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App for Muslim Canadians, fundraising platform seek transparency from banking service

Omar Khan was organizing sessions connecting Canadians to Muslim therapists and setting up forums to address mental-health fallout related to the Israel-Hamas war when he learned his online therapy platform had lost access to its banking service without explanation. An Israeli helicopter flies over Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mohammed Dahman

TORONTO — Omar Khan was organizing sessions connecting Canadians to Muslim therapists and setting up forums to address mental-health fallout related to the Israel-Hamas war when he learned his online therapy platform had lost access to its banking service without explanation. 

The CEO of Ruh Care – which connects users to Muslim therapists via chat, phone or video calls – said he was taken by surprise when he learned that Wise, a global money-transfer financial tech company, had conducted a risk assessment on his organization's account before closing it.

The move came shortly after the Israel-Hamas war began in early October, and was followed months later by an American online fundraising platform experiencing similar treatment from Wise. The situation has left Khan raising questions about whether his organization and other Muslim businesses are being treated unfairly. 

"It is very unjust and it does feel like it's targeted us as a Muslim organization," said Khan, who lives in Ottawa. "It was very, very disruptive."

Ruh said hundreds of people have accessed its services since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct 7, including Canadians who have been struggling with images coming out of the conflict. 

Khan said he sought answers from Wise on why Ruh's account was closed but did not receive clarity, nor did he get notice before being cut off from the service.

The fallout from being unable to access the account was significant – payments to employees across Canada as well as a software developer in Gaza could not be processed, day-to-day operations at Ruh were affected and the organization had to scramble to find another bank, Khan said. 

"We adhere to all the terms of use. We did not break any rules or conditions that they put in place," Khan said. "It didn't make sense."

LaunchGood, a decade-old online fundraising platform focused on the Muslim community, said it was similarly cut off from its Wise bank account in early February. 

"We've established ourselves in the community over ten years with over half a billion dollars raised for charity. I don't want people to think that maybe we're doing something illegitimate," said Chris Blauvelt, CEO of the U.S.-based organization.

Blauvelt said the Muslim community wants reassurance that Wise is not discriminating against any of its customers. 

"We're not asking for anything special. We're just asking we be treated equally," he said. 

Wise, which calls itself a global technology company that helps people easily manage their money internationally, did not provide details on its risk assessments on Ruh or LaunchGood. 

A Wise spokesperson said the company provides "service, where permitted by law, to customers regardless of their personal characteristics, including their religious identity."

"We are also subject to strict rules governing how we handle existing customer accounts," Jessica Canter wrote in an email. 

"For legal and privacy obligations, we’re unable to provide details on individual cases, but we never take the decision to deactivate an account lightly and this is always the result of a thorough review by our team. Throughout, we keep the customer informed of the process."

Wise's website states it is regulated by the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, Canada's financial intelligence unit that tracks money laundering and terrorist financing. In its latest financial report, Wise said it also abides by banking regulators in the U.S. and the U.K.

Ruh and LaunchGood, which have worked together in the past, said they feel they have been targeted because they are Muslim-run entities doing business as the Israel-Hamas war continues. 

"Ruh and LaunchGood are established organizations. Being Muslim and being identified as a 'risk'... that's unfortunately how our communities have been viewed historically," said Amanee Elchehimi, Ruh's clinical director.

"The lack of transparency makes it impossible for us to say this (for sure) but it definitely feels like Islamophobia ... It's happening at a certain time in history."

Moshe Lander, an economics professor at Concordia University in Montreal, said the Israel-Hamas war could have caused Wise to "panic." 

It's more common than many might think for global banking services to suddenly suspend accounts that have connections to geographical locations experiencing war or conflict, he said.

Lander said regulators like FINTRAC warn that banks can face "huge fines" if they find systems, tools and accounts are being used for any criminal activities.

If global banks get "even a whiff of you being connected to someone, who's connected someone, who's connected to somebody, that's connected to these organizations or countries, they distance themselves quickly," he said.

Lander said it can be argued that the way the rules of the global banking system are set up is unjust.

"It's a very broad net that catches people and organizations," he said. 

Lander said he can "completely sympathize" with Ruh and LaunchGood.

"There's nothing worse than a break up where you're not told why," he said.

"But in the grand scheme of things, the benefit of staying within the international banking system is much, much greater to these global banks than the potential cost of losing some customers."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2024.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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