Syrian Lessons Close To Home, From Paris To Tennessee

A Garrigan boy playing soccer with a Syrian refugee in Paris' Parc Sainte-Perrine
A Garrigan boy playing soccer with a Syrian refugee in Paris' Parc Sainte-Perrine
Liz Garrigan*

PARIS — Our usual spot at Parc Sainte-Périne to plop our blanket and sports equipment for a few hours of recreational escape was already taken when we arrived on Saturday. A group of about 10 young men were sprawled out on the patch, enjoying the sunshine and talking among themselves — in Arabic, I noticed. That must have been why I made a point to put some distance between us, settling on a park bench rather than the green space beside them.

I know now that I was acting on some kind of automatic bias. The November attacks in Paris, where 130 people were massacred, are still pretty raw for those of us who live here. And though all of the murderers and accomplices have been identified as European citizens, they were, let's face it, radicalized Muslims with Arabic names.

As my boys, ages 7 and 8, took their soccer ball and began to play, about three of the guys, who looked to be in their early twenties, joined them — kicking back and forth, teaching their young protégés some fancy moves, high-fiving and tousling their hair along the way. My little guys were all smiles, and would wind up playing with their new friends for nearly three hours.

At one point, I joined the scrum, managing a long kick that made the young men's eyes wide with delight and surprise. (Once a jock, always a jock, middle age be damned.) We exchanged friendly greetings, and from up close it was clear that they were not only fun for my boys, but kind and utterly charming.

I also noticed that their French, though probably better than mine, was not perfect, and eventually we asked where they were from. Over the past year, each one of them had arrived in Paris from Syria. The "European refugee crisis' — and the Syrian civil war itself — which I read about every day had arrived in my neighborhood park.

The men had escaped their own government's barrel bombing and chemical weapons, dodged sniper fire from different rebel groups, and the barbaric oppression of the ISIS terror group — a three-sided inferno of misery — only to arrive after an inhumane journey onto a continent where xenophobic-fueled political movements are demonizing them.

But there I stood, part of the problem, at least for those few moments when I'd isolated my family from what I initially took to be a cluster of humanity best avoided. The lesson, of course, is that instead of maintaining a blind allegiance to our worst instincts, we should work to resist them — and be willing to admit when we've succumbed to them.

Back home

Back in my home state of Tennessee, there are scant signs of any such self-reflection. The state Senate recently approved "one of the most extreme anti-refugee" legislative efforts in the entire country, as one immigrant advocate put it. It demands that the state sue the president and federal government to stop Syrian refugees from resettling in Tennessee.

Though the legislation has no likelihood of changing anything, it illustrates a dangerous and apparently widespread sentiment. For context, the Tennessee Senate is led by a man who believes that freedom of religion doesn't necessarily apply to the "cult" of Islam. After refusing federal health care dollars that would cover 200,000 of the state's sickest and most vulnerable citizens, his flock recently named an official state rifle: the Barrett .50 caliber, "which is so powerful it can blast commercial airliners out of the sky," my friend and political writer Jeff Woods notes.

But if the success of Donald Trump's presidential primary candidacy tells us anything, it's that feckless Tennessee lawmakers are hardly swimming against the prevailing political currents. Fear of the "other," and more specifically immigrants and Muslims, has risen to the point where scare tactics are used to describe a desperate flock of people fleeing war in Syria.

In Europe, the tide against refugees began to turn in earnest not so much after the Paris attacks as after a series of assaults against women in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve. Rhetoric about immigrants that was considered too coarse one day became utterly acceptable the next.

Law and order had completely broken down in pockets of a progressive country like Germany, exposing hundreds of young women to terrifying experiences at the hands of non-German immigrants who quite clearly had no regard for our accepted standards of decency and respect. People were angry, and the recent flood of refugees into Europe was to blame. I was among the angry masses.

But again, uninformed indignation gets us nowhere. What we have learned since those crimes were reported should inform our rhetoric. Not a single refugee, Syrian or otherwise, was among the Paris attackers — and only three of the 58 men arrested in Cologne were from Syria or Iraq. Most of the offenders were economic migrants from North African countries such as Algeria and Morocco, whose circumstances are entirely different from those of the Syrians.

Long ways away

Likewise in December, the Islamic terror attack in San Bernardino, California, provided fodder for Americans looking to block Syrian war refugees. But here too, the killers — an American of Pakistani origin and his Saudi Arabian wife — had nothing to do with Syria.

The world is a complicated place, and migration makes it even more so. There are economic migrants and there are desperate people fleeing death. Surely we can make a distinction between the two.

But somehow logic has evaded not just Tennessee and a sizeable percentage of the American Republican electorate — who simply want to keep all Muslims out, no matter where they're from — but much of Europe too. War refugees from Syria, people who have left everything behind and risked their lives to give their children a life away from bloodshed and starvation, are being portrayed as somehow a threat. It's plainly wrong, an exercise in willful ignorance that has become frighteningly mainstream.

Sometimes we must be reminded to check our bigotry at the door — and check the facts too. Last Saturday, on a sun-dappled soccer pitch in Paris, I learned this important lesson anew. It was one first taught to me by my parents, both natives of Tennessee.

Liz Garrigan is senior editor at Worldcrunch, and was formerly editor of the Nashville Scene. She's lived in Paris for five years.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!