make a living
Digital tools also provide an indispensable yet tortuous resource for Syrians seeking a measure of economic stability. In and of itself, Syria currently offers few prospects for either obtaining a decent education or building a viable career. Its once robust system of public schools and universities is in disarray, with rundown classrooms beset by overcrowding and a brain drain among teachers. Young people often ask themselves why they should even bother pursuing a degree: Civil servant positions that once guaranteed a lifelong salary no longer cover the bare minimum, and desirable private sector jobs are scarce.
In such a stifling environment, you are left to probe digital pathways to a more promising future. Students tap e-learning platforms like Coursera and Duolingo to supplement dismal instruction and develop the skill sets—notably, foreign languages—that make them stronger candidates for opportunities overseas. They form Telegram groups to exchange notes and share hacked instructional materials. This reliance on digital instruction extends beyond students, with professionals frequently seeking out technical training online. “Mechanics kept telling me that my car is unfixable because it needs a part that can’t be procured in Syria,” said a taxi driver. “I searched the internet and, with my son’s help, was able to build the part myself.”
Syrian entrepreneurs, too, have been experimenting with the web to circumvent the high costs of renting a physical shop or office, which makes even less sense when selling to consumers with negligible purchasing power. An online retailer, who makes garments using traditional methods and fabric, took pride in how she successfully switched to the digital sphere:
We opened a shop, but quickly had to close. The only way we could succeed was to maintain a shop in one of Damascus’ central souks, but we didn’t have the money to rent there. In any event, our products have a larger market online, particularly among Syrians abroad who feel homesick and want to buy traditional goods.
Syrian jobseekers likewise leverage digital tools to make a living, not least as a remote workforce for foreign companies that pay in hard currency. Syrians have thus capitalized, for example, on their country’s strong reputation for Arabic-language education to find remote work in tutoring, translation, editing, and copywriting. “I work with a foreign website that specializes in trade and industry,” explained a young, aspiring writer. “I send them a minimum of two articles per day, and get paid five dollars for each article.”
This model nonetheless has serious downsides. Unscrupulous foreign employers are homing in on Syrian laborers precisely because they will accept rock bottom wages, far beneath their actual market value. “Because they can’t find any other work, some computer engineers take on major projects for just a few hundred dollars,” lamented a remote programmer. “They know the middleman in the Gulf takes double what they earn, but they are forced to accept that.”
Remote work is also plagued by connection problems, which become a persistent headache both for Syrian workers and their employers abroad. A Saudi developer summed up his experience contracting programmers inside Syria: “The quality of work was excellent, but we faced constant disruptions due to electricity and the internet.” These may undermine trust, as employers surmise that poor connection may just hide poor performance. “The consultant I’m working with inside Syria sometimes takes more than a day to respond to my messages,” said an employer based in Lebanon. “He says it’s due to outages, but even in Syria, I’m sure you can connect at least once a day.”
An even thornier problem is how Western sanctions have cut Syria off from much of the world’s global infrastructure. For fear of breaking some ill-defined rule, many tech providers voluntarily steer clear of Syria’s small and high-risk market: PayPal, Adobe, Slack, and TikTok are all blocked inside the country. Even apps that continue to function—notably, Gmail—may abruptly lock you out for the “suspicious” act of logging on while using a “virtual private network” (VPN) to mask your device’s IP address.
This obstacle course can be life-altering, slamming shut the very doors that technology promises to open. A young computer engineer experienced these effects firsthand: “I won a grant to enroll in an online master’s degree at an English university, but then I couldn’t gain permission to access the library from Syria. It made the grant meaningless, so I had to drop out.”
Syria’s excommunication from global financial markets also hits ordinary Syrians hard. The implications may be banal and manageable: You could fail, say, to update your phone’s operating system, for lack of an accepted payment method. But they threaten livelihoods too. Unable to receive international wire transfers, remote workers and business owners resort to measures that are costly and dangerous, from carrying bags of cash across the border to moving it through shady agents on the financial black market. Some Syrians even lose access to their own money abroad: “I put all my savings in an Australian bank account,” explained a flight attendant in Damascus. “But when I tried to conduct a transaction from Syria, they blocked my access. I asked lawyers what to do. They said I can’t do anything.”
This battery of impediments means Syrian internet users are constantly coming up with solutions as diverse and dynamic as the obstacles they face. Perhaps the most common trick entails using VPNs to access restricted platforms. VPNs were once the province of geeks and activists, but have lately proliferated even among low-tech users. Syrian hackers share tutorials on social media explaining how to unblock sites or services. Cracked software has grown so widespread that it is now sold in mobile shops, where vendors install programs onto customers’ devices. Users without access to credit cards seek help from friends or colleagues abroad, who subscribe to digital services on their behalf. Indeed, the demand is such that some Syrian expatriates have made a business of it, charging steep fees to sign clients up to paid online services.
These fixes are central to Syrians’ fast-evolving digital culture, and their economic prospects more broadly. A Syrian engineer now based in Germany explained:
The only place I miss in Syria is Bahsa [the IT market in Damascus], where you can pay half a dollar for a CD with 2,000 dollars’ worth of software on it. This allowed Syrian programmers to access all kinds of programs, and in turn gain experience and hone their skills. When we come to Europe, we often find that we are literate in more programs than our European peers.
Alongside improvised solutions, Syria has also witnessed rare but hopeful moments of collective redress. Activist groups have notably lobbied tech companies to restore access to popular online educational platforms. After a widely shared petition entreated Duolingo to make its English proficiency tests available in the country, the app obtained in December 2020 an exemption from the US treasury to do just that. But such small victories are overshadowed by the struggle to stay one step ahead of the next looming challenge.