Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Damascus Nightclubs Recruit Iraqi Girls

Growing numbers are working as prostitutes in the Syrian capital - some willingly, some not.
By Sahar al-Haideri

All of Ghoosoon’s immediate family died in the American offensive against insurgents in Falluja in November 2004.

Without a home and parents to support her, the 14-year-old fled with her aunt to Syria where she was told would be found work at an import/export company.

But, instead, Ghoosoon was forced into working as a prostitute at a nightclub full of Iraqi girls.

“The man who said we would have jobs broke his promises,” she said, referring to the middleman who had claimed he would find her a respectable job.

Like Ghoooon, fourteen-year-old Dina never intended to work as a prostitute.

She used to live with her family in a village on the border with Syria. Her older sister fell in love with a Syrian boy and they eloped. Dina decided to join them. Her sister then got pregnant but her boyfriend refused to marry her. She chose to have an abortion.

Worried about the shame and repercussions they would face back home, they remained in Syria. But the only way they could make a living was through prostitution.

Following the fall of Saddam, growing numbers of girls have ended up working as prostitutes in Syria - some willingly, some not - citing increasing conservatism, pressure from extremists and the grim economic and security conditions as their reasons for leaving Iraq.

This is not a new phenomenon, however. The loss of so many male breadwinners in the war against Iran and the first Gulf war led to a big growth in prostitution in the mid-Nineties. Saddam cracked down on the trade towards the end of the decade, prompting some prostitutes to find work in neighbouring Arab countries.

Following the American invasion, the trend increased because of the new hardships and difficulties and the fact that country’s borders were effectively open, with Damascus becoming one of the main destination.

“The number of Iraqi girls is increasing day after day,” said Ishaq Fareed a club owner in the Syrian capital. “In the beginning, there were only 40 but now there are more than 200 prostitutes who work here.”

Layla, 15, escape the hardships of life in Baghdad to become a prostitute in Damascus. “What can you do in Iraq with all those explosions and car bombs,” she said. “I love life and I can make any man happy.”

Another Baghdad resident Abla, who is in her late teens, also found work in the red light districts of the Syrian capital for similar reasons. Her family lost their home during the American invasion of Iraq, and struggled to make ends meet. “ I used to sleep in a shack in but now I have an apartment and can eat [well],” she said.

Prostitutes from Iraq are in demand in Damascus nightclubs where they can earn between 30 to 100 US dollars per night.

“Iraqi girls are preferred because they are clean and are cheap,” said Hani, a Syrian pimp.

While many of the girls say they are escaping the violence of Iraq, they admit that their work has its dangers.

“Dani is in charge of our group and he takes us to Arab tourists from Gulf countries,” said Samara, who is from Hillah, south of Baghdad, referring to her pimp. “Unless we satisfy the clients, Dani beats us with his thick stick.”

Sa’doon Mahir, an Iraqi businessman in Syria, said the stream of Iraqi girl heading for Damascus will only be reduced once conditions improve back home.

“Girls have been pushed into this humiliating work because fathers and brothers have been arrested, resulting in financial problems,” he said.

Sahar al-Haideri is an IWPR trainee.

The names of the women featured in this article have been changed to protect their identity.