Chaos and Crime: The Trials of Running a Syrian Refugee Camp

By Takis Würger

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 lives today.

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," says Kleinschmidt.

'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 refugee.

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.

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1. Chaos and Crime
Josephus 06/29/2013
Arab refuges have a different mindset to other dispossessed people. They are only interested in reclaiming what has been lost. In the end the whole thing is about revenge. They will take revenge on any one who is in their path or they reason to be an instrument in the dispossession.
2. get off your sins
fatihisasimsek 06/29/2013
EU dont interest with syria, killings of women and children made by Esad tyrant Regime seems to not bother EU countries..Dont think that this tyrant fire are so far away of you.Civillian bloods and cries will somehow affect you..As Saddam example, this tyrant regime only understand from military power.I did not lose my hopes, EU may lead with US, Turkey for a military intervention to Syria, and perhaps this may get rid off sins of crusades of their forefather in the same lands.
3. Is Europe the next Middle-East?
Inglenda2 06/29/2013
It may be caused by the weather, the thousands of years old way of life and culture, or even the misuse of religious power, what ever the reasons, Europeans will always have a difficulty in understanding the native people in the Middle-east. But being what they are, these Europeans are obviously not ready to learn from the mistakes made in the past. Time and time again, they try to force their way of thinking and living, upon other peoples and countries which are not in the least interested in the same. The fate of thousands of soldiers, who lost have their lives, or health, in the vain attempt change things for the better, should bring us all food for thought. Mafia type organisations are unhappily, quite normal and very often generally accepted, in many countries around the world. This truth should be looked in the face, what for many of us, in our artificially peaceful way of life find hard to do. Instead of continuously interfering in other countries, where they are not welcome, the Europeans might do very well to protect their own cultures against the influx of foreigners, many of whom, wish change the European way of life.
4. Jordanian Government
Disillusioned 07/01/2013
Nothing mentioned about the role of the Jordanian Government plays in all this... about the security they fail to provide, about all the obstacles they put in the way of the aid organisations which prevents them from working more efficiently... nothing about the human trafficking of women towards the gulf states and Saudi arabia they tolerate and don't prevent....
5. btw
Disillusioned 07/01/2013
By the way... from the very beginning it was the intention of the Government of Jordan to make any refugee camp in Jordan an unwelcoming place in order not to attract refugees to come...
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