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July 14, 2008

Survival Sex: Iraqi Refugees

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Samara photographed in the reporter's hotel room.

Photo Credit: Jason Florio

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Najah, a striking 34-year-old former nurse with tweezed eyebrows and a perfect round-brush blowout, talks to me in the lobby of my hotel. "Before the war, I was married, settled with my husband of nine years," she says. "He disappeared. I don't know where he is now." She echoes a sentiment shared by many of her peers: "There were prostitutes in Baghdad, but I thought they were just bad girls. I never thought I would be one of them." Now Najah clings to her faith for comfort. "Am I a good Muslim if I sleep with strange men?" She pauses. "I think so, because I was forced. But I must repent."

Even as things appear safer in Iraq, returning is not an option. "My country does not want me because I was working for the Americans," Malak says. "I have no home anymore, no family, no piece of land." What Malak does have now is her husband, Nizar, an Iraqi who is able to support them both. He knows her history and doesn't care.

"I love my wife," he says. "She's a good person. She was an orphan, away from her homeland. She had nothing — I don't feel pity for her, I only feel compassion."

Marriage is one form of rescue from this life, but it's a long shot, particularly in a culture that looks askance at an unmarried woman's even talking to a man. Another way out can come from the UNHRC, which finally granted Samara an interview.

"They say I will be resettled!" she says when I meet her a few days later in a new Iraqi café in Amman. Despite the odds stacked against her, despite all the chaos, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty as to where she'll wind up, Samara is now the most hopeful person in the world. "I must always believe I will get out," she says. "I must always believe that I will have a better life."

Back at the Cottage, the night is under way. The lounge swells with young Iraqi girls and men of all sorts. Three fair Europeans, transfixed by the show, pass the hookah pipe around. Quietly directing it all from a corner is the madam, 60, in a tailored suit and pearls. A client approaches, and after some discussion, she signals to one of her girls, who will leave discreetly, followed a few minutes later by the man who chose her. By early morning, a few girls are left on the dance floor. They haven't made any money tonight, but they'll come back tomorrow.

Samara, Malak, and Najaf, all Iraqi refugees who have turned to prostitution, were photographed in the reporter's hotel room.

Danielle Pergament is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. She lives with her husband in New York.


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