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


"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 together."

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 respect him.

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 earth wall.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...