Chaos and Crime: The Trials of Running a Syrian Refugee Camp, Part 1

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Takis Würger, June 28, 2013 (Photo Gallery).

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 … //

… 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: … //

… 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.

(full text).

Part 2: Crime in the Camp.

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