Tough Labor For Syria's Refugee Students

Ali, who was a French literature student at Aleppo University, now works in an iron factory in Turkey.
Ali, who was a French literature student at Aleppo University, now works in an iron factory in Turkey.
NourIddin Abdo

GAZIANTEP — Syrian university students unable to complete their degrees due to the country’s ongoing conflict and displaced to Turkey are now jobless, or scraping by as day laborers.

Fares, a 29-year-old from Kfar Nabal in the Idlib province, was studying for his final university exams when the security situation in the country made traveling to campus impossible.

After years in medical school, he had just completed his training at the Ibn Rashed Hospital in Aleppo. He planned to specialize in the cardiovascular system, but was forced to drop those plans when it became impossible to travel to Aleppo for his final exams. The journey was just 80 km, but constant shelling made it too risky.

“Only two of my 12 fellow students from all around Syria sat for the exams,” Fares said. He is now trying to find a job to support five of his family members who are in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli, which has been flooded by refugees.

He is well aware that without any formal certificate or proof of education, all of his studies are pretty much worthless on the Turkish job market.

There is no official centralized documentation of the names and specializations of higher-education students, many of whom have been unable to complete their degrees over the last three years.

Ali lives near Fares, and was a third-year French language student at the University of Aleppo when fighting forced him to leave his village, in the Jabal al-Zawiyeh region of Idlib province. Rebels forced the Syrian army out of the town, along with pro-regime militiamen and residents who, like Ali, were fighting alongside them.

He retreated to the province of Aleppo, but did not dare go back to university, fearing retaliation.

Today, he works in an iron factory, where he spends any spare moments he gets browsing the internet searching for a way to continue his studies at a Turkish state university.

“I have attempted to enrol six times at Turkish universities but, each time, it gets brought to a halt when they ask me to show my records from the University of Aleppo, which I cannot go back and get because of the terrible security situation,” he said.

Wishing you had made a different decision

The financial cost of traveling from one Turkish city to another in order to to apply to universities, only to be rejected, is another burden. Ali said that given the current situation, he wishes he had learned a trade back home in Syria instead of seeking a degree.

“If I had learned a profession like carpentry or ironmaking when a child, I would not have to face these hardships today. Now, I’m neither an expert carpenter nor a teacher like I was supposed to be. Now I’m nothing,” he said.

Students in opposition-held areas have been increasingly left behind during the course of the conflict, both by the regime and by new opposition authorities that have sprung up. Compared to the attention they’ve bestowed on the formation of Islamic courts and relief societies, education has received little support.

The Office of the National Higher Commission for Learning and Higher Education, under the umbrella of the opposition National Coalition, is considered the only body which could be responsible for the stabilization of the education sector in rebel held-areas.

Jalal al-Din al-Khanji, its vice president, has talked about obstacles facing them, including funding and poor coordination.

There are large numbers of former students like Ali and Fares. The boys estimated that no more that 20 percent of university students are still in Syrian classrooms.

Neither Ali nor his peers had heard about any action taken by the National Coalition to deal with their cases, or even to keep track of them.

“If we seek to build an institution-based Syria, dependent on efficient and educated people, most of those capable people who have degrees will be from the supporters of the present regime, who were able to continue their university,” Fares said.

“Meanwhile, those who started this revolution to get rid of the present regime and its problems will be without education. How do you imagine that will turn out?

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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