At a Refugee Camp in Iraq, a 16-Year-Old Syrian Is Teaching Crypto Basics

Here's what an unbanked refugee really thinks about crypto.

AccessTimeIconDec 15, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 11:49 a.m. UTC
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How do you explain ethereum to someone who doesn’t know how to use email? What’s the best way to convey how many satoshis add up to a single bitcoin?

Those are among the questions faced by Yousif Mohammed, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee in Iraq’s Arbat refugee camp, who teaches other people in the camp about cryptocurrency.

“I want to solve a problem in my community. We have a lot of problems, like corruption,” he said.

Since he still has family left behind in Damascus, he’s particularly fond of the idea they could all earn and send money among their dispersed social networks, regardless of the borders that have increasingly failed them in recent years. 

“People really need to know all the things about the internet and their phones and laptops,” he said. “We are in an advanced world and we should learn." 

Mohammed owns a small amount of ether, which he earned through a local education program run by the nonprofit Hello Future. It’s too little to spend, so he’s eager to earn more. Hello Future founder Charlie Grosso said she gave ether because it was less expensive than bitcoin. 

Grosso said most of the students in Mohammed’s class think of mobile devices and computers like old-school Nintendos: They know they can play games or use a calculator, but are unfamiliar with access to global networks.

“The idea of searching to verify information is unknown to them,” she said. “They just don’t have that framework.”

Even with this steep learning curve, Grosso said all 44 teens that took her digital literacy class quickly grasped the concept of stateless, digital money. Perhaps this is because they are familiar with gold and other tangible assets. Plus, there’s no PayPal in Iraq because local banks are still restricted by economic sanctions

In some ways, people who only know cash economies may be better suited to crypto markets than those who underestimate the value of social ties.

Mama bank

“Two years ago, I got my first phone. Now everyone in my family has a smartphone,” Mohammed said. “I like games like Minecraft because I can build things, design things and improve my English.”

Like many of the 9,000 residents in the camp, his unbanked family stores its wealth with the matriarch who runs the household. 

Mohammed’s sister works at a bakery, his father is a carpenter and his brother works in a nearby town at a digital marketing agency (he even has a laptop). Each breadwinner turns over a salary to the matriarch, who doles out cash as needed to any member of the family. This is a common practice in the developing world, especially in times of economic turmoil.

“My mom is like the bank,” Mohammed laughed. “Cryptocurrency might be good for saving money because if you put your money inside a bank, the bank might steal it.”

Grosso said she hopes to graduate 100 students from her digital literacy course in 2020, further expanding the pool of crypto-savvy teens that can help their parents learn. Without their social networks, places like Arbat that lack crypto-exchange access will continue to be liquidity deserts.  

“The way to deliver last-mile needs is by building out trusted sources from the community itself,” she said. “If the whole idea of decentralization is to be participatory, to self govern, then you have to start somewhere in delivering the tools to those it is meant to affect the most.”


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