GoFundMe temporarily halts effort to help woman in Somalia

A screenshot of the now reinstated GoFundMe page.
A screenshot of the now reinstated GoFundMe page started by Suud Olat to help a Somali woman suffering from a rare tumor.
GoFundMe screenshot

Suud Olat was trying to do a good deed when he started a GoFundMe fundraiser for a Somali woman suffering from a rare tumor. The 27-year-old St. Cloud State University student has connections in the community and thought that with the site's social media reach, he could help the woman raise some money to pay for medical treatment.

After raising about $1,400 in October, GoFundMe suspended his account due to "sanctions involving an unsupported country," according to a GoFundMe email he shared with MPR News.

A quick search of the site, however, shows several fundraising campaigns for Somalis suffering from drought and famine. There is even a campaign to send books for children and teenagers.

So Olat was alarmed when he learned that his medical fundraising campaign was suspended.

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He had heard about the woman, Dahabo Salah, from a neighbor of hers in Somalia who contacted him for help. She has a rare tumor in her face and doesn't have easy access to medical treatment.

"Immediately, I set up this GoFundMe page," Olat said. "This $1,400 was meant to help her surgery."

The U.S. sanctions GoFundMe referred to don't prohibit people from raising charitable donations. They are meant to identify individuals, groups and entities affiliated with terrorist organizations and narcotics traffickers. Assets of those on the "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List" are blocked and Americans are generally prohibited from dealing with them, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Olat is not on that list.

"Dahabo is in hospital and she has since been told about my campaign and she is waiting on me," he wrote to GoFundMe. "I ask GoFundMe to listen to my appeal and reinstate my campaign, in the name of humanity."

He reached out to public officials and attorneys for help. His story was passed on to Matthew Callahan, an attorney with the religious nonprofit Muslim Advocates.

"The sanctions don't require them to restrict private charity in this way," Callahan said. "There is no reason why GoFundMe should try to step between donors who are eager to give to a charitable cause and somebody like Ms. Salah, who could really benefit from that."

One group that is subject to the sanctions is al-Shabab, a militant organization based in Somalia. But the GoFundMe communication with Olat did not identify potential concerns about al-Shabab.

"If they had those concerns about this being a fraudulent transaction, they should've presented them to Mr. Olat so he could've presented counter evidence," Callahan said.

One day after Callahan sent a letter to GoFundMe saying the sanctions shouldn't prevent Olat from raising money for Salah, the company apologized and reinstated the fundraising campaign.

A representative told Olat that the money raised so far had been refunded to donors. On Wednesday, though, nearly two weeks after the company suspended the account, the company restored the $1,435 — an amount that may not be much in the United States, but could be significant in Somalia.

"What they're doing is discrimination," Olat said. "What they're doing is abuse, and they're targeting a certain people because of their religion. We are community, we want to use the website as a community. We cannot be targeted."

Messages left for GoFundMe were not returned.

The website is supported in 19 countries, including the United States. Raising funds for people in unsupported countries means that individuals and groups must outline a "transparent withdrawal plan," which Olat said he did.

Online scams have been a concern for years, and now the threat of charitable scams is prevalent because they could be hard to differentiate from legitimate ones.

In mid-October, a Faribault man pleaded guilty to theft by swindle for raising $6,000 on GoFundMe by claiming that he had cancer in 2015 and 2016.

Jeremiah Smith, 38, later admitted he did not. Instead of spending the money on medical treatment, Smith used it on video games, drinking, dart tournaments and marijuana, according to the Rice County attorney's office.

Olat says it was unnecessary for GoFundMe to suspend his fundraiser — so quickly — without an investigation into its legitimacy.