ISTANBUL – For two years Alaa* lived in a basement in Istanbul with his mother and sister. As the sole provider for both, Alaa said he had to work as a waiter for 12 hours a day to pay rent and bills.
But the 33-year-old Syrian refugee, who has been living in Turkey since he left Damascus some four years ago, said that he was not making enough money to hire an illegal smuggler who could transport his family to Europe.
So he sought out another way to collect the money: He sold himself into a marriage with an older woman from Kuwait.
“I never thought that one day I would be forced to sell my body to a woman I don’t love – a woman who I am not attracted to … but I had no other choice,” Alaa said.
Although instances of Syrian women being sold into marriage in Turkey are well documented, little is known of the Syrian men selling themselves into wedlock. International aid agencies and human rights organizations have not published documentation of such cases in their work in Turkey.
Syria Deeply spoke to two such men who said they know of “many” cases. But the absence of reliable data means the scale of this trend remains largely unclear. Nonetheless, the stories of these men shed light on the extreme measures Syrian refugees are taking to survive the fallout of a war that has displaced more than 5 million people since 2011.
“It Was More Like Slavery”
Alaa said he first met his 45-year-old bride-to-be during his shift in a restaurant in Istanbul’s popular Sultanahmet district. The woman and her family were frequent customers, he said.
“One evening they asked me to join them for a meal after my shift. I thought they were just being nice people,” he said. “But when they offered to marry me to their daughter for money I broke into a fit of hysterical laughter.”
After the initial proposal, the family avoided the restaurant for three days. By the time they returned, Alaa had made up his mind. They came to an agreement where the family would pay him $10,000, which would help cover the cost of smuggling his family to Europe. They also agreed to pay him an additional $500 a month, which he would use to cover rent for his mother and sister.
The bride’s family had only one condition, he said: The $10,000 would be paid to him in full on the second year of marriage, as to ensure his “loyalty” to his wife.
When asked why he thought his bride opted to marry this way, Alaa said that he believed she had no chance of marrying a man from the Gulf, partially because of her age. He also said that for his wife, the marriage was “more about sex,” adding that in the region’s conservative culture, sex out of wedlock is prohibited.
After a small, inconspicuous ceremony, the newlyweds moved into a “luxurious” residential compound in Istanbul, Alaa said. It was the first time in years that he lived in a place lit by natural sunlight.
“I was happy in the new house. But unfortunately, my wife treated me as though I was something she had bought,” he said. “My marriage was more like slavery.”
Making matters worse, Alaa said that his wife’s family was not holding up its end of the deal. Over a year after they were married, the family stalled or postponed payments every time he asked for the money, he said.
Eventually, he left his wife’s home and threatened to not return until he was paid in full. Rather than ceding to his demands, his wife filed for divorce and refused to pay him the previously agreed upon sum, Alaa said.
“I dishonored myself for a period of one year without making any money out of it in the end,” he said. “I even found out that my ex-wife married another Syrian shortly after our divorce.”
‘I Was a Prisoner’
While Alaa was approached by his bride’s family directly, other Syrian men opt to go through intermediaries who match them with eligible brides. These third parties have also been involved in arranging the marriage of Syrian women in Turkey to either Turkish men or grooms from the Gulf.
Ahmad, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee who has been living in Istanbul since he left Damascus two and a half years ago, said he was approached by his neighbor, Umm Mohammad, who offered to find him a “wealthy” wife from the Gulf.
According to Ahmad, Umm Mohammad is a Syrian woman who receives a commission of roughly $1,000 for every match she makes. He said she is also known in their neighborhood for setting up Syrian couples for a cheaper commission of $400 because, generally, Syrian refugees in Turkey cannot afford to pay more.
“She is like the mayor of Syrians in our district,” he said.
Ahmad said he declined at first. But when his financial situation eventually worsened because he could not find a job, he accepted Umm Mohammad’s offer to set him up with a woman from Saudi Arabia.
He said he never told his family about his marriage to the 37-year-old woman. “I knew I was not going to be treated properly because I was poor,” he said. “But I decided to think of it as a job.”
They agreed that his bride-to-be’s family would pay his living expenses in addition to a $700 monthly stipend, half of which he would send to his family back in Syria.
But, he said, he became a prisoner in return.
“My wife wouldn’t let me leave the house whatsoever, and she would threaten to kick me out if I did. I was a prisoner,” he said. “I was also not allowed to take up a job or even call friends. My life revolved around serving her and no one else.”
Ahmad said he got his wife pregnant a year into their marriage. The news, he added, made him “overwhelmingly” happy and strengthened his resolve to stay with his wife despite the harsh treatment he said he was receiving.
“My parents are divorced and I did not want my child to grow up like me in a broken home,” he said.
One month before her due date, Ahmad’s wife left to Europe to deliver in a hospital there. He said she had hoped to acquire a foreign passport for their child who would not be eligible for Saudi Arabian citizenship as the kingdom’s laws make it difficult for women who marry noncitizens to pass on their nationality.
“My wife delivered a baby boy. We named him Ahmad,” he said. “She called me shortly after to tell me that she’s filing for divorce and that the only reason she had married me was to get pregnant.”
Ahmad said he has not heard from his wife, or his child, since.
“I know a lot of young Syrian men who got married the same way I did,” he said. “But I think my luck is worse than them. None [that I know of] were prohibited from seeing their child like me.”
*All the names in the article have been changed.
This story has been updated to correct an error in Alaa’s testimony.