During a recent visit to Lebanon, walking along Hamra Street, I was taken back to my childhood. My father and I meandered down this road en route to my favorite spot. Constantly stopped by friends, eager to talk, it seemed to take forever to reach the Modca Cafe, and the ice cream I so eagerly anticipated.
In one of the hubs of Beirut, the street was almost unrecognizable. Quaint cafes were replaced by department stores, trendy bars and coffee shops crammed with locals and tourists. Friends that stopped us in our tracks were replaced by Syrian refugees - begging, scheming and following your every move.
According to the United Nations, during the last three years, more than 1.1 million refugees fled to Lebanon. Women and children accounted for 80 per cent. As 'transactions' became part of street life, one had to be aware of new 'rules'. Reaching into my pocket for money to buy gum from one of the children, I was instantly surrounded by a group of youngsters, all wanting to sell something. It was heartbreaking to see what had become of the children of Syria, driven out of the safe haven of their home where education, medical and other services were free to all citizens.
One evening I came across a bar playing Arabic music where everyone seemed happy and friendly. I sat at a corner table and took out my laptop, hoping to work through writer's block. Before I could type one word, I was joined by one of the patrons.
I had actually noticed her when I first sat down. She was the most beautiful girl in the bar - long black hair, tight jeans and lots of makeup. As she made her way to my table, she cheekily asked, "Who brings a laptop to a bar late at night?" As she sat down I answered, "I am a writer, finishing my book."
I will call her Manal. She was 22 years old, and displaced from Syria in 2012. Her husband, a construction worker, had been missing since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. She didn't know if he was dead or alive. In response to her questions, I told her I was a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, living overseas and visiting Beirut. I had a few questions of my own and ordered her a beer as we continued our conversation.
She told me that in 2011, at the time of the Arab Spring, people were initially excited to overthrow their President. In hindsight, it was a terrible choice. "We were living just fine. Now we are living with no dignity, at other people's mercy." Her face, so beautiful across the table, appeared to hide a great sadness as she recalled the journey she was forced to make.
"After my husband disappeared, I lived with my parents until we had to leave because of the fighting. Eventually we made our way across the border to one of the refugee camps in Lebanon."
"And then to Beirut?" I asked. She paused, sighed, and continued, "My family is still in the refugee camp. I am in Beirut alone." I was compelled to learn more.
"One day, an aid worker (for a prestigious organization) entered our tent. I knew him from our camp. He had waited for my family to go to the neighbors, knowing I would be alone. He complimented my looks, saying a girl like me should never live in a tent and he could help me find a job in the city."
At this stage Manal stopped talking, suddenly scared that I might be working for the government or the police. I assured her I was indeed a writer, opening my laptop to show my books online.
Feeling comfortable again, she told me the aid worker convinced her parents he had a good paying job for her in Beirut, as a maid, working in the house of a very rich man. She went on to confess that "out of desperation to leave the camp" she did not question him further, and agreed to leave with him.
I was beginning to dread where her story was going.
"During the two hour drive to Beirut, the aid worker had one hand on the steering wheel, the other in my lap. I was too nervous to say anything. After all this man was my savior from poverty, and the refugee camp."
When they arrived at the apartment, she was terrified, realizing something was very wrong. The derelict apartment was occupied by other Syrian girls, similarly deceived. It was then the aid worker threatened to tell her father lies about what she was doing in Beirut if she did not agree to have sex with his friends. He would pay her 1,000 Syrian Liras, the equivalent of USD 20, for each sexual favor. She found out "some clients paid more if the girl was a virgin. Those were the young ones, sometimes brought in by their own father."
I was shocked, saddened and disgusted by this obvious exploitation of refugees, especially by those supposedly providing 'aid'.
Manal went quiet and I could see she was a destroyed soul, yet another victim of the war. Before continuing, she looked around, still fearful that the wrong person might hear her story. She jokingly said, "Are you going to write my story in your book?" I replied, "Only if you want me to." Taking a deep breath she answered that it would be okay as long as the names were changed.
She went on to tell me that "the first few times, I would cry when these men touched me. Then I got used to it. Some men would beat me, others were nicer. Although we were not allowed to take payment from them (we were paid by the men that took us to them) some secretly gave me money."
Manal was saving this money to bring her family to Beirut. When they talked on the phone she would lie, telling them she was happy. Apparently there was no need to lie - the only thing they cared about was the money she was sending.
As the months passed, Manal got used to maneuvering the dark path she was forced to travel until the day when one of her pimps beat her badly. She made a run for it and escaped. In the meantime, the aid worker made good on his threat, telling her family what she was really doing. I was shocked to hear what happened next. Her father did not seem to mind how she made a living, as long as she kept sending money home. He even tried to find her after she escaped so the handouts would continue. Knowing only one way to earn money, Manal started going to bars and nightclubs to find her own clients, someday doubling her previous earnings, other days not earning a thing.
Obviously emotional and somewhat drunk, she turned to me and said, "Now do you want to take me back to your hotel tonight, or should I go start my shift?" I set her straight on my intention, "we are just two people having a beer and talking in a bar". She smiled and thanked me for the drinks. I asked if she would be there the next day around the same time. She nodded her head, ending our conversation with, "I will see you tomorrow", leaving the table to talk to other men.
Walking back to my hotel, I was lost in thought. Humanity seems to repeat its mistakes: the focus on refugees continues along the path of providing aid in the form of food and clothing. This action is unsustainable and turns communities into victimized individuals who inevitably begin to feel subhuman. Fostering that feeling makes it easier for those with ulterior motives to exploit the weak for their own profit. Case in point the aid worker, preying on young girls.
Besides food and clothing, if programs and workshops were set up for refugees, displaced people could earn money and subsequently take pride in becoming active economic contributors.
We must also question the Syrian revolution that once upon a time, the world saluted in support. Had it been an organized and civilized movement, there would not be millions of displaced people living in harsh conditions.
When I returned to the bar the next day, there was no sign of Manal. I wondered if she was with a client. Perhaps someone overheard her story and she was in prison. In the last two years, the Lebanese Police reported that 255 people, mostly Syrian women, have been arrested on prostitution charges.
It became clear to me: where aid fails, vulnerability thrives.