Syria Crisis

Nour, The Syrian Child Refugee I'll Never Forget

A volunteer who led a writing workshop for Syrian child refugees of the war did what he could to offer the aspiring writers some hope. His heart was touched in return.

Syrian children in Turkey's Reyhanli refugee camp
Syrian children in Turkey's Reyhanli refugee camp
Wassim Al-Adel

REYHANLI â€" It didn't matter which class I was teaching, boys or girls. They all closed their eyes and listened attentively as I played recordings for them of happy sounds from cafes I had visited a month earler in Italy and England.

For the Syrian children in Reyhanli, Turkey, the refugees of a brutal war, I might as well have made the recordings on Mars. They smiled at the strange chatter and the clinking sounds of coffee cups, or the whoosh of a cappuccino machine, and giggled when they heard a woman in Milan laughing out loud. When the recording finished, I asked them to open their eyes and write about what they heard.

One student imagined a piano player in the background and a couple dancing in the middle of the cafe. Others pictured the guests playing chess or backgammon, or casually reading newspapers. Still others imagined plates of cake, tarts and other sweet things to accompany the coffee and tea. A boy asked me inquisitively if England had yerba mate, an Argentinian tea popular in Syria, and I laughed at that. "No" I said, "I doubt very much that they serve yerba mate." The boy's enthusiastic smile faded, so I told him to include that anyway.

There were other exercises I ran during the week I was with the children, but this was the one that lingered with me the most. To these Syrian children, stuck in a town on the Turkish-Syrian border with little hope of returning home and even less hope of being able to settle anywhere, the sounds of normal life in a European city utterly fascinated them, and yet at the same time they must have been both tantalizing and frustrating. Like most young people, many of the children, especially the boys, saw life as something that happens somewhere else.

Writer Wassim Al-Adel with Syrian children in Reyhanli â€" Photo: Karam Foundation

I couldn't blame them. Each of those children will soon become young adults, impatient, full of energy and hungry for their share of this world. It's an indifferent world that has closed its doors to them, but they're determined to find it nevertheless.

Writers in the making

On the last day of the workshop I announced the winners of a writing competition that I created, and handed out the prizes: four beautifully bound and expensive journals with matching Parker fountain pens. The children were ecstatic and, like in many competitions, there were some sore losers, but the experience was positive overall. The winners, two boys and two girls, had written truly exceptional entries for my question, "What is Happiness?"

They all clamored for my contact details, and when I landed back in England they overwhelmed me with messages and greetings. Some, especially the boys, were persistent to the point that I was getting annoyed, but then I realized how desperate they were for somebody, anybody, to talk and listen to them. I decided to let each and every one of them know that I was there if they ever needed to talk to me, and I replied to each message that they sent me, even when I was busy.

One evening, Nour, who had won the prize for the seventh grade, messaged me on Facebook. She had a simple question: "What do I need to do to be a good writer?"

"I'll tell you the secret," I said. "The secret is to read and write a lot. Every day."

"Yes, I'll do that," she replied, sending me a massive smiley face emoticon.

"Good," I said, thinking that was the end of that.

"I promise I'll follow your advice. And one day, sir, when you're an old man, keep an eye out for the newspaper that gets dropped at your door. Because I'll have an article in it."

"I hope so. I'm sure you'll be a success," I said, smiling to myself.

"You will remember my name? Won't you? You won't forget about me?" she asked.

"I won't," I replied.


"I promise."

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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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