Born in Armenia, Shahnara was trafficked to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where an estimated 10,000 women from sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, South and East Asia, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco are victims of sex trafficking. In addition, victims of child camel jockey trafficking still remain in the UAE: thousands of young boys have been trafficked from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, and Mauritania to work as camel jockeys, and though the UAE enacted a law banning the practice in July 2005, questions persist as to the effectiveness of the ban.
I was 12 when my mother died. My father and my uncle had been using drugs for many years. Soon my father was imprisoned, I do not know for what offense. My uncle sold everything in our house to buy drugs. When I was 13 he forced me out to the street. I was living in the streets, sleeping under benches in the park. He told me to sell myself if I was not able to find money in another way. I went to the police and they sent me to Vartashen orphanage. Once my classmate told me that there was a woman in her neighborhood helping young pretty girls to go to Germany to work for a fashion magazine. I could not believe it. I was so happy. Later the woman told me that after she had arranged documents for me and other persons we would all travel together to Germany. After a short while the papers were ready and we could to start off. There were 14 of us, girls of different ages between 13 and 23. We went by taxi to Tbilisi, from there we traveled to Moscow and from Moscow to Dubai, as we found out later. The woman who had recruited me had 27 children employed mostly from orphanages, or from the streets. She deals in this business for 12 years already.
The hell I lived through at home continued in Dubai. They placed us in a hotel. They had special interest in young virgins. They were selling them at enormous prices to rich Arab sheikhs for one night, after which they were working with clients like other ordinary girls. We received only a fraction of what the sheikhs gave to the pimp. In some cases the girls received some special presents from the sheikhs. My friend who was 13 was taken to a wealthy man. In the end the man asked her what she wanted from him as a present. The girl asked for two sacks of flour. Even the money given to the girls as a gift was confiscated by the pimps.
Two days later they took us to a night-club and explained the nature of our work and the amount that we should pay them every day. They explained that they had paid a lot of money for our passports and travel, in total $6000 for permission to fly and tickets. They were also paying for our room and food. Almost all the children were crying. They could not understand what was expected from them and how they were going to do it. The Arab partner of our pimp was getting angry when he was not getting the amount of money they were expecting us to provide. He was beating children with a belt and was very violent. I was also crying at the very beginning, but what could I do?
Sometimes there were rich businessmen who hired us every time they came to Dubai. I was very happy when one businessman called me and said he was coming to Dubai. He spent his time only with me. He rented a room for me where I stayed and sometimes we went shopping together. The pimp also placed children with us when they were not able to earn enough money and requested the businessman to pay for them too, although at a somewhat cheaper price.
After nights of work we were getting so tired that we could not do anything else but sleep. We did not communicate with each other. We were living in different hotels, even though we were from the same country and were together on the same flight. When our visas expired we traveled with our pimp to Iran to extend the visas. We stayed there for no more than two hours. Our passports were usually given to us at the airport and taken away after passport control. We could not run away or complain to the police since they assured us that they were bribed.
One of my clients who was working for the immigration police threatened my pimp and took my passport back. Later on I was caught by the police again and deported through Moscow. As I was deported I could not even bring the small things that the clients had given to me. My Arab client promised to send those presents to me.
I have twice been in UAE. As soon as I came back home, I decided to buy a small one-room flat because I had spent most of my life in the streets and I wanted to have my own home. As I was under 18 I could not register property on my name, so I did it on my uncle’s name. A month later he needed money for drugs so he sold my flat and everything I had in it.
Narrative as told to the International Organization for Migration, 2000, in Yerevan, Albania.