Who to call if you're in a fix abroad

Tarek Haidar Askandar, a fixer in Beirut.

KAI RYSSDAL: Some of the most lucrative business deals you can find right now are in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Play your cards right in Iraq or Afghanistan, and you can do pretty well for yourself. Despite the enormous potential for things to end badly.

When business people or journalists go to those places, they need somebody who speaks the language. Who knows who to talk to and how to get access to them. It's somebody they may have to trust with their money or their lives.

Today our series "Working," looking at the life of a single worker in the global economy, continues. From Beirut, Lebanon, Kelly McEvers brings us this profile of a fixer.


KELLY MCEVERS: The first time I meet Tarek Haidar Eskandar, he's hanging around my hotel, introducing himself to reporters.

TAREK HAIDAR ESKANDAR: I put my number phone. And I put my address e-mail, in hotmail. My name: Tarek Haidar Eskandar.

He asks my advice on how to design his business card.

MCEVERS What would be the name of your business?

ESKANDAR: Tango TFD. Translator, fixer, driver. Do you think it's OK?

MCEVERS: Yeah, I think it's good, actually . . .

Tarek is Lebanese, but he grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His father ran an import-export business there.

Tarek first worked as a fixer for investors who visited Congo.

ESKANDAR: Some businessmen they came from Belgium, they want to work in diamonds. Many people, they want to make a company for construction, to take idea about the forest to cut wood. Some people, they want to make hotel and restaurant.

Tarek drove them around, told them who to bribe. He did this work for four years. Then . . .

ESKANDAR: I feel I am very sick, so I came back to Lebanon.

It was May 2006. One month later, Lebanon was at war with Israel. During the first week of fighting, Tarek's cousins were near a mosque targeted by an Israeli airstrike.

MCEVERS: You went to the hospital?

ESKANDAR: Yes.

MCEVERS: To find your relatives?

ESKANDAR: To find. There is three who is died.

And three others seriously injured. Reporters crowded the waiting room.

MCEVERS: So now, what happened at the hospital?

ESKANDAR: Next day this journalist came to have interview with my relative.

Tarek translated for the journalist what his relatives were saying.

ESKANDAR: Then she called me to the cafeteria. She told me, "I want to help you." I told her, "How?" She told me, "OK: I will give you some money, for you and your family, like help." I told her, "No, listen — if you want to help me really, I don't want you to give me free money for nothing. I can work for you, and you can pay me. In this way I can accept your money only."

So Tarek worked for her throughout war. He earned $1,500 that month.

Now, he's on his own. Some months, he makes as little as $200 working with journalists.

ALFONSO MORAL: My name is Alfonso Moral. I am photographer from Spain. I want to see how is the life after the war, and how is the reconstruction of the buildings. And I meet with Tarek first time during the war. He know a lot of people. Yeah, yeah, he have really, really good contacts.

MCEVERS: So where are we going right now?

ESKANDAR: To the office.

MORAL: To the office of Hezbollah office, to take the permission first.

MCEVERS: OK.

The militant group Hezbollah controls the part of Beirut where Alfonso wants to work.Another photographer I met waited two weeks just to get one hour of access here.

But Alfonso has Tarek. And it turns out Tarek knows a guy in the Hezbollah front office.

[SOUND: Tarek talking to Hezbollah guy]

MCEVERS: The photographer just got access to photograph for the entire day. This is not an easy thing to do.

Alfonso wants to photograph the destruction up close. Tarek takes him to a 10-story building that looks like it was sliced in half, length-wise, by a bomb.

[SOUND: Walking through rubble]

We climb over mangled rebar and broken concrete past deserted apartments. Tarek has a hunch some people still live here.

ESKANDAR: [Knocks] Haji!

A woman cracks open the door. Tarek tells her she's much too beautiful to be sweeping the floor.

She invites us in. And Alfonso gets the intimate potraits he wanted.

Most nights, Tarek stays in a $6-a-night hostel.

MCEVERS: So how many beds in one room?

ESKANDAR: Five.

He meets journlists here — usually the low-paid, freelance types. The manager lets them rent the hotel's car.

ZORIAH MILLER: What is the best place to go for homes still broken?

ESKANDAR: I can advise you to visit three places.

MILLER: OK.

That's Tarek with Zoriah Miller, another photographer — an American. They're headed south to the border with Israel, where the war started.

ESKANDAR: So this is my village.

Tarek's own hometown was one of the hardest hit.

He shows Zoriah the rubble that once was his house. He sounds like he's told the story before.

ESKANDAR: Here it was four home. One home, two floor, one home on the other side. In this area we lose every, every every, everything. We didn't get anything until now.

Tarek sees his family up the road. His mother and sister rent a decrepit house behind where their old house used to be.

We stop for tea. Tarek's mother asks if he's making any money in Beirut. He says he's doing great.

[SOUND: Eskandar speaking Arabic with his parents]

His mother squints. I don't think she believes him.

Later, I ask Tarek how he feels about selling his own misery to journalists. He says that's not the way he sees it.

ESKANDAR: I want to show them the truth. I want to show them the truth. They have to pick up these pictures and the message from the East to the West.

That night, Tarek takes Zoriah to a room for rent in a run-down building near the border. This is where Zoriah's supposed to spend the night. Zoriah's surprised to see a darkened building. There's no electricity. Tarek tells Zoriah he'll be fine.

ESKANDAR: You have to put a good cover. Two or three, because now it's cold. If anything happens with you direct, call me.

Zoriah tries to stop the conversation there. I can tell he's ready to be done with Tarek. He pays Tarek $20 for a day's work.

MILLER: And we have money to give for gas and everything, when you get back . . .

Tarek promises to drive the rental car back to Beirut. He says he'll get Zoriah's $200 deposit and return the money in a few days.

Trouble is, it doesn't happen that way. Tarek returns the car, but he keeps the money.

I spend a few days looking for Tarek with my own fixer, Mohammad Ali Nayel. He says fixers like Tarek give the good ones a bad name.

During war, he says, it's even worse.

MOHAMMAD ALI NAYEL: And at one point, the fixers would be stubborn and they would tell them, "It's either you're gonna give me my 400 bucks a day, or I'm leaving you here."

MCEVERS: In a war zone?

NAYEL: In a war zone. This is when you have to be honest, because they are depending on yoru honesty in order to get their job done. And the trust that they give you, because you're handed a lot of trust as a fixer. You don't have to take advantage of that.

Mohammad Ali is right. We do hang a lot of trust on fixers. They watch your stuff, sleep in the shady hotel room next door, tell you which road is safe. If you can't trust them, who can you trust?

A month goes by before Tarek resurfaces, and admits he took the money.

MILLER: I got a pretty long e-mail from him apologizing for the situation.

That's Zoriah, back home in the states.

MILLER: Saying that he knew he had made a wrong deed and that he wanted to right it, and please work with him, and that he was very sorry.

Zoriah and I both believe Tarek. He is sorry.

Maybe he's just bad at running a business. Or, maybe he did plan to scam Zoriah all along.

Either way, Tarek says he wants to start over. He says these days, he's looking for new work — as a fixer in Iraq.

RYSSDAL: That was Kelly McEvers in Beirut for us. Her report was part of Working, a co-production with Homelands Productions.

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