In search of survival: Digital apps and cryptocurrencies present a risky lifeline for Syrians mired in poverty
Civilians in Idlib and northwest Syria are turning to mobile phone apps as a way to make money after being unable to secure employment and in the face of poverty, displacement and rapidly rising living costs.
Desperate to improve their living standards and those of their families, young people are increasingly looking to the internet to provide work opportunities like any other, the difference being that they can do it from home, choose their hours and which methods and apps they will use.
Inflation and exploitation pushing Syrians to online apps
Hussam al-Atrash (25) didn’t want to keep working on construction sites. The jobs were both physically exhausting and exploitative. He was only paid a fraction of the wages he should have been entitled to, earning 40 lira for a day's work which wasn't even enough to buy bread for his family who live in the Deir Hassan camp near the Turkish border.
"Desperate to improve their living standards and those of their families, young people are increasingly looking to the internet to provide work opportunities like any other"
"I never complained about the work despite the hardship but what hurt me was that my wages were nowhere near what they should have been for the long hours and with the rising costs of everything – especially after the collapse of the Turkish lira. The price of everything is going up, except wages."
Hussam decided to swap building sites for his mobile phone and now earns digital currency through Yalla Chat, a voice and group chat platform in which gifts and prizes are distributed to participants in the form of "coins". These can be converted into real money, and collecting them is easy, he says.
Settling down into his customary position in front of his tent, Hussam explains that his workday involves entering the app and taking part in its activities for at least five hours per day. During this time participants can collect many coins just using one account, but in order to profit more, you can open multiple accounts which increases the coins you can gain. Many participants open several fake accounts, which is the most effective way to earn a decent monthly income (which ranges between $75-$300).
After collecting the digital coins, Hussam sells them to other participants who want to buy them, who pay $5 for every thousand coins. The buyers are usually wealthy people who then re-scatter the coins as gifts in the app's public and private chatrooms.
'Better than sitting and waiting for a handout'
Thirty-year-old Sabah Kashto's husband died when their city Saraqib came under bombardment over two years ago. Today, she spends most of her time on the Yalla app to gain as many gifts as possible so she can sell them afterwards. The money she makes helps her provide for her four children for whom she is now the sole breadwinner.
Despite facing numerous difficulties to start with connected to how the app could be used to make a profit, Sabah learned fast what to do and got used to the work. Now she says she enjoys it: "I searched for a long time for a job and didn't find one, and that's what pushed me to seek ways to make money online – a relative showed me what to do."
"Sabah acknowledges that the money she earns is not enough but asserts that it is better than sitting and waiting for someone to offer a handout"
Sabah acknowledges that the money she earns is not enough but asserts that it is better than sitting and waiting for someone to offer a handout. Most importantly, she says, it doesn't require any capital: all you need is a mobile phone and internet access.
Yalla is not the only online platform people are investing their time in. An increasing number of young people are trying out other, more profitable online ventures, such as investment sites that allow subscribers to invest money in companies that can bring substantial financial returns at a later date.
Time is money: The draw of Crypto faucets
Cryptocurrencies are a form of digital money that can be transferred directly between individuals with no intermediary (unlike with bank accounts). They are decentralised, which means they are controlled through their users and computer algorithms, rather than states and central governments.
Sending and receiving currency is done via a crypto wallet and in order for a currency to be transferred between accounts, the sender must know the recipient's wallet address, as well as the sub wallet address for the type of cryptocurrency they are sending.
Walid Makhzoum (35) decided to invest in bitcoin as an easy way to make money after he couldn't find any other work which would allow him to improve his poor living conditions.
He knew bitcoin was the most famous cryptocurrency and the most widely circulated. Additionally, many websites dedicated to collecting bitcoin have been set up, the best-known being Free Bitcoin. Sites like this (crypto faucets) essentially work on the principle of a reward system: bitcoins are divisible into small parts called satoshis, with every bitcoin equalling 100 million satoshis. Users can begin collecting satoshis after creating an account on the Free Bitcoin site.
"Online platforms present a high level of risk. Users may earn a lot of digital currency in a short time, only to lose it equally quickly through fraud, theft, or scams"
In order to start, the participant simply needs to skip the captcha on the main page of the website then click "roll". The site will then display a random ("lucky") number, which signifies a number of satoshis that are deposited in the user's account. Every hour, this process can be repeated. The longer the user remains on the site, the more they earn.
Walid relies on collecting bitcoin for his entire monthly income and spends most of his time staring at his mobile phone screen. He opened his account with a deposit of $100 two months ago and today his balance has risen to $500.
There are various other ways to make money online. Blogging can generate an income as can YouTube and Tiktok channels, for instance by advertising products for companies. Many platforms (such as YouTube) also can also start generating income if various conditions are met, for example, if they attract a certain number of new subscribers to the platform. The monthly profits for some of these platforms can reach thousands of US dollars.
Easy come, easy go: Digital profits at high risk from hackers and scammers
However, despite the myriad opportunities for moneymaking, many online platforms present a high level of risk. Users may earn a lot of digital currency in a short time, only to lose it equally quickly through fraud, theft, or scams. The internet, and these applications, are not under supervision – there is often no guarantee that profits made are secure nor any accountability if they are stolen.
Mohammed al-Aloush (24) lost half of his fake accounts on Yalla when the accounts were suddenly hacked. Each of the accounts had coins stored up which he had spent weeks gathering.
This was not the first time, says Mohammed, who doesn’t know how to protect his accounts. He regards the issue as just a matter of bad luck: "I know others who have worked with accounts like mine for years without ever being hacked."
"By hijacking their attention, these apps may be eroding the motivation of the youth to play an active role in rebuilding their country and to work on setting up productive projects which are more beneficial"
Lesser of two evils?
Mental health counsellor Alia al-Sourani (40) believes that the current trend of online profit-seeking is damaging the aspirations and ability of young people to enter real, more useful jobs. She says spending lengthy periods in chatrooms and on gambling apps tend to weaken the sense of responsibility among those immersed in these activities.
It can also distort the sense of values among young people in the absence of family and school structures, and shrink their goals down to a desire to maximise their profits on these apps which, in general, don't yield enough income to have a real effect on their lives. By hijacking their attention, these apps may be eroding the motivation of the youth to play an active role in rebuilding their country and to work on setting up productive projects which are more beneficial and worthwhile.
However, from another point of view, she can't blame those who have seized on this work, especially those living in the camps in Idlib and north Syria, for whom life opportunities have dwindled to almost nothing and who have precious few other options.
In her opinion, this option remains the lesser of two evils. In light of the poverty, displacement, and war they have experienced, it prevents people from turning to theft or drug abuse. Moreover, even if it does not offer a way to get rich, she believes it can, in many cases, help families to just about get by.
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko