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


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.

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 murdered."

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."

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