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July 14, 2008

Survival Sex: Iraqi Refugees

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iragi refugee prostitutes

Najaf photographed in the reporter's hotel room.

Photo Credit: Jason Florio

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Although prostitution has long existed in Amman, that job is now being filled by Iraqis. Since the U.S. rolled into Baghdad in 2003, more than 2 million people have fled Iraq. Most live in Syria and Jordan and await official resettlement to someplace safe, where they can work. A fraction have found new homes this way in Sweden, Australia, and the Netherlands, and around 6000 in the U.S. — but it can take years. Only 5000 of the 750,000 Iraqis who have come to Jordan have been resettled. In the meantime, the discos and coffee shops are filled with desperate, displaced Iraqi women.

There are no solid statistics on how many of the displaced have turned to prostitution. "We can't get a count because the girls don't come for help," says Enaam Asha, with the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, an NGO in Amman. "They don't want to be seen by anyone. They fear for their lives." For these women, "honor killings" — when a woman is murdered by a male relative for damaging her family's reputation — are a real threat. Last year, there were 17 in Jordan.

What we do know about the new prostitutes is that many come squarely from Iraq's middle class. A short time ago they were nurses, salesclerks, students leading normal lives. After the Americans arrived, many stayed and worked as liaisons for the U.S. forces — translating on night patrols, interpreting in interrogations, facilitating work with contractors. But when the Green Zone became a fortress, and the car bombs that occasionally rocked the ground started coming two and three times a day, they fled. They had money enough to get to Jordan, but not to survive for very long.

"They came here and thought that it would only be a couple of months," says Rana Sweis, of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). "But they hear from relatives back home that the situation isn't safe there. And now they're running out of savings, and it's a very bad situation."

Meanwhile, Jordan is collapsing under the strain, with schools, hospitals, and utilities all stretched beyond their limits. The government estimates that it spends $1 billion a year on displaced Iraqis, who rely on handouts because the country can't issue them work permits. "Unemployment is a major problem for our own citizens," says Nasser Judeh, a spokesman for the Jordanian government. "How can we accord more favorable treatment to expatriates than to our own citizens?"

Making matters worse, Iraqis, identified by their accents, are part of the underclass in Amman. They can't get taxis because drivers think they're untrustworthy. They don't go to restaurants because waiters don't want to serve them. They must carry their papers with them at all times or face deportation. They exist in a kind of purgatory — unfamiliar, unemployable, unclaimed by any side. They register with the UNHRC, beg NGOs for assistance, and pray for escape, for the day they might wind up in an American town with pine trees and a Mac store.

The crowning irony among many of the women I met: Their best clients in Amman are American and European military personnel and contractors — the same sort of men they had worked for as translators and fixers. Now they are servicing them in a different way altogether. Samara is a 23-year-old from the Diyala province in eastern Iraq. She spends several nights a week at the Cottage (or the disco at the Holiday Inn, or the Hyatt) to make enough money to last a few days. She wears short skirts, drinks, smokes, flirts.

Later, as she sits on the edge of the coffee table in my hotel room, it's hard to picture her as a nightclub denizen. She has long, dark hair and a round face that barely moves when she talks — her eyebrows don't furrow; her chin never stiffens. She is almost completely still, except for when she drops her head and stares at her lap. She explains that since she moved to Amman in 2006, she has slept with "British men, Americans, Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians. God knows how many." She has been pregnant, and sold a thin gold necklace, her only piece of jewelry, to pay for the abortion. "I love children," she says. "I would love to have children someday."

Before the war, Samara was a virgin. She didn't touch alcohol, and she wore a headscarf to show her modesty. She worked hard in high school and hoped to be an artist, often visiting the library after class to sketch the Venus de Milo or van Gogh from images in books. Her talent was sufficient to earn her pocket money doing portraits for her neighbors.

When U.S. soldiers took her brother, the household breadwinner, to Abu Ghraib, her family dispersed — to Baghdad, Syria, Jordan.

Samara joined her sister in Amman. "I got a job as a secretary that paid 100 dinars a month. And I had to pay the rent, and 30 dinars for power and water, and I couldn't live on that," she says. After six months, she grew desperate, and her sister introduced the idea of prostitution. (A year before, another refugee had taught Samara's sister how to sell herself.) Samara had a few encounters, earning 50 dinars from each, but she was disgusted by what she was doing. She returned to Baghdad, but she had no options there, either, and fell back into prostitution.

"Our clients were Americans. They would come to the house. Some girls went to the Green Zone, but I didn't think it was safe," she says. One day, a letter arrived at the brothel from lieutenants of insurgent leader Muqtada al-Sadr threatening to kill anyone engaging in prostitution. She returned to Amman, where she met Malak at a nightclub. Both far from home, broke, and desperate, they made a tacit pact to do whatever it took to stay alive. "I can't get a real job," says Samara. "So I stay and I work and I forget about the work that I do. I stay in hiding."


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