Syrian developer Ghass Mo has been living off freelance bitcoin gigs from Kurdistan, Iraq, for nearly two years.
It’s impossible to say how many people are like Mo, inspired by a chance meeting with a bitcoiner to embark on an educational journey toward financial sovereignty. These cases are often isolated, at least in the developing world. Yet, they are increasingly familiar to people who work with digital nomads. They are showing bitcoin can work as intended, as a global currency without borders.
Read more: Bitcoin in Emerging Markets: The Middle East
Mo left Syria in his early 20s because of the civil war and became an unbanked migrant worker to support his family. This may sound bleak but Mo has a lot in common with the other developers he now works with online.
He is a quiet man, a self-taught developer who rarely leaves his chosen Batcave except for shopping and rare outings. Mo has a perpetual five o’clock shadow and a minimalist home office setup, with just a few laptops, a monitor and always a cup of Arabic coffee. He's never met most of the people he works with online, nor does he know of any local bitcoin meetups. He spends his evenings reading about Rust and studying at home with books like “Mastering Bitcoin.”
“The ongoing war in Syria and lack of stability affected me,” he said. “Sometimes I spend months trying to finish an online course, translating every single word [from English]. … The people [I know] interested in this field of study could be counted on one hand.”
Like many other freelance developers earning bitcoin across the Middle East, Mo liquidates his bitcoin through a local exchange to pay for daily expenses. A local grad student who founded the Kurdcoin exchange, Abdurrahman Bapir, has been operating a hawala-adjacent business for customers like Mo since 2017.
Hawala is a traditional money network used to send value across the Islamic world for hundreds of years, long before bitcoin. Thanks to partnerships with long-standing hawala businesses, bitcoin has merely become another option offered by such money changers. This is very accessible to local people with a wide range of computer skills and access.
“Facebook is our primary source for discovery for new clients. Word of mouth is the second,” said Bapir. “We also sell hardware wallets ourselves. We recently started this service, we’ve sold 10 in Iraq, and it’s increasing.”
Mo and users like him can message the Kurdcoin accounts on social media, including Telegram, Twitter or Instagram. The exchange is supported by a staff of 10 people. Clients can pay online with bitcoin and pick up their cash at almost any local hawala business from Syria to Kurdish Iran. Mo also uses bitcoin to send money to his family.
“After the lockdown, due to the coronavirus, the borders between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava [Syria] have been closed,” Mo said. “Sometimes there are difficulties in transferring money and the fees increase several times.”
Local demand is much higher now, Bapir said, for the bitcoin that freelancers like Mo bring to the local market.
"We’ve had some months where we did $10 million in volume and months with $500,000," Bapir said of Kurdcoin’s volumes.
Plus, business is up compared to the token-boom peak of late 2017.
“There are many, many new customers coming,” Bapir said. “There are 10-20 new leads for our exchange every day … some months we'll have 1,000 prospective clients.”
Token fans have long since abandoned the unaffiliated token sale that once shared the exchange’s name. Many people weren’t as lucky as Mo, to learn about bitcoin from a trusted mentor. Those who learned from token “scams,” Bapir said, are now returning to his platform for bitcoin.
Bapir said he’s working with a team of lawyers and 10 advisers from abroad to try to establish a regulated way to conduct business in Kurdistan. Much like the American cannabis industry operates in a gray zone between state and federal laws, the Kurdish bitcoin industry operates despite vague restrictions issued by the Central Bank of Iraq. In the meantime, established hawala businesses handle the know-your-customer (KYC) process.
It’s been lucky that bitcoiners like Mo remain regular customers during the pandemic.
Before the coronavirus crisis, Bapir said more than half of his clients were from the southern, Arab regions of Iraq. They came to Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) to buy or sell bitcoin. Now, with travel restricted, such business is done online. Multi-currency remittances have picked up due to the lockdown and both Iranian and Syrian currencies collapsing.
“From the West of Iran, the Kurdish part, some people were also thinking of opening a Kurdish exchange,” Bapir said about growing demand for bitcoin. “Banking here is underdeveloped in Iraq, probably one in 20 people has a bank account they actually use. … Almost all of our daily transactions are in cash. You buy a house with cash.”
This cash economy suits unbanked migrants like Mo, who still manages to get enough freelance work to support himself and live comfortably in Iraq. Although electricity and WiFi access is reliable in Iraq, a vast improvement over Syria, he's still unable to run or use local data centers.
He said learning about bitcoin dramatically changed his life over the past two years.
“It was a great feeling when I realized I could buy food and other stuff using bitcoin,” he added.
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