Helpless Iraqi Refugees Turn to Sex
CAIRO — In a country ill-equipped to meet the needs of the growing influx, many Iraqi woman refuges - willingly or otherwise - turn to prostitution to make ends meet.
"From what I’ve seen, 70 percent to 80 percent of the girls working this business in Damascus today are Iraqis," Abeer, a 23-year-old Baghdadi working in a Damascus nightclub, told The New York Times on Tuesday, May 29.
"The rents here in Syria are too expensive for their families. If they go back to Iraq they’ll be slaughtered, and this is the only work available."
A 2006 UN report showed that the deterioration economic situation of Iraqi refugees have forced many teens and women to sell their bodies in secret or even with the support of family members.
The fact that many Iraqi women in Syria are the breadwinner of their families has increased the number of prostitutes.
"So many of the Iraqi women arriving now are living on their own with their children because the men in their families were killed or kidnapped," said Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf, a nun at the Good Shepherd convent in Damascus, which helps refugees.
"I met three sisters-in-law recently who were living together and all prostituting themselves," she added.
"They would go out on alternate nights — each woman took her turn — and then divide the money to feed all the children."
For more than three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqi prostitution in Syria was a forbidden topic.
Now the Syrian government is acknowledging the problem and working with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The UNHCR estimates that about 1.2 million Iraqi refugees now live in Syria, though Damascus puts the figure even higher.
Seeking work outside the home for the first time and in a country with high unemployment, many Iraqi women and girls find that their only marketable asset is their bodies.
"We Iraqis used to be a proud people," said Umm Hiba, who fled Baghdad with her 16-year-old daughter last year after threats from militias.
Hiba, once a brilliant hijab-clad schoolgirl who never missed the dawn prayers, now works as a dancer at a nightclub along a highway known for prostitution in Damascus.
Wearing a pink silk dress with spaghetti straps, her frail shoulders bathed in colored light, she dances among about two dozen other girls on the stage for drunken clients.
"We make sure that each girl has a minimum of 500 lira [$10] at the end of each night, no matter how bad business is," said the club manager.
"We are sympathetic to the situation of the Iraqi people. And we try to give some extra help to the girls whose families are in special difficulties."
Umm Hiba shook her head.
"During the war we lost everything. We even lost our honor."
Zafer, a waiter, said most of the women and girls at the club sell sexual favors.
"They have an hourly rate," he said. "And they have regular customers."
Mouna Asaad, a Syrian women’s rights lawyer, said the fact that some Iraqi refugees are selling sex or working in sex clubs was not uncommon.
"Sometimes you see whole families living this way, the girls pimped by the mother or aunt."