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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.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 result is a dearth of quantitative data on gender-specific issues. 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.In the community of Sanliurfa, he is widely known as a broker, while his wife is famous for her okra. Such unions are typically officiated by local sheikhs and rarely documented with state authorities.
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 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. 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.
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. “If we had registered our marriage, I would have had residency and health care.
Having as many as four wives is culturally acceptable in conservative Muslim communities on both sides of the border. 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.