Syria's civil conflict continues to rage and spill over into Lebanon like an infection with no suitable treatment, and some Syrian women with little way out have turned to prostitution rings as a way to earn money.
Lebanon's “super nightclub” managers are taking the lead in bringing in these girls, promising them safety and money for their families. But the truth is much more complicated.
When we arrived at a club in Hazmiyeh, just beyond Beirut’s outskirts, it took nearly an hour to convince the manager to let me in, which by law I was not allowed to do, even if it was an empty venue. When he saw me, he got nervous and told me to wait in the car for "10 more minutes" before sending my fixer to slip me in unnoticed.
At the bottom of the dark stairs, Hassan sat in a leather booth waiting for me. He smiled wearily and took a long drag of his cigarette. In friendly Lebanese fashion, Hassan offered espresso and said he would answer background questions while setting up the interview. He said he would later bring us a Syrian girl, one of his girls, who would tell us anything we wanted to know.
Hassan then denied having any Syrians who worked for him, there were only four Europeans, he said, and it was against the law to have Syrian girls in the club. It would take four days for him to set up a talk with one of his employees, after dodging phone calls and pushing interview times late into the night when they were expected to work.
Hassan has been a pimp and worked in the super nightclub scene for 45 years. While he admitted he is illiterate, he said he is a savvy businessman and knows how to deliver to his customers. He said they pay him, in fact, they will give him anything, because they know he can deliver.
When we arrived again at the club to interview Farah, she was waiting on the steps near the entrance. Farah smiled weakly and her brown eyes, shaped by blue eyeliner and exhaustion, shifted in every direction. She wore a blue off-the-shoulder T-shirt and ripped jeans. Her shoes were torn apart and she kept an eye on her small Nokia phone, as if she was expecting clients.
But Farah did as Hassan told her to do, following him across the street to a dirt road among the trees, a place he called a "garden." Hassan offered everyone a round of Pepsi and cigarettes, and said we could not interview Farah in her room, this was the best place.
At night, when a customer walks into the club, he is expected to buy a drink for himself and the woman he chooses. The men pay up to $200 for champagne and time with the girls. Hassan's workers are expected to serve the customers through the evening and then make a "date" for the following day, during their afternoon "free-time."
The date is typically a code word for sexual services, and clients also pay the girls for that time. But men looking for sexual favors quicker has become more common, and arrangements can be made for a back room or nearby hotels. And, since the conflict, more Syrian girls are supplying the demand.
Farah told VICE News she has been selling herself for nearly five months. She started on the streets, and then met Hassan, who convinced her the clubs would be better. She said she does not have time off and only gets two hours a day to herself — the only time she can rest, or just watch TV.
Sometimes, Farah will have up to five men she is expected to service, while at other times she works in the club and no one will come for her. She works both day and night to make ends meet and is expected to give a share of her income to Hassan. The rest Farah tries to give to her family, who don’t know how she earns the money and who she feels responsible for. "I am the eldest and have to work,” she explained.
Lebanon does not have official refugee camps, so Syrians are often forced to stay on private land, initially set up by the UNHCR, but they could be evicted at any time.
'If someone sees me and knows me, no one will take me, I wish I were a man, so I wouldn't have to do this.'
Nearly two years ago, Farah's family fled Syria when their home near Damascus was destroyed and her brother lost his hand in a bombing raid. Her father is constantly sick and cannot work. The money she makes does help them pay for food and some medical care. She tried working in a small shop when they first arrived but it did not make enough and so she moved to the streets.
Farah told me there are many Syrian girls who work in the club with her. They are not friends and are not allowed to spend time together, but they dance in the same club.
Farah admitted she does not feel properly taken care of, and her needs are rarely met, but she doesn't know what else to do. She appeared scared, adding: "I don't want to work this nightlife anymore." Farah said she does not want to keep selling herself and would eventually like to do something else. But if she were to leave now, she is afraid that Hassan or his friends might come after her and threaten her family. Right now, they are holding her passport.
Lebanon’s human trafficking round-up
Colonel Joseph Mousillim of the Lebanese Internal Security, who works with the investigation unit for prostitution and trafficking, told VICE News they that created a law against human trafficking in 2009. So far this year they've been able to bring in 143 girls.
Mousilim said: "The super nightclub workers are mostly foreigners. There are some Syrians but they are mostly delivered to homes or brought over from Syria pretending to be a man's wife and forced into prostitution."
Lebanese non-governmental organizations try to reach out to Syrian women, offering counseling, hope, and education, but the task can be overwhelming in a country with over a million refugees, the highest per capita in the region.
The club owners also work around the police. They know when to expect officials and are able to hide the secrets of their business. Hassan admitted that most owners don't follow the law.
Years ago, it was common for Hassan to have more than 20 girls, publicly. In the 1980s, during Lebanon's civil war, the clubs employed women from Asia and Eastern Europe. Men and women would come together to enjoy a show, but then it changed, he said. Hassan looked at me slyly and said he is concerned for the Syrian girls working on the streets, because they don't have someone like him to make sure they are safe. Yet, almost immediately, he doubled back to say such girls take away his business and that he doesn’t make as much money as he once did.
Hassan also said is ready to retire and that he plans to shut down the club. He then choked up and said he wants to give his remaining years to God, something he has not done during his life and that he wishes to spend some time in prayer.
Yet Farah's future already looks bleak. She does not know how long she will have to sell her body and said that she may not be able to get married. "If someone sees me and knows me, no one will take me, I wish I were a man, so I wouldn't have to do this."
When the interview was over, Hassan insisted on us paying him, demanding money because he claimed he had made Farah do the interview in the first place. He claimed he paid her more than she was supposed to get, but we witnessed no exchange of money.
Hassan and his cohort often pulled Farah aside and with her mic on, their voices just above a whisper, our recordings revealed they coached on almost every answer she gave. Trapped in a cycle of pimps, sex and money, her vision for a better future is all but gone.
Hassan's efforts to bleed us for more cash didn't work even after he threatened to find us later. But with so much at stake, he'll collect what he feels is owed from the girls he controls.
Follow Ashley Gallagher on Twitter: @beatnikjourno