My Kids, Koran And Badminton Racket, Baggage Of A Syrian Refugee

Mustafa Awad, from Idlib, is a national badminton champion.
Mustafa Awad, from Idlib, is a national badminton champion.
Iason Athanasiadis

This is part of a Syria Deeply series "Bags and Belongings," in which we ask refugees what they packed in their bags and what they left behind. Here we meet Mustafa Awad, a Syrian badminton coach from the northwestern city of Idlib who recently arrived in Athens with his wife and three children. Read the first installment here.

ATHENS — We come from Idlib, a city that was once so beautiful it was nicknamed the Green, but is now known as Red Idlib from the amount of blood spilled over it.

We love peace and quiet, but the war forced us to leave and search for a better future. We started our journey four months ago and are headed to Germany where we want to be reunited with our son Khaled.

The best moment was when we arrived at the Greek island, after a trip that I remember as that of death. When we got to Izmir, 75 people had just drowned in the sea and everyone advised us against taking to the sea, saying that the storm would get worse. We set off at noon and arrived in Lesbos at 3 p.m. in weather so stormy that the Red Cross boat rescued us 200 meters (650 feet) before the shore. Our boat was leaking and being tossed about like a sapling by the heavy waves. Parts of the wooden structure at the bottom of the boat where we were huddling had splintered. We sat there for the three-hour journey, holding on to our crying kids and bags, half of which we'd left behind in Izmir, and wondering whether everything might end any moment.

The bags we kept contained our Koran, clothes and my badminton racket. This last one I am delivering to my eldest son Khaled, who's already reached Germany and is a professional player.

Sad farewell

In Syria, I was on the national badminton team as a player and then a coach, so the badminton racket is my most important possession after the Koran. It's extremely light and aerodynamic and Khaled used it to achieve great results in several competitions back home. But it's not just about its qualities, it's also a connection to what we had and what we've left behind.

I hope to get to Germany just so I can deliver it to him. We left none of our possessions behind in Syria. We owned neither our house nor our athletic goods shop in Idlib, so that was easy to get rid of. Then I sold our furniture for a third of its value and distributed the rest of our possessions to my siblings and friends. The most precious was a framed tableau of the Verse of the Throne from the Koran with a mirror in the middle that I gave to my mother, asking her to think of me every time she sees herself in the mirror. She put it at eye-level in the salon, where she likes to sit, so that every time she stands up she sees herself and thinks of me. She cried when I gave it to her. I also left with my brother the albums and videocassettes of our wedding.

My mother and father, who withdrew to their farm outside Idlib, are my strongest link to Syria. They refused to come with us, saying they are too old to leave their land. I've lost hope of seeing them. My biggest fear is that they might die without our being with them to send them off.

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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 but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

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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