Unveiling Iraq’s teenage prostitutes

Fleeing their war-torn homes, Iraqi girls are selling their bodies in Syria to support their families.

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Unveiling Iraq's teenage prostitutes

You might not even notice the Manara nightclub if it weren’t for the gradual flow of cars leading right to it. Just behind the Mosque of President Hafez Assad, the club’s parking lot is crammed with cars, many bearing plates from neighboring gulf states. Inside, disco lights pierce the smoky air. Patrons pack the seats as they sip beer and lazily gaze at the dance floor. They watch teenage girls dressed in snug, revealing clothes awkwardly shuffling to thumping Arabic music. Many girls wear stilettos so steep they can barely walk. Some dance in pairs, often tightly pressed together, fingers entwined. Most seem bored and some, noticeably, are uneasy.

Male customers summon waitstaff to inquire about the availability and age of select girls. A Syrian journalist and I, posing as patrons, consult the staff ourselves. Farah, a 15-year-old, is brought to our table, dressed in camouflage pants and heavy makeup.

Farah sits, swings her long dark hair, shakes hands all around, then pointedly asks, “Who am I speaking to?” I’m taken aback by her businesslike tone and point to the Syrian reporter. Farah pleasantly chats with him, negotiating how much time she’ll share, and if a “next step” will be taken. Farah locks eyes with the waiter, nods, and a bottle of champagne is brought to our table. “That’ll be 7,000 Syrian pounds,” says the waiter. That’s $140. The champagne signals the beginning of the process. Conversation is next, and “anything else” will cost more.

As we empty our bottle of champagne, Farah tells us her story. Like most of the girls at the Manara disco, she is an Iraqi, a Sunni from Fallujah, one of Iraq’s most war-torn areas. She got married in the United Arab Emirates, divorced four months afterward, and found work at the disco through a cousin. She says she’s working “just to make some money for my family,” who also now live in Syria. Farah says she’s the family’s breadwinner.

The story of a Sunni girl from Fallujah selling herself in a Damascus nightclub represents startling new fallout from the Iraq war, one human rights organizations and experts are only beginning to address. An increasing number of young Iraqi women and girls who fled Iraq during the turmoil are turning to prostitution in Syria, although there are no reliable statistics on how many girls are involved. That might partly explain why so little reporting has been done on the topic. For journalists and human rights workers, securing contact with Iraqi sex workers in Syria is difficult and dangerous because the topic is taboo.

“It’s a serious problem because there are young girls doing this — 11, 12, 13 years old,” says Abdelhamid El Ouali, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who’s based in Damascus. “It’s amazing at first. But when you fight for your life, what are you going to do?”

The Syrian government and UNHCR put the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria at roughly 700,000. Syrian police either lack data or won’t release any figures on prostitution, which isn’t surprising considering the closed government. The U.S. State Department’s 2005 “Trafficking in Persons Report” acknowledges the problem, but officials have no clear sense of its magnitude. According to the report, “There have been some reports that indicate Iraqi women may be subjected to sexual exploitation in prostitution in Syria at the hands of Iraqi criminal networks, but those reports have not been confirmed.”

Of course, nearly every conflict breeds prostitution. Despair leads to desperation, which can often lead to sex work. Whether Iraqi girls have actually been “trafficked” is hard to determine for myriad reasons, not the least of which is that coercion is difficult to gauge. “You could say this situation isn’t triggered by trafficking — trafficking just takes advantage of the situation,” El Ouali says.

That Iraqi girls and women are selling sex may not seem shocking, but prostitution is especially taboo for Arab women. “In this culture, to allow your daughter to become a prostitute means you’ve hit dirt bottom,” says Joshua Landis, an American professor from the University of Oklahoma, presently living in Syria. “None of your sisters can get married if it’s known that one of them is a prostitute. If there’s any public knowledge of this, it’s a shame on the whole family.” The shame can even lead to “honor killings,” in which women are slain by their husbands or relatives for tainting the family name.

Hustling has a particularly violent legacy in Iraq. In 2000, Saddam Hussein publicly executed 200 women convicted of prostitution. Prostitution would be especially shameful in Farah’s hometown, as Fallujah is considered one of Iraq’s more tribal, religiously conservative cities. “Yes, even Sunnis from Fallujah are doing this kind of work, and it reflects the drama of the situation,” El Ouali says. “It’s provoked by misery and precariousness.”

Syria has traditionally allowed relaxed entry to its Arab neighbors. Many arrived because of rampant, indiscriminate violence back home, while others, like thousands of Iraqi Christians, had been targeted by opposing ethnic or religious sects. Some feared they were “marked” for working with foreigners, mainly Americans, either in the Coalition Provisional Authority or the military, as translators or interrogators.

But with the exception of Palestinians, refugees are not officially allowed to hold jobs in Syria. For the most part, Iraqi refugees are living off their savings, which are drained by daily expenses. Many are stuck in Syria, as few Western embassies are now granting visas, claiming that Iraq has become a liberated country following the fall of Saddam. With economic conditions worsening all the time for refugees, officials say, it’s no surprise that Syria is seeing a rise in child exploitation and prostitution.

Koumay Mulhem, a young Syrian journalist, has been researching Iraqi prostitution in Syria for a year as a reporter for an online women’s magazine, and is preparing to make a documentary about it. Mulhem serves as my tour guide of sorts one recent Friday night as I try to get a sense of how widespread Iraqi prostitution is here.

Our first stop is Martyrs’ Square, the center of Damascus. With the Damascene charm of Middle Eastern nut and juice shops, Al-Merjeh, as it is locally known, is somewhat reminiscent of New York’s Times Square of the 1980s: seedy side streets, a plethora of one-star hotels, and pimps. Within minutes, Mulhem locates a pimp, a shoeshine boy, and quickly begins bartering with him.

“I have farfourd,” says the pimp, using the slang for very young girls. “Fifteen years old.”

“I need younger,” Mulhem says.

“Yes, we can find them. Iraqi girls. The cleanest you can find. You’ll never see anything like these girls. They’ll make you very happy.”

“How much?”

“Since you’re more than one — 1,500 Syrian pounds [$30].”

Mulhem balks. The demonstration is over, and so he breaks the deal and walks away. “Two minutes,” he says, a terse commentary on how easy it was to transact a deal.

Mulhem says that Al-Merjeh has long been a place to find pimps, even before the influx of Iraqis. It’s a transit point for taxi drivers, who transport men to prostitutes in suburban apartments in Jeramana, Berze and Sayeda Zainab (these districts house many Iraqi Christians, Kurds and Shiites, respectively). “Prostitution is flourishing in these areas,” Mulhem says. “I’m a resident of Jeramana and there’s a new place for prostitution within my own building.”

He notes that Russian and Moroccan sex workers operated in Syria during the mid-1990s. A comparatively smaller influx of Iraqi prostitution came after Operation Desert Storm, but “since the last Gulf War, there has been a flood that everybody has felt.”

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At the square we hop into a taxi. Just after we state our destination, the cab driver begins soliciting us. He tells us about girls in “furnished apartments” in the suburbs and offers us a room “with a 16 year-old maid. You will see something you’ll never believe,” he says.

We decline and head to Rabwah, a neighborhood with about 20 clubs — mostly with Syrian and Moroccan sex workers, but now with more Iraqis, Mulhem says. Before entering one, Mulhem pulls me aside. “These places are dangerous,” he says. “Don’t speak English. You’re Turkish now, OK?” An American presence would arouse too much suspicion, he says, as locals are the expected patrons.

In one club, girls in low-cut halter tops walk hand in hand along a fashion runway-like platform. Blaring music makes conversation impossible and so we decide to leave. As we do, a man joins us to help us find “the right club.” We hail a cab and head to the upscale neighborhood Mezza. We end up at the Manara nightclub, where I met Farah weeks ago. This is the place, our companion says, where the best Iraqi girls are found, and their youth is a premium.

This time the girls are more aggressive. As soon as we sit down, four instantly arrive at our table, squeezing in tightly, knitting their hands into ours. Alia and Noura sit beside our Syrian photographer, who turns to them and asks why two are presenting themselves to him.

“She’s my sister,” says Alia, who says she’s 18 but looks much more like 14. “We always go together.”

“Where are you from?”

“Baghdad.”

“Did you bring your sister here?”

“No, my mother brought us,” says Alia, suddenly looking a bit sullen.

“Do you like your mother?” our photographer asks.

“Of course,” she answers, slightly defensive. “Now you have to choose between me and my sister.”

Sitting beside Mulhem is Dana, who says she’s from the “jihad neighborhood of Baghdad,” but doesn’t name the district. He’s trying to negotiate a way to spend time with her to talk about her experience and how she landed the work.

“How much time would you spend with me? What are you going to do?” he asks.

“I’ll make you happy in any way you want,” Dana says. But first she has to check with her brother, seated just behind Mulhem, about prices and availability. They agree on $100 and a rendezvous tomorrow afternoon (Mulhem doesn’t show up). The deal is closed and our evening winds down — unless we decide to do more business. We decline. The girls are disappointed and we head out in the night.

As we stroll alongside the Mosque of President Hafez Assad, Mulhem tries to calculate the number of prostitutes in Damascus. There were about 40 girls in the Manara nightclub, he says. Now multiple that number by approximately 120 clubs and you have a pretty good estimate. Streetwalkers constitute a smaller number, and who knows how many prostitutes operate in “furnished apartments.” As we continue walking down the windy street, Mulhem grows reflective. Referring to Dana, he says, “She’s just a child. They’re all just children.”

One outreach organization for refugee children is the Good Shepherd Nunnery in Damascus’ crumbling Old City. The nuns’ observations of Syrian prostitution mirror Mulhem’s, but they have also met a few Iraqi women in local prisons who’ve been sold into bondage by their husbands. Mostly, says Sister Mary Claude Naoldaf, “the girls tell me they don’t like it but have to do it to support their families.”

She adds that in the past year, many of the children that attended nunnery’s learning center have “suddenly disappeared” — most likely taken out of school, she believes, to earn for their families. Her colleague, Sister Therese Mosalam, explains that “to help prevent girls from turning to prostitution, the center offers them computer training courses and helps find them jobs in sewing and gold-manufacturing factories.” But pay is usually about $50 a month –$100 in the best case — compared with the $40 to $60 sex workers can make per night. “And the job opportunities are very rare,” she adds. “I had one girl who waited for three years for the factory job.”

The sisters’ voices drop as they quietly recall visits to refugee families’ homes. Empty refrigerators are common. Some kids have yellowish skin and many look gaunt. Malnutrition, they say, is starting to take hold.

Mouna Kurdy, general manager of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which works in affiliation with the UNHCR, acknowledges that among Iraqi refugees, “parents don’t have enough to eat, so they encourage their children to take these jobs.”

She grows testy at recent inquiries by the press and humanitarian groups about Iraqi prostitutes in Syria. “And now people are asking about this issue? [The international community] was preparing this war for months. Now that Saddam Hussein isn’t here anymore, the problems are supposed to be finished. No. They have been here before the war, during the war, and after the war.”

“Somalian and Sudanese worked as prostitutes in Syria, but nobody cared about that,” says Abdul Aziz Taha, who’s in change of a Red Crescent health clinic in the Damascus suburbs.

Both Taha and Kurdy says that prostitution is a comparatively small worry in light of the basic health problems that Iraqi refugees face, including hepatitis C, diabetes and serious cardiac conditions. Major medical procedures cost on average $2,000, but the Red Crescent is only given a budget of $200 per family, Kurdy says.

Still, given the growing awareness of the problems facing Iraqi refugees — violence, restricted mobility, diminishing finances — one wonders why child prostitution in Syria hasn’t garnered more attention. The answer might depend on whom you ask. To Mulhem, it’s profitable for Syria as a tourist attraction. He believes “there’s active collaboration between the club owners and police who turn a blind eye for payoffs.” Landis, the American professor in Syria, says that if Syria publicly acknowledged prostitution, that would “mean sanctioning its existence” and expose the country to the sort of shame that an individual family would face.

In fact, Syria newspapers typically replace the word “prostitution” with the euphemistic ” act against decency.” Talk of drugs, HIV and religion is actively discouraged — some would say censored — by the Syrian authorities. And despite numerous inquires, no Iraqi women’s organization would respond to questions about this issue.

But the emergence of Iraqi prostitution in Syria, especially among young girls, reflects the dire conditions of the local Iraqi refugee community. One U.N. official, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding prostitution underscores the international community’s larger failure to recognize the dire conditions of Iraqi refugees and provide them with a safe haven.

“Every social convention is splitting at the seams because of the implosion of Iraqi society,” Landis says. “That place has been blown apart, so all the social barriers have collapsed.”

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