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The Western Union Experience in Turkey,Lebanon and Syria

To stand in a Western Union agent's office in Syria, is to witness a human tragedy.

To stand in a Western Union agent’s office in Syria, is to witness a human tragedy.

Note: Alot of visitors seem to find the blog via Google searches for “Western Union in Istanbul”. So I’ve put together a more detailed guide to Western Union offices in the city on this page.

A few days ago, I had to break my doctor ordered bed confinement to send a Western Union money transfer to a relative. It got me thinking of my experiences with Western Union in three different countries; Turkey (what you’d expect), Lebanon (a remittance junkie’s paradise), and Syria (to stand in a Western Union agent’s office in Syria, is to witness a human tragedy).

First, Turkey. The only authorized agents for Western Union here in Istanbul are the banks. Bank queues are never pleasant, especially on Mondays and right after holidays. Also, for some reason I’ve yet to understand, it isn’t unusual for entire banks to lose their connection to the Western Union network during the day. If you are going to send or receive money via Western Union in Istanbul, best ask beforehand if the system is up before waiting in a queue. In my experience, Finansbank branches have proven most reliable when it comes to money transfers, even if they do make you sign an ungodly number of forms.

Lebanon…ah, wonderful, glorious Lebanon. If a person is going to live off the remittances of relatives abroad, Lebanon is the place to be. Western Union agents are a dime a dozen there, and they aren’t just limited to banks or money exchange offices. Mobile phone shops and computer stores also act as Western Union agents. If a commercial establishment has an Internet connection, there’s apparently nothing stopping it from serving as a WU remittance office.

And the connection with the Western Union network never goes down. In a place like Lebanon, with half the population dependent on money from relatives in Australia and South America, losing the ability to receive remittances would be a national disaster, akin to a tsunami.

American dollars are plentiful in Lebanon, it’s the currency of choice for really large transactions. And the agents aren’t so uptight about exact spelling of names. To them, Dandachi/Dandashi/Aldandashe are all the same. When it comes to remittances, Lebanon is the exact polar opposite of……

Remittances in Syria…a human tragedy.

To stand in a Western Union office in Syria, is to witness a third world society in every meaning of the word. Sometime in the summer of 2013, Western Union had a falling out with most of its agents in Syria. Not surprising, considering the wild fluctuations in the exchange rate of the Syrian Lira in those days, a state of affairs not helped by that the fact that the official rate set by the government, has always been ludicrously out of touch with the reality of the black market price and that of neighboring countries. And so, as a result, exchange offices in Homs, Hama, Latakia, Baniyas and their rural areas, stopped offering Western Union remittances.

Which left Tartous, and its four WU agents, to service the entire Syrian coast and two large inner provinces. By August 2013, even those four agents had been reduced to just two functioning agents. One can imagine the scenes of utter chaos at the two branches, with crowds of desperate people, having braved roads and travel from Homs, Hama and Latakia in wartime, trying to get the money that they needed to see them through the month.

Forget queues, Syrians have always been lousy at queuing for anything. Think crowds of people spilling out into the streets, first trying to give their wire transfer numbers and IDs to the hapless employees of the money exchange office, and then having to wait anywhere up to six hours for their turn to come, only to be told that the name on the transfer didn’t exactly match that on the ID, or that there was a number missing from the MTCN, or any number of other inconsistencies in the transfer, or, horror of horrors, that the connection to the Western Union network was down. That was a frequent occurrence in Syria, troublesome network connections.

And even after a person got confirmation that there did indeed exist a WU transfer in their name in the system, there would be no exchange of money that same day. A person would receive a receipt, saying that they had received the money, without any money actually changing hands. Receiving the actual money would need a return visit….after two days.

That’s because no money exchange company in Syria ever left a single lira more in their offices than they absolutely had to. They would calculate what they needed two days in advance, and ask for banknotes from the Central Bank, who would then asses just how grave the present danger was to the country from the cosmic Zionist-CIA-Wahabi-Salafi-NATO conspiracy, and then decide whether they would actually send a truckload of Syrian Liras into circulation. Only in Syria, could a money exchange office claim in all truthfulness that they didn’t have any Syrian liras on hand, and didn’t know when they would be receiving any.

In any other part of the world, Western Union is a convenient, albeit expensive, way of getting money to relatives. In Syria, receiving a WU transfer is a time consuming and, for some, a potentially dangerous endeavor.

And forget about sending money from inside Syria to outside, the regime banned all external money transfers early on during the conflict as a part of currency control measures.

And forget about receiving a remittance in any currency other than Syrian liras, that too was banned as part of the above mentioned currency control measures. When you eventually got your money, it would be in Syrian liras, at whatever price the lira happened to be at the day you eventually got the money.

And forget about using other carriers besides Western Union. If your money is coming from outside the Arab world, Western Union is your only option. And even if your transfer originates from someone in an Arab country, your options are severely limited; most money transfer companies in the Gulf stopped doing business with Syria in 2012. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.

And so the result is a scene played out every single day, of desperate people pleading with powerless money exchange employees, that they needed to travel back to their homes in Homs or Hama or Latakia before sunset, that they had desperate medical issues, that they couldn’t afford to stay two nights in Tartous.

At the money exchange offices, I’d personally see people holding up their kids to the faces of the employees, parading their elderly parents, pleading all sorts of dire circumstances, in the hope that they could shave off a few hours off their waiting time. This is what happens to a society in the process of breaking down, the ordinary person is reduced to debasing themselves for a service that the rest of the world doesn’t give a second thought to.

But Syrians are nothing if not adaptable. Those lucky enough to live within a few hours drive of the Lebanese border, just gave up on Syrian exchange offices, and started having their money sent to Western Union’s agents in Lebanon instead. A trusted friend or relative would pick up the money, and have it in Homs or Hama or Latakia by sunset the same day, if the roads were open. And if they weren’t…well, better to wait a few days than to endure the torment of a trip to a Syrian money exchange branch, and find out the network was down.

It’s a sad state of affairs, when even a country’s remittances have to be imported.