorities if he got stopped on the way.

He reluctantly accepted, and we figured Western Union would be the best way to go. Since a government-issued I.D. makes it easier to collect the money, Samy arranged for his friend Sutar to act as a proxy. I tried to arrange the transfer online, but kept getting an error message that told me I’d have to go to a brick and mortar location. And so I did.

I’ve never wired money before, and never received it. So I couldn’t help feeling a little stupid as I walked through the doors to the empty location in the Lower East Side, and asked the agent behind the bulletproof glass if I could wire some money to Thailand. He wordlessly gestured towards the stacks of forms on the counter behind me, and went back to reading the Post.

The form was simple enough—in the age of identity theft and pin codes and passwords, I was surprised that something involving money trading hands could be so easy. I filled out the form and returned to the teller.

“It’s out of order,” he told me flatly.

“What is?”

“Western Union service,” he said.

“Then why did—” I began, but seeing as he wasn’t paying attention, I stopped. A white piece of printer paper with ‘WESTERN UNION OUT OF ORDER TODAY’ scrawled in huge letters was written on the window. I asked if there was another branch nearby that I could use, and he told me there was one somewhere on 14th street that might work. I sighed.

As I walked the 14 blocks or so to the next branch, my shirt was soaked from the 90-plus Manhattan heat, it occurred to me that Samy would probably kill to be complaining about what amounts to a minor inconvenience—having to walk a couple blocks in the heat.

The truth is, my moralizing came unnaturally: I had to tell myself to tell myself to quit my whining. It was almost as if I’d seen so many TV shows or films that taught this lesson— don’t complain when people out there have it so much harder than you!—that I couldn’t help but contemplate the life lesson

But I think it's absolute impossible for me to truly empathize with Samy’s predicament. Yes, Samy was having a terrible time cooped up in a crappy apartment, waiting day after day to go home. I knew that. But at the same time, I didn’t. Here was a situation that I can recognize as terrible, but one that is so far outside my realm of experience that I can only guess.

Which is why I certainly don’t feel like I’m doing anything close to noble, or even useful as I stagger towards the storefront on 14th with the wire service. And when I see that it’s closed, the expletive I let loose has little to do with Samy. I head for home.

The next day, at the Western Union in Times Square, things go more smoothly. The transfer goes off without a hitch, and I email Samy to tell him so, along with the necessary details. A few days later, he calls to tell me that everything looks to be in order, that he got the money, and that he’s ready to leave. He’s finally ready to get out of Chiang Mai, to head back to the refugee camp.

Now we have to get back to the business of getting him out of there, too.
 

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