Who Are the Unbanked? They Can Be Everywhere and Anyone
June 13, 2022
Fifteen years ago I got stuck in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in a dispute with my employer, that ended up in me having no legal identity, no access to a banking account, no legal right to work and no roof over my head. The kindness of strangers, following the profound philosophy of “Pay it Forward”, is the only thing that helped me overcome the strenuous ordeal and because of that I paid it forward to everyone I ever meet.
Everything in Saudi works off a residence permit called an Iqama and my employer had illegally obtained my residence permit and passport and had left me with no identity, essentially holding me hostage in the country.
I met Moataz, the founder of Bankey, LLC. , in Jeddah at this time and we have been friends ever since. Our lives have strangely intertwined again, this time in another part of the world where Moataz and Bethany have developed a remarkable mobile money platform called Empowch, that looks to disrupt the banking and remittance sectors and will onboard unbanked adults and provide them with basic financial services. A struggle I understand first hand.
Having no Iqama meant no access to banking in Jeddah which meant everything I did had to be in cash. I could not receive international money transfers without the help of friends, and I could not do any basic financial transactions and I wasn’t connected to the public health service or any public service. It was hard to believe that I was then part of the 1,4 Billion unbanked adults (as of 2021) around the world who do not have access to financial services.
My first bank account was opened in South Africa when I was sixteen and until this moment in Jeddah, I had never been unbanked or imagined that people could be unbanked. I had run my own business, bought a home, car etc, but now I was shut out from the financial services system and basic financial services, through no fault of my own. Moataz’s mother has to travel to the nearest city to do a cash remittance pick-up because there is no other physical location to collect the cash from, and many people are displaced from their homes from time to time during wars, famine etc, and also have no access to banking all through no fault of their own.
During the seven year ordeal, I had to get funds from South Africa and I had to rely on friends in Cape Town to send the cash remittance to friends in Jeddah who had to withdraw cash and then hand it to me in person when we saw each other. All that process was slow and expensive and the money transfer costs were in excess of 7% of the transfer amount, at a time when every Rand and Riyal was important to me.
When my legal dispute ended, I was finally able to leave the country and several friends from Jeddah, including Moataz and Bethany came to my wedding and freedom celebration in Vancouver. It was an amazing gathering of friends to celebrate our shared experiences together and my new found freedom.
I have started writing a book about my experience in Saudi Arabia and people have asked me if it is a bitter recounting of my experience in Jeddah, The answer is no. It is a love story. I fell in love with the people and city of Jeddah in spite of my experience, because the hardship taught me so many invaluable lessons about myself. I have learned from this experience to live in the moment and my greatest growth as a person came from the hardship and formed and forged so much of my outlook on life.
At my wedding in Vancouver, friends asked me if I could change anything about my life what would I change, and I said then what I still mean now, I would never change my past because it had brought us all together at that very moment in our lives. I have truly never felt as much love as I felt in Jeddah and it was absolutely life changing for me in the very most positive way possible.
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