GAZIENTEP AND SANLIURFA, TURKEY — In the refugee camps and crowded Turkish towns on the border with Syria, impoverished Syrian women and girls are falling prey to criminal rings that are forcing them into sexually exploitative situations ranging from illicit marriages to outright prostitution.
The phenomenon has grown over the past year, corrupting Syrian traditions and drawing a class of Turkish “customers” who are taking advantage of the refugees’ desperate circumstances.
The Syrian women who fall into the trap of these arrangements are often young widows or divorcées who have no strong social or family networks. Girls are also targeted for early marriage or sexual exploitation. In some cases male relatives are complicit.
Samaa, a woman who fled the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo with her family more than a year ago, lives in a rundown hotel in Gaziantep, a border city in southern Turkey flooded with Syrian refugees.
She lives completely isolated from the Syrian community, helping to provide for her family through sex work, a practice her husband overlooks out of a toxic mix of shame and necessity.
“If a Syrian woman asks for help – whether it is money, work, or a place to rent – there is immediately a request for something in return, something that is haram [sinful],” explains Samaa. “A restaurant owner told me he would employ my children on the condition that I sleep with him one night.”
The two boys now do odd jobs at the restaurant. Her day-laborer husband and children manage to net about $20 per day. The room they all share costs $30 a day. Samaa, who has a urinary tract infection, works while they are away to make up the difference and tries to maintain a veneer of discretion. (A Syrian pimp directs potential customers to her room.)
Samaa says they are locked in this vicious cycle because renting a place requires an upfront deposit of one to three months’ rent, the kind of liquidity this family lacks. Living in a tented camp strikes her as an even less attractive option.
With the Syrian civil war now in its fourth year and having displaced millions of civilians and killed some 200,000, the plight of Syrian refugee women and girls living in the Middle East has been well documented by international organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the United Nations.
Early and forced marriages, sexual harassment from landlords or service providers, increased domestic violence, and lack of access to education and health care stand out as chief concerns in the Syrian refugee communities of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, according to an IRC report in September. According to the report, 4 in 5 Syrian refugees are women or children.
Shortages of data, and aid
But in Turkey, home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees according to the latest UN estimates, research efforts are complicated by restricted access to camps and the challenge of collecting data across vast urban communities. The result is a dearth of quantitative data on gender-specific issues.
There is also a shortage of havens and help. Gaziantep, where the opposition Syrian interim government is based, is flush with aid organizations, but the majority of them focus on the crisis back home rather than on the plight of refugees in Turkey.
As of this past summer, Syria’s expatriate minister of family affairs had never set foot in any of the 22 camps run by the Turkish government.
“It is very hard to get precise information – all we have is secondhand anecdotes,” admits the minister, Taghrid al-Hajali, who also heads the women’s bureau of the Syrian National Council.
“All these cases of exploitation are the result of poverty and need,” adds Ms. Hajali, noting that, after more than three years of conflict, most Syrians have no savings left.
Weeks of reporting and interviews along the Turkish-Syrian border suggest that a growing number of Turkish men are taking Syrian refugee women as second wives, sometimes in exploitative or fraudulent circumstances.
Having as many as four wives is culturally acceptable in conservative Muslim communities on both sides of the border. But Turkey, which unlike Syria follows a secular legal framework, has long outlawed the practice. Offenders risk two years in prison.
This doesn’t prevent it from happening. Central to the practice are matchmakers, a euphemism for individuals who play a wide range of roles, from making introductions to facilitating undocumented marriages for a fee to spurring sex work.
Poverty and vulnerability
Poverty-stricken widows like Umm Abdu, another native of Aleppo, are the bread and butter of these predators. Formerly a street vendor, she moved to Antakya in February 2012, lured by the promises of a matchmaker known as Abu Khalil. She thought she was in for a better life: one of comfort, away from bombs, married to a decent Muslim man.
“He lied to me properly,” says Umm Abdu, whose marriage ended unceremoniously after four months. She is now a cleaner in a hotel in Gaziantep. “If we had registered our marriage, I would have had residency and health care. I have nothing.”
She says that in her case, the matchmaker was part of a mafia ring made up of Turkmen, an ethnic community that speaks both Arabic and Turkish, natural bridge-builders between Arab Syrians and host communities in Turkey.
Umm Abdu continues to fend off advances from matchmakers who are interested not only in her but also in her 12-year-old child. But now she knows better. “If I won’t accept a mockery of a marriage for myself, how could I do it to my daughter?”
Her daughter, a pretty girl wearing a permanent scowl, was recently proposed to by a man more than three times her age: “I thought to myself, how is it possible that someone old enough to be my father is asking for my hand? He has no hair!
“In our area, in Syria, it was normal for girls to marry at 13 or 14. But it would be someone from a reasonable age group, not older than 25,” recalls the girl. The pair requested their real names be withheld to protect their privacy.
Matchmakers’ different names
Before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, only a small fraction of marriages in rural Syria were conducted under the auspices of a matchmaker, or khataba, a woman who had the respect of the community and a vested interest in a successful outcome.
In the Syrian refugee community in Turkey, the term has taken on a more sinister character. Matchmakers now go by several different names: simsar, which means broker in Arabic; dalal and dalala, for guide; or tajir al-habaib, the trader of sweethearts.
It is not the kind of profession that is publicly acknowledged. The men in the business often engage in illicit cross-border trade between Syria and Turkey, or sell drugs on the side. Women tend to keep a low profile and take smaller commissions.
Pimps, matchmakers, drug dealers, and traffickers work in overlapping circles along the border, leading to a common code of conduct and language. Many Syrians claim to be outraged by the exploitation of their women but actively contribute to the problem.
“Girls between the ages of 12 and 16 are referred to as pistachios, 17 to 20 are called cherries, 20 to 22 are apples, anyone older is a watermelon,” said Maher, a Syrian Kurd who lives in Gaziantep and is familiar with how the business works. He categorically denies being a matchmaker, although that’s his reputation.
Fahed Alajali, a wiry young man with a thinning ginger mane, is less bashful.
He entered the business soon after arriving in Turkey with his wife in 2013. In the community of Sanliurfa, he is widely known as a broker, while his wife is famous for her okra. The last deal he cut ended in the union of a Syrian girl and a Turkish man in the coastal city of Mersin. For the introduction, Mr. Alajali earned $90.
Perils of unregistered marriages
Such unions are typically officiated by local sheikhs and rarely documented with state authorities. Syrian women who marry Turks as their second wife can encounter serious problems. If the marriage fails, they are not protected by the law, nor are their children.
In some cases, the men want a short-term marital union, or prostitution with a moral mask. Within weeks, the Syrian bride might find herself sleeping on the streets, alone and disgraced, at risk of an honor killing if male kin find out.
“Ninety percent of the women who marry like this are the victims of injustice,” says Alajali, frantically tapping his foot under a cafe table.
The remaining 10 percent enter into marriage arrangements for “fraudulent reasons,” women who, after securing a decent dowry, run back to Syria to support their families or to refugee camps in Turkey, where pimping networks allegedly are well entrenched.
Since these marriages are not registered with the authorities, the hamstrung husbands are unable to reclaim their brides. In some cases, they succeed in tracking them down, only to find them in the arms of preexisting partners.
While tales of deceit run in both directions, not all unions end in disaster.
Syrian women’s rights activists working in border towns point out that many cross-cultural marriages actually succeed, resulting in an improved quality of life for the bride, even if she is not the first spouse. Turkish men are credited with stepping in as generous providers for war-torn families.
“When a Turk marries a Syrian woman, even as a second wife, he is guaranteeing her food and security and that of her family – these are fundamental needs,” says Najla, an activist in Kilis. “It is better she takes this path than go astray. Marriage customs always change as a result of war. In the end, legislation will catch up.”
Still, ready to give love a chance
One couple in Sanliurfa – a Syrian Kurd, Manar, and a Turk, Ali – appear willing to give love a chance despite the obvious hurdles. Ali, an apple-cheeked electrician, is already married but seems head over heels for his fiancée.
A Muslim sheikh is due to wed the pair in the coming weeks. Their union will not be documented with state authorities. “We don’t speak the same language, so getting to know each other takes time,” says Manar, a hairdresser with a monthly wage of $300.
A point of contention that remains to be resolved is the dowry. Ali offered $10,000, but Manar says she won’t settle for less than $15,000. Prior to her conversation with the Monitor, Manar had no understanding that her marriage could not be registered.
“I won’t let him touch me until I’ve taken every penny and secured my rights,” she whispers undeterred, beating sugar into her tea while he beams next to her, not understanding a word.
Her sister Amal, a 34-year-old widow earning a pittance at a glass factory, comes with them on every date to make sure decorum is maintained. “They never go out together alone. It is clear that he is serious and wants to marry her, that it’s not just for fun,” Amal says.
She believes unions such as the one her sister is about to enter into are exceptions dictated by war and necessity. Both sisters express confidence that Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation where secular values are in decline, will ultimately legalize polygamy.
Umm Aboud, a female matchmaker working in Sanliurfa, says there is no shame in these arrangements.
“It is much better for Syrian women to be taken care of as the second wives of Turks than for them to risk death in Syria or to be led astray on sinful paths,” she says.
“All that is left in Syria is the smell of blood. Why not give love in Turkey a chance?” she asks.
This post originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor