Serious business: $1.5m in the kitty, month after month

Memons in the windy city give Karachi ‘committee’ lunches a run for their money.


Ali Usman November 23, 2013
Memons in the windy city give Karachi ‘committee’ lunches a run for their money.

CHICAGO:


The restaurant in the suburban Schaumburg is full of boisterous, talkative Pakistanis. Icy winds blow outside the glass windows, but those present are warmed by the aroma of spicy South Asian food.


Soon, the chief guests – Pakistan’s recently appointed Consul General Chicago, and the Commercial Counsellor – arrive, and the host authoritatively asks everyone to settle down and observe silence.

This dinner is no ordinary affair. The group, made up of Karachi’s Memon community settled in Chicago, meets month after month in this fashion to bring a staggering $1.5 million (or Rs165 million) to the table each time around for the Vessi.



Pooling money

According to Abdul Karim Jhangra, head of the informal association of Memons in Chicago, Vessi is a system through which they raise a huge amount of money each month, which is then doled out to community members.

“Vessi is a word from our Memon language. In this group, we collect around $1.5 million!,” says Jhangra proudly, adding that it’s similar to what is called the ‘committee’ in Pakistan, but on a larger, more organised scale.

Every member pays a different amount of money. The total amount raised is divided into various vessis – an average one being Rs30,000 – and some people can be a part of multiple, depending on their monthly contribution capacity.

“We write the names of members on chits and the vessi money goes to those whose names are picked out,” explains Jhangra. “For a single vessi, a member has to pay $1,500 to $2,000 a month until he backs up all the money in around 20 months. Even if your name doesn’t pop up, you get all your money back. Thus, it’s not gambling.”

Padding for financial crisis

Jhangra explains how the system works like an interest-free loans scheme, and helps many do things they want, both in their businesses and personal lives.

“This saved many of us during the financial crisis when many banks in

US declared bankruptcy back in 2009-2010. The system is based on cash payments and involves no interest at all,” he remarks. “It helps members to fulfill their needs.

Like, if you want to buy a Mercedes and you don’t have the money for it you have got two options: You could either buy it on mortgage and pay much more than the actual price, or you can become part of vessi and take the cash, buy the car, and return the money in over 20 months without paying a single extra dollar.” In Islam, interest is forbidden. The practice has been in vogue for many years.

An exclusive affair

Every month, certain men seated at the different tables of the restaurant count the cash and put it into bags. No outsider is allowed, and everyone knows everyone else.

“Vessi is really helpful for us. This system is based on a very strong relationship of trust, says Tariq Khawaja, a part of the vessi group. “If you get $30,000 when you haven’t even paid $5,000, you should pay back the rest of the money over a certain period of time. So Vessi organizers take in only those participants who we trust or who come from somebody’s strong reference.”

What of helping Pakistan?

Although the Memon community in Chicago has started various different businesses, they are not indifferent to what’s happening in Pakistan, and particularly in Karachi. And yet, they are cautious about investing.

“We are very much interested in investing in Pakistan but who will guarantee protection to our capital and even our lives? Karachi has become a very dangerous city and many businessmen are taking out capital from there,” says Kamal Pasha, another guest at the dinner.

Consul General Chicago Faisal Niaz Tirmizi is more optimistic.

“The government of Pakistan is trying its level best to put the country at right path. The labour in China is getting expensive while 60 percent of our population is below 30 years old. This makes our country a very promising place for investment,” Tirmizi asserts confidently. “Pakistan acknowledges the contributions of its community in the USA and I am going to work with them to see how the country can benefit from their services.”

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2013.

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