For the fifth interview in our “The Leaders of Tech4Good” blog series, we are talking with Tey El-Rjula, also known as the Invisible Man. This conversation promises to give us a unique insight into the lives of refugees, the struggles of invisible people, and the prospects of Bitcoin & Blockchain technology.
Who Is Tey El-Rjula?
Tey El-Rjula is a Bitcoin evangelist, a co-founder of the Tech4Good studio helping the invisible people, an avid TedX speaker, and a Syrian refugee. He became “invisible” when he was only 5 years old and his birth certificate was lost because of the ongoing war in Kuwait. Years later, when he resided in the Netherlands, he became invisible once again when his work contract was not renewed. Seeking asylum in a Dutch refugee camp, he found hope in his Bitcoin wallet. Today, he is working to help other invisible people find their ray of sunshine.
On your LinkedIn page, it states that you started a tech4good company that helps others like you. Can you tell us more about what this company does, how it helps the others, and what role technology plays in it? How do you turn invisible people into invincible ones?
Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Tey, but I usually introduce myself as the Invisible Man. The title “invisible” is given to people who do not have identity documents, specifically, who do not have a birth certificate. I was born in Kuwait, and in 1990, the Gulf War started. In this war, the birth registries were destroyed — burnt to the ground. The only chance for me and my family to survive was to leave Kuwait and go to Lebanon. So, I grew up in Lebanon, graduated from the university, and I worked in Dubai for seven years. At the beginning of 2010, I moved to the Netherlands. I was working there as a software trainer — I learned about software innovations in the market and I taught them to companies. But in 2014, my job contract was not renewed, and the only chance for me to stay in the Netherlands was to apply for asylum. My father is Syrian, and so am I. In 2014, there was a war in Syria, so I could not go back.
In the asylum camp, I felt what it was to be without an identity, I felt what it was like to be an invisible person, the person without an ID. The only things I had were my clothes, my phone, Internet connection, and my Bitcoin wallet. I used that Bitcoin wallet to order pizza to the camp because I remember that the first physical product ever sold for Bitcoin was pizza. I opened the Internet and found the website of a local restaurant where you could pay for your pizza with Bitcoin. And this was a big victory! As asylum seekers or refugees, we have cash in our pockets that would allow us to buy pizza, but cash cannot move online. No restaurant was okay to send me a pizza to the camp before I paid upfront for it. Bitcoin helped me achieve that goal — I could order pizza with this type of digital money. Could I do something else with it? That is where the motive for working for Bitcoin started. I did translation jobs, and I got paid in Bitcoin. I did content creation jobs, and I got paid in Bitcoin.
Today, we are living in a world where hundreds of millions of people have been forced into a situation similar to what I was in exactly five years ago. While I was confined in my space in the camp, people today are confined in the comfort of their houses and homes. Everyone studies online, and, in the camp, I did my Master’s in Digital Currencies and Blockchain Technology online. Everyone works online, and so did I in the camp. Those three pillar points replicate my experience five years ago, and today, it is a feeling that everyone is experiencing.
Meanwhile, some countries around the world like Lebanon, Zimbabwe, or Venezuela have problems with their local currencies. They cannot transact their local currencies, they cannot use their local currencies, the banks put restrictions on them. So again, it is a similar situation to an asylum seeker in any camp being excluded from financial services. I thought, “It is time to start something to cater to people who do not have an identity, to bring them into the online economy. Bitcoin plays a major role in this quest.”
It is time to start something to cater to people who do not have an identity, to bring them into the online economy. Bitcoin plays a major role in this quest.
So, I am working on a financial company, which is called “Fluus”, which is “money” in Arabic. Our company helps people to send and to receive money across borders. We rely on the Bitcoin network to break the barriers that existing social institutions are placing on people. We are focusing on Lebanon as a market because Lebanon is going through very difficult, tough times in terms of financial stability and financial access. Since 2019, Lebanon has made zero progress on improving the financial inclusion rate. Banks are putting restrictions on depositors, so it does not matter if you are rich or poor in Lebanon anymore. If you have money in a Lebanese bank, that money does not belong to you because you cannot use it. If you have cash at home, it is devaluing at a very alarming rate. Last year, when I visited Lebanon, I could buy a Manouche — a famous flatbread with some toppings on it — for 1,500 Lebanese pounds, and the same product today would cost me a minimum of 4,000 Lebanese pounds. Some products like a bottle of juice, which used to cost 250 Lebanese pounds for almost as long as I remember living in Lebanon, today have doubled in price. The prices of goods and services are increasing. Money transfers cannot be cashed out in US dollars but can be cashed out in Lebanese pounds at a rate that the central bank is enforcing. So, if I sent a hundred dollars to my parents in Lebanon, what I get there would be around 3,000–3,200 of Lebanese pounds per dollar. But when they go to a supermarket, they would be paying at the rate of 4,000 Lebanese pounds per dollar. Bitcoin could help to create some sort of more liquid economy in Lebanon. Of course, there is a steep learning curve for people in Lebanon to use it massively. Yet, through very simple user experience, we hope that we could soften this steep learning curve and bring financial services to Lebanon outside the banking system, outside regulators, and free for everyone to use.
So, you are working to educate people on how to work with Bitcoin, right?
We are working simultaneously on both ends. We try to educate people on why to use Bitcoin and how to use it. At the same time, we bring a product that hides all these complexities from an average user.
But is Bitcoin legalized in Lebanon?
It is a gray area so far. There is no law in Lebanon that says that Bitcoin is legal and no law that says that you are not allowed to hold or use Bitcoin. I spoke with lawyers, and they say that, if you want to hold Bitcoin, there are absolutely no issues with that. But you cannot use it as a currency, as an alternative to the US dollar.
As I always say, legal issues will appear in two cases, and these are the two extreme cases. Case number one: if you are too big and too successful, the regulators will come to check on you. Case number two: if you are doing fraud, and other people report your fraud to the regulators, then the regulators will come to check on you as well. In both extreme cases, whether you are too successful or you are engaged in criminal activity, then you are under the scrutiny of regulators. But if you are growing at a reasonable pace and trying to avoid the touchpoints with the regulator — not to do excessive marketing, not to challenge the regulators, not to be too vocal about Bitcoin, — it can work.
We cannot avoid legal aspects, and therefore, we engage with the regulators on a diplomatic level. We explain that this technology is good for the country and good for the people. In fact, the central bank of Lebanon in the words of its governor supports innovative technologies and digital currencies.
As far as I am aware, to mine Bitcoin, you have to have sophisticated hardware and stable Internet connection. In most developing countries including Lebanon, most people would not have that. How do you solve that kind of challenge?
Lebanon does not have electricity at all. For thirty years, we have been dreaming about having electricity 24/7 in our country, but still, we do not see it. Therefore, Lebanon is not a great market to mine Bitcoin unless you are stealing electricity from the government, which actually happens a lot. We do not mine Bitcoin there, but we can transfer it to Lebanon.
What are your plans and achievements with the project?
What we have achieved so far: today, communities are running our services through Telegram and WhatsApp groups. We educate people and equip them with basic tools to transact bitcoin, in addition to facilitating buying and selling of cryptocurrencies through these groups. We act as an escrow, and the services that we provide to Lebanese people are escrow services — we can protect our users from fraud and bring some confidence to the facilitation of peer to peer payments in the market. I can say that about two hundred households in Lebanon receive money from their relatives living abroad, in Australia, Canada, or Europe through Bitcoin. Once these families get their Bitcoin, they can transfer it to our escrow accounts, and we facilitate the exchange of these Bitcoins into cash. As for plans, we are trying to build partnerships with the tech companies in the US and in Europe, so they could pay their employees or freelancers from Lebanon in Bitcoin as well. On the demand side of the Bitcoin economy in Lebanon, we engage with SMEs and explain to them that, if they use Bitcoin, they can pay for their Amazon licenses, Netflix subscriptions, and even import goods or services. There is a huge list of services that accept bitcoin as payment.
On your LinkedIn page, you position your company as a Tech4Good company. What do you think is the future of the Tech4Good movement? Do you think that the global community is ready for it?
I can honestly tell you that the future going forward is only with Tech4Good companies. Today, we are realizing that the way we live has to change. Whether we are looking at cultural identity, at health implications of the pandemic, or at the identity barriers — all these obstacles do not let us live in a comfortable environment. We have to look at the good side of our jobs and understand what good we are creating for our environment and for our communities. Let’s say, in the birth registration scenario, there are 29,000,000 children under the age of 5 who do not have a birth certificate similar to me. I bet I made you count the zeros.
The only change in this scenario is the following. Most families of these invisible children do not have money to pay for birth certificates or to pay for taxis to go between five different locations and obtain the birth certificate. Even if they had some money, the inflation of their currency would put barriers against them registering their children.
By using bitcoin we can pay upfront for the birth registration costs. With the help of our peers in Lebanon, we can help them. We never know what these children will be when they grow up. One of them may be the greatest criminal, and we facilitated this process of him becoming one. Or he can be a genius, who will invent a cure for the most difficult diseases on Earth, and we facilitated his development. Those two extreme cases are pure speculation. But what we know for sure is that humans by their nature are a driver of the good force — they are good in their nature. That birth certificate grants the child the rights to go to school, to receive healthcare, and to be a full-fledged citizen. With education and healthcare, the chances are high that this person will grow to be a good person, not a criminal. We always bet on the good nature of people — this is the driver of the Tech4Good companies and initiatives.
What we know for sure is that humans by their nature are a driver of the good force — they are good in their nature.
That is very refreshing to hear that people are a good force. Most often, we as humans are called “the most dangerous animals” or “the parasites of Earth”.
I mean, we were able to go to space with a recyclable rocket. The actions against racism that we see, the actions against COVID-19, how communities come together — these are proofs. Every time there is a crisis, people are coming together. Sure, there are some of us who are on the opposite side of this goodness spectrum, but this is not the majority — the majority are good. Lebanon with all its turmoils has been the most tolerant of refugees, despite rising voices of “send them back” chants every now and then. Lebanon is an example of hospitality, and this small piece of geography welcomed 1.5 the number that both Germany and Holland host.
That is true. My next question is, what ethical values do you believe are the most important in today’s world?
The most important ethical values are the non-aggression principles. Forcing aggression on people is a very dangerous and unacceptable thing to do. We built our company, our technology on non-aggression principles. Of course, ethics is subjective. Still, there are some parts of it that all human beings agree on, and one of them is not to put aggressive force against each other, not to use technologies to threaten each other. Privacy is also very important, that is why, in our company, we enable a peer-to-peer exchange where we collect no personal data at all. Abiding by non-aggression principles is a good starting point to build an ethical Tech4Good startup.
When I watched your videos from TedX, it became crystal clear that your childhood was beyond difficult. What would you recommend to your younger self?
To be honest, I enjoyed how I grew up. The way I grew up and the stories that I experienced made me the guy that I am today. If I could give myself a piece of advice, I would say “enjoy the time you have with your friends and family, pay more attention in school or in university, and understand that, no matter how difficult the things are, unless you are dead, there is always an exit”. Life is worth fighting for, and regardless of the situation, there is always a way out.
And my last question. What advice would you give to the people that find themselves in similar life hardships that you experienced five years ago?
The moment when I started embracing who I am, embracing my story, and the moment that I learned how to tell my story, the things started to change. But it really started with embracing who I am. I had a big challenge in my life accepting the fact that I am a Syrian refugee, and I was very ashamed of that. The moment I accepted my identity, I became more confident and free. Another thing, I never wasted an opportunity to tell my story. Every time I have an opportunity, on the train or in an elevator, I tell people my story.
In those difficult times, I switched my mentality by going to my roots and counting my blessings. When I was in the camp, I was thinking that this was the end of the world for me. Nothing could become better for me as for a Syrian refugee in a Dutch camp. I was thinking of going back to Syria and just dying there while fighting in the war. Basically, I was thinking of suicide. But then, I remembered that I lived in my own house in the Netherlands, I had a car, a motorcycle, a dog, a job that paid me well, I partied every Saturday — I lived life at its best. When I heard the stories of other refugees about how they came to the Netherlands to apply for asylum, I realized how lucky I was. They crossed the sea, they were stranded in the sea for days without water and food. Some of them even came swimming after their boats sank, some of them came walking from Greece to the Netherlands, and some of them had bullets still in their legs. Meanwhile, I left my apartment, I took a train, I was eating a hamburger, and I went to apply for asylum. I was driving up and having fun before applying for asylum, while others were packed like sardines in a small boat with no water, praying that they would make it to safety. This was a switch moment for me. When I started counting my blessings, this changed everything. I am safe, I am in the Netherlands, not in Syria, I am not captured or forced into the military, my parents are safe, what more would I ask for?
So, when you start accepting who you are and counting your blessings, looking at what you have in your hands, you find a way out. Then, you analyze your weaknesses and find people who are strong and complete these weaknesses. This is how you make everything work.
When you start accepting who you are and counting your blessings, looking at what you have in your hands, you find a way out. Then, you analyze your weaknesses and find people who are strong and complete these weaknesses. This is how you make everything work.
To Wrap Up
The story of Tey El-Rjula proves that there is nothing impossible for the people who are willing to fight against circumstances. You can watch him tell his own story in this TedX video. Hopefully, Tey and his team succeed in their precious endeavor of making the lives of people in Lebanon and other war zones a bit easier.
We hope that you found this interview to be inspiring and insightful! See you soon, and subscribe to our blog not to miss anything.
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