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


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.

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