Chaos and Crime: The Trials of Running a Syrian Refugee Camp
By Takis Wurger SPIEGEL ONLINE 06/28/2013 05:39 PM
Local mafia controls a Jordanian camp housing over 100,000 war refugees from
Syria. A German aid worker competing with these criminals is determined to
preserve the camp residents’ dignity.
Kilian Kleinschmidt walks into the camp armed with a 6-inch stainless steel
hook. “I hate refugee camps,” he says. He is holding the hook in his hand
like a dagger.
It is getting dark, and a military policeman tells Kleinschmidt that under
no circumstances should he go into the camp at night. Kleinschmidt walks
through the gate in silence.
The Zaatari Camp houses 116,000 refugees who fled to Jordan from the war in
Syria. They live in trailers and tents with the letters UNHCR imprinted on
them in blue. The UNHCR, or United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
is Kleinschmidt’s employer. The refugees arrive in buses from the border in
this stretch of desert in northern Jordan, and their numbers are growing by
the day. The local Bedouins say that before the refugees came, the only
resident of this desert was the devil. Not even scorpions lived there.
Kleinschmidt’s job is to ensure that the refugees survive in the Zaatari
Camp. He wants to give them back their dignity, and he is supposed to create
order in the camp. Kleinschmidt is German. A German can restore order — at
least that’s the gist of the plan.
The refugees receive water, food, shelter, toilets and warm blankets for the
night. They could be satisfied. Instead, they stormed a trailer where
detergent was being distributed, and broke an aid worker’s foot with a rock.
Kleinschmidt was caught in the middle of a battle between the military
police and refugees, and his throat still hurts from the tear gas. Refugees
also pulled a police officer from his obstacle-clearing tank and beat him on
the head with a rock.
Every day, four buses stop at the camp to collect people who want to travel
back to Syria. The refugees stand in line in the morning, and when the buses
arrive, they fight over seats, because they would rather live in a war zone
than in Zaatari. For Kleinschmidt, the camp is a place where the devil still
A Parade of Aid Organizations
In March, the UNHCR assigned him to rescue Zaatari from chaos. He was flown
in from Kenya, put in a trailer in an area secured with fences, barbed wire
and guards, and given a stack of business cards that read “Senior Field
Coordinator,” indicating that he was in charge at the camp.
Kleinschmidt spent 10 days touring the premises. Speaking to the people
there, he determined that the aid workers had managed to save the lives of
all the refugees and satisfy their basic needs, but no one had been able to
make the refugees happy. Kleinschmidt thought about it and concluded that
Zaatari must have two problems. The first is the refugees, and the second is
the aid workers.
Before Kleinschmidt embarked on his nighttime walk, he passed through the
camp where a number of aid organizations are located. He walked by the
trailers housing the offices of: UNICEF, UNHCR, the German Federal Agency
for Technical Relief (THW), the International Medical Corps, Mercy Corps,
Save the Children, International Relief & Development, the World Food
Programme, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the United Nations Population
Fund, the Noor Al Hussein Foundation, the Jordan Health Aid Society, Oxfam,
the International Rescue Committee, Relief International, Reach, Japan
Emergency NGO, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
It was night and almost all the trailers were empty. The workers had
finished their work for the day.
Everything had been different a day earlier. The parking lot was full of
SUVs. Aid workers who didn’t normally work in the camp had arrived from the
Jordanian capital Amman. The European Union Commissioner for Enlargement had
announced a visit. Politicians are important to aid organizations, because
they have access to money and bring along journalists who tell stories that
are heard by people with money. Money is even more important to aid
organizations than suffering.
Kleinschmidt shook the EU commissioner’s hand and said: “Welcome to Zaatari.
I’m the mayor here.”
The commissioner, accompanied by the military police, visited a school built
by UNICEF. He was followed by many young people who spoke excellent English
and wore the vests of their aid organizations like parade uniforms. A few
women were wearing heels, which sank into the desert sand. Kleinschmidt,
wearing a dusty shirt, stood in the crowd and said: “Most of the vests will
have left by this afternoon.”
He too has a sky-blue UNHCR vest. It hangs on a chair in his office, and he
sometimes uses it to wipe the sweat from his face. He believes that aid
workers wear vests to dazzle people with big letters.
A Reputation for Solving Problems
Kleinschmidt is a little like a bulldozer, flattening everything he doesn’t
like in the camp. But his job is actually to do the opposite, by both
developing and keeping the peace in Jordan’s largest camp for Syrian
refugees. A man with a steel hook is supposed to bring meaning to the camp.
On the day of the EU commissioner’s visit, two young women stood in the
crowd of aid workers, wearing brown vests with UNESCO stitched onto them in
blue letters. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization, is known for dealing with global cultural heritage.
Kleinschmidt had never seen the women and had no idea what sort of cultural
heritage they could be concerned about in Zaatari. “What are you doing
here?” he asked.
“We’re doing a mentoring program for children,” said one of the women,
handing him a business card with the words “Project Manager” on it.
Kleinschmidt replied: “It would be nice to know exactly what you’re doing
here, because I’m the camp manager.”
One would think that the camp manager is someone who manages this camp. But
it’s all much more difficult than it sounds, says Kleinschmidt.
He doesn’t know how many aid workers are in the camp. According to a list on
the UNHCR website, 139 organizations are helping the people in Zaatari.
Doctors Without Borders is there, and so are Electricians Without Borders
and Gynecologists Without Borders. Clowns Without Borders, which performs in
crisis zones to cheer people up, has already left.
Private donors from Saudi Arabia brought in several hundred residential
trailers without discussing it with Kleinschmidt or his team first. South
Korea spent $20,000 (€15,300) on a soccer field that no one uses. There is a
Dutch guitar group, although Kleinschmidt has no idea what they are doing
there. And the Korean ambassador in Jordan plans to offer Taekwondo lessons
for the children in Zaatari soon.
An aid worker says: “Imagine UNHCR was Nike. We build an athletic shoe and
have suppliers make the individual parts of the shoe. Each part of the shoe
comes from a different supplier, the sole, the laces, the leather, and each
supplier works according to his own designs. Try to imagine what that shoe
ends up looking like.”
Kleinschmidt was brought in because he has the reputation for solving
impossible tasks. Some worship him for his work, while others feel that he
would be better suited for the Foreign Legion. He wears a chain around his
neck with a silver pendant his wife designed. The symbol means “warrior,”
‘The Most Difficult Refugees I’ve Ever Seen’
He used to be a pacifist and wanted to work at a vineyard. After graduating
from high school in Berlin, he drove to southern France to pick grapes. Then
he and his friends bought a herd of goats and made cheese. Then he learned
to slate roofs. He also raised a few rabbits and made pâté. He fell in love
and got married, and he and his wife had a daughter together. When the
marriage ended, Kleinschmidt bought a motorcycle and drove into the Sahara.
In a bar in Mali, he met a man and a woman who were aid workers, and after
many glasses of whisky they asked Kleinschmidt whether he’d like to help
them build a school in the desert.
He says that he has learned the meaning of freedom, adventure and purpose.
He became an aid worker, and in the course of his life, he says he has heard
many nice responses to the question of why people choose this profession,
but few honest ones.
He went to Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka and
Pakistan, and he was amazed to survive it all. He chose to subordinate
everything else in his life to his work. Kleinschmidt himself lives like a
In the mid-1990s, his boss called him from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva and
said that 100,000 Hutu refugees were lost in the forest in Congo and afraid
of being slaughtered by the Tutsi. Kleinschmidt put together a team, flew to
Congo, found an old railroad built by the former Belgian colonial rulers,
had it repaired and drove into the bush with a steam locomotive pulling the
train. He found the refugees and rescued many of them.
Kleinschmidt falls silent when asked why he does what he does. “I just do
it,” he finally replies. He does it because he is obsessed, and there can be
many reasons for that, but two are especially obvious: he is obsessed with
saving lives, and he is also obsessed with risking his own life.
Today, at 50, Kleinschmidt has a stepson and five children with three
different women, spread across Europe and Africa. He no longer drinks
whiskey or smokes cigarettes, but he does see a military psychologist
regularly to cleanse his soul. It stands to reason that there is little in
the realm of the living or the dead that could still shock Kleinschmidt, but
the camp in Zaatari has done it. “These are the most difficult refugees I’ve
ever seen,” he says.
Crime in the Camp
He marches past a fenced complex where newly arrived refugees are sitting.
He could sit down with the women and listen.
One woman says: “My neighborhood in Damascus was bombed, and people were
Another says: “First I fled to Lebanon. There were Hezbollah fighters who
tried to break into my house.”
One woman says: “My father is in prison. I don’t know if he’s still alive.”
Another says: “They said on TV that my husband is a terrorist. His nickname
is ‘The Bird.’ He was arrested.”
Another says: “They told my husband to go to the police station and bring
along sweets. He never returned.”
Kleinschmidt says: “Our weakness is that we see the individual trees and not
the forest.” He doesn’t stop to listen to the many stories.
There are probably 116,000 explanations for the rage of the 116,000 refugees
in Zaatari, but Kleinschmidt believes he has been able to isolate three
First: These people come from a country where the elite are their enemies.
Now they have fought for their freedom and don’t want the next set of elites
to tell them how many lentils they are allowed to eat. Second: Many refugees
believe that the international community owes them something, because it
isn’t stopping the killing in Syria. Third: The mafia.
Kleinschmidt is only gradually able to identify the criminals that are
working against him on the other side of the barbed wire, but he thinks he
knows what they want. They want to keep the camp in an unstable state, and
for free trade to remain forbidden so that smuggling continues to be
worthwhile. They also want to prevent the aid organizations from installing
a power grid, so that they can continue to sell illegally tapped
electricity. And they want police to fear entering the camp, so that the
mafia can go about its business without interruption.
There are men in Zaatari who take advantage of chaos to acquire power –
some of them mean well and some are evil. One of them, perhaps the most
powerful, is called Abu Hussein.
He is sitting in a trailer on a sofa with a floral pattern, serving strong
Turkish coffee. His wife places nine ashtrays on the table. There are two
Nokia mobile phones on the carpet, one red and one pink. Hussein’s children
are sitting in an adjacent trailer, where an air-conditioner keeps the
temperature at around 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), watching
“Hero Turtles” on TV. “If I wanted to, I could have the entire camp burning
in five minutes,” says Hussein.
The 48-year-old keeps his beard neatly trimmed, and his hair is either
blow-dried into shape or possesses some sort of natural tension that keeps
it elevated from his head. He says that before becoming the most powerful
man in Zaatari, he lived in the Syrian city of Daraa, where he worked in a
school, teaching a subject called “Air-Conditioning and Heating.” When the
people revolted against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hussein joined the
rebel fighters and became commander of a special unit of the Free Syrian
Army, the “Falcons of the Tribe of the Prophet Mohammed.” The Falcons
specialized in mines, says Hussein. “I killed people.”
Then he got scared and fled. When he reached Zaatari on Aug. 5 of last year,
he was the 60th refugee to arrive at the camp, when a cold desert wind was
blowing, he says. Hussein asked the aid workers for blankets for the women
and children. When one of them refused, Hussein said that he had killed 73
people and that number would reach 74 if the worker didn’t comply with his
request. The aid worker gave him the blankets. From then on, he says, he was
“the Akeed,” or ruler.
As ruler, Hussein is accustomed to controlling the conversation. It’s
difficult to ask him a question and get a straightforward answer. Or perhaps
he is too clever to respond directly to the questions.
What do people give him for being the boss?
“The only ruler is Allah.”
But doesn’t he, Abu Hussein, have a say here?
“I control 21 streets. My men patrol day and night. I have 10 barbers who
will give free shaves to anyone who wants one.”
What do the people give him in return?
“Just their love.”
How can a refugee like him afford three trailers and an air-conditioner?
“Politics is like an ocean. Not everyone can swim in it.”
What is his assessment of the work by the aid organizations?
Hussein takes a few drags from his cigarette and then inhales deeply, as if
he were about to go diving. Then he slams his fist on the carpet, so hard
that the coffee pot shakes. He begins to shout. “I went to the World Food
Programme and said that I wanted a piece of cheese. They told me that
someone in Geneva had to make that decision. I wonder who is sitting in
Geneva deciding whether I can eat a piece of cheese?”
He continues to shout for half an hour, talking about corruption and Jews
and cheese. He complains about the fact that some of the male aid workers
have ponytails. Finally, he shouts that Mister Kilian is the only halfway
decent one of the lot.
In Zaatari, there is a man inside every tent who claims to be the boss.
Maybe Hussein is lying. Perhaps he was never a Falcon. But he has understood
one thing: The person who makes people believe that he is the best ruler
will emerge as their leader.
Viewing the Camp Like a City
Kleinschmidt paid a visit to Hussein one day to find out whether he was
dealing with just another braggart. Five men wearing red Palestinian scarves
on their heads sat with them. One of them said: “I’ve seen you walking
through the camp at night. I’ve thought about having you kidnapped.”
Kleinschmidt, who was there with a colleague, smiled and thanked Hussein for
the invitation. The colleague was a young Irishman who had only been working
in the camp for a few days and eyed the beverages in Hussein’s trailer as if
they were hand grenades. There is a diarrhea epidemic in Zaatari.
Kleinschmidt chugged two cups of coffee from the same cup as Hussein and ate
two pastries stuffed with spinach. Hussein said: “We have the feeling that
the aid workers are heartless.”
Hussein lives in a trailer that cost $3,000. The air-conditioner runs with
electricity he is tapping from the Italian hospital. The water for his tea
is from canisters provided by UNICEF. He hasn’t worked, paid or thanked
anyone for any of it.
Kleinschmidt concealed what he was really thinking. Before the meeting, he
had said that what mattered wasn’t the content of the discussion, but the
fact that it took place at all. He drank tea and listened. After two hours,
Hussein said: “You are a clever man, Mister Kilian. We should work
Kleinschmidt says that this camp can only become a place where refugees can
regain their dignity if he manages to get all the anarchists out there to
He works 18 hours a day so that the aid workers respect him. He doesn’t give
orders, but instead tries to convince them of his idea, which is to view
Zaatari as a city and not as a camp. He divided the city into 12
administrative districts and sent a member of his staff to each district to
meet with the street bosses every day. He visited the military police
commanders at home, ate lamb with them and convinced them to begin deploying
night patrols. He had a ditch dug to prevent the smugglers from getting into
the camp, and when that didn’t work, he had excavators build a two-meter
He met with politicians and explained to them that he needed more money,
which he got. He gave interviews, waved his steel hook and argued that
journalists should be brought to Zaatari. Most of the workers with the other
organizations now give him reports on their activities. His colleagues have
started spending nights in the camp with him. More and more of them are
leaving their offices and following Kleinschmidt to the other side of the
He takes walks at night so that the refugees will respect him, and so that
people will see that he is one of them. He had streetlights installed in the
section of the camp where the refugees arrive, to make sure they can see
where they’re going. He has hot tea served to the new arrivals. He announced
that the refugees would soon be given vouchers to buy their own groceries in
supermarkets. He believes that in three months no one will have to live in a
tent anymore. And, when he recently met with a group in the most dangerous
of the 12 administrative districts, a few men said that they would like to
plant olive trees.
Playing the Strong Man
One could see Kilian Kleinschmidt as a Rambo-like figure and disagree with
his management consultant approach to the refugee camp. But before he came
to Zaatari, no one there would have thought to plant an olive tree.
In the evenings, when the other aid workers are already asleep, Kleinschmidt
says that he misses his wife so much that it hurts. He hopes to return home
soon, to his children and his grandson. He says that he has applied for an
office job in Strasbourg, but fears he’ll eventually be sent to another
This is the moment when it becomes clear that Kleinschmidt is the smartest
dazzler in this camp. Instead of ruling, he serves. But he does a great deal
to ensure that no one notices. When he feels unobserved, he puts his hands
on childrens’ heads and listens to the concerns of their mothers. In the
end, he points out that the hook he carries around is merely a tent hook. He
would never hit a person with it, he says, and only carries it to counter
his own nervousness. He really only keeps it with him in the company of
journalists, who like to photograph him with it, he adds.
Kleinschmidt understands that donors want a strong man, so he plays along.
He also understands that the aid workers need a leader, so he gives them
one. He understands that the refugees only accept him if he behaves like a
mayor in their presence.
What he doesn’t admit to anyone in the camp is that when he calls his wife
in the evening, he sometimes tells her how burned-out and shaken he feels.
He tells her that he doesn’t know if he can last another week. He says: “I
hate refugee camps, because they deprive people of their dignity.” When
asked why he became an aid worker, Kleinschmidt responds: “If we know that
we are doing good, we find it easier to love ourselves.”
On a holiday in June, when he was in Amman, he received a text message from
a colleague in Zaatari. He receives text messages every day, but they’re
normally about how many stone-throwing incidents there were or what the
refugees have stolen. But this message consisted of only three letters: NTR.
Nothing to report.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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