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GLOBAL NEWS | summer 2008

Survial Sex
In Syria, Iraqi refugees snared in prostitution

Sajida can't talk openly about what war and displacement have forced her to do. She banters with male customers at the café where she works in Damascus, Syria. But the men want more from this 43-year-old divorced mother of two, a refugee from Iraq. And she can’t refuse; her boss has seized her passport.

“I am a slave in his hands,” Sajida says. She arrived in Syria penniless in 2006, after the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, raped her in front of her son and evicted her from Baghdad because she is Sunni. She sewed clothes in a Syrian factory for $4 a day, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then she cleaned homes. Neither job paid enough to cover her expenses: $220 a month for utilities, food and rent in the Iraqi enclave of Jaramana. With two sons to support and only a middle-school education, she submitted to the café. “I have no other solutions,” she says.

Iman, a 41-year-old widow from Basra, solicits clients at a bar filled with men and smoke from water pipes, her 9-year-old daughter at her side, coughing. “How else,” Iman asks, “can I get money?”

Hundreds of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria have turned to prostitution, in a region where loss of a woman’s “honor” can lead to loss of her life. Many of their visas have expired. New visas are hard to come by, and they forbid Iraqis from working anyway. Most women subsist on vanishing savings and occasional checks from relatives abroad. Others are forced into an underground economy that sells sex.

“We don’t call it prostitution,” says Sybella Wilkes, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. “We call it ‘survival sex.’”

Women have been widowed, divorced or separated from husbands by the war, and now women-headed households account for almost a quarter of Iraqi refugee households registered with UNHCR, which sees new rape and prostitution victims every week. UNHCR has a safe house in Damascus and gives widows priority for a $100 monthly stipend reserved for 7,000 refugees. But even families with able-bodied adult men are coercing their daughters into the sex trade. Some are as young as 12, says Youmen Abu al-Husain, board member for a nonprofit running a juvenile prison that counts nine Iraqi girls suspected of being prostitutes among its 44 detainees.

Prostitution here includes the practice of muta’a—temporary “pleasure marriages,” to which some Shiite clerics bestow Islamic-law legitimacy. UNHCR notes the contested practice is rising among both Sunni and Shiite refugees, with fake sheikhs in the Iraqi hub of Sayyida Zeinab doing a brisk business in these so-called marriages and Arab Gulf businessmen paying well for such transactions, which can last as little as a day.

Iraqis have also replaced Eastern Europeans as “dancers” who go with clients for $100 a night in nightclubs catering to tourists and businessmen seeking sex. At Al-Capitan, on the outskirts of Damascus, Iraqi mothers in black abayas line the balcony, overseeing their daughters dancing below in tight, low-cut gowns. Yasmeen and Hiba—sisters from Mosul, ages 23 and 16—support their mother and five brothers through Al-Capitan “dancing.” “I feel shame,” says Yasmeen, who wears the hijab everywhere but in the nightclub. “I can’t tell people where I work.”

The consequences of such work can be fatal. Relatives of a widowed mother of three in Sayyida Zeinab strangled her to death, one of two “honor killings” of prostituted Iraqi women reported to UNHCR last autumn. No one knows how many such deaths go unreported.