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


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 barbed wire.

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 crisis zone.

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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