A year ago, Syrians were desperate to leave Zaatari, now they’re choosing to return to the refugee camp and it’s largely thanks to one man, writes Sakhr Al-Makhadhi. Meet the German who’s helping Syrians build a city in the Jordanian desert
A city emerges
Killian Kleinschmidt is standing at the top of a hill in northern Jordan, 12 kilometres from the Syrian border. He is surrounded by caravans, and, apart from the solar-powered entrance lights on some of these Syrian refugee properties, he and the group of children trying to get his attention are in total darkness.
“That’s downtown,” he says, pointing into the valley. A network of street lights in the distance makes it look like we are on the outskirts of a Jordanian city. We are, but this is no ordinary city. It’s the world’s fourth-largest refugee camp.
In the past year, Zaatari has grown from being a few hundred tents in the desert to home to 120,000 Syrians. The figures are staggering: with 2,500 shops including 680 large stores, Zaatari has one of the largest souqs in Jordan. There’s 65 per cent employment, residents consume half a million slices of bread every day and use US$500,000 (Dh1.84m) of electricity per month. Fifteen water trucks enter Zaatari every hour. There are 120 mosques, three hospitals, three schools and 200 children are born every month.
Kleinschmidt, 51, was the man brought in by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to manage this city. But he is no ordinary UN bureaucrat; he’s something of a rebel and since he arrived here on March 11, the stocky German has been shaking things up. “When I came, we didn’t know each other. Nobody could tell me who were the [tribal] leaders in the camp. And nobody in the camp knew who the leaders were in the humanitarian community,” he says. “They just had that image of something bad out there, they thought we were people sitting in our containers with air con.
“That was the moment when I decided to sleep here myself, to be with them. They realised that my conditions were not better than theirs, they invited me to have showers in their places. I shared with them my worries, my problems, the fact that I had a family that [wasn’t here]. That completely turned it around. They said: ‘Wow, he’s not just a UN official, he’s a person.’” His unorthodox approach to running Zaatari is mirrored by his almost accidental route into the UN. The former carpenter’s marriage had broken down, so at the age of 26 he decided to learn how to ride a motorbike and then went on a road trip through the Sahara. While he was sitting in a restaurant in Mali, he got chatting to some aid workers who were planning to build a school. He ended up staying for six months, working for free. Kleinschmidt earned nothing more than a reference from the head of the NGO. But it was that single piece of paper that helped him to get his first UN job.
He’s spent most of the past 25 years travelling from one crisis to another. He was in Somalia during the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993, when 18 American servicemen were killed in a battle with militiamen.
He spent two years working on the Sri Lankan civil war as well as in Bosnia, Kosovo, Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. And he led 45,000 refugees out of the rainforest following the conflict in Rwanda. It was one of the world’s biggest ever evacuations.
“It’s very easy to become an emergency junkie,” he says. “We have counselling when we have a critical incident, a hostage taking, or being shot at. But I don’t think we have sufficient support.”
A hero of the aid community, and something of a Lawrence of Arabia figure, Kleinschmidt was brought in to help stop the spiral of chaos in Zaatari. “We had unbelievable violence. It was every man for himself.”
The early days of the Zaatari camp were marred by open hostility between the refugees and aid workers. In part, it was a rejection of authority and anger at the way that Zaatari, with its armed guards at the gate, felt like an internment camp. Part of it may have been a loss of control. But for the most part, it was a fury at the living conditions. Syrians complained about the meagre food, the dirty water, the dust that got everywhere and, in winter, the floods. Back then, refugees lived in tents, not caravans. Aid workers were busy with emergency response, not infrastructure management.
“A year ago, it was a storage place where we all did wonderful work in keeping people alive and providing them with basic assistance. [These were] people who a year ago thought they’d be returning [to Syria] very fast. They became very frustrated when they realised they had to spend the winter [here].” Zaatari was despised so deeply that refugees would jostle to be allowed on to buses heading back into Syria. There were almost daily demonstrations and running battles between police and refugees.
“My staff, six months ago, were scared, traumatised,” he says. “We had people injured by stone throwing. There was one distribution of hygiene items that ended up with six humanitarian workers injured, four vehicles smashed. Here within the base camp, we wouldn’t be able to stand like this during the day, there were stones coming in.”
Not only has Kleinschmidt helped to calm the violence, he has turned things around to such an extent that Syrians who fled the camp to live in Jordanian towns and cities are choosing to return. Many discovered that life outside of the UN support network was difficult. Outside, it’s illegal for Syrians to get a job without a work permit, which is nearly impossible to obtain. Inside, there’s free food and accommodation, a Syrian community and a UN boss who is involving them in the growth of their desert city. He does that by spending two or three nights walking the streets of the camp, meeting Syrians and listening to their problems. Tonight is one of those nights.
The German looks impatient. He’s pacing around. He’s spent too much time in base camp today, and he’s keen to get out of this barbed-wire bubble. A Swiss TV producer is the reason for his delay. She wants to film part of his walk around the camp, but her camera crew haven’t turned up, so she’s trying to calm him down with some small talk.
“Will we take the car?” she asks.“No, we will not take the car,” Kleinschmidt snaps. “It’s my night walk, not a game drive. It’s not a safari.” In a sign of how quickly things have improved, the top UN official in Zaatari is now able to walk the unlit roads of Zaatari at night without bodyguards.
“There were moments when things got a bit hairy. In the beginning, on this road, I was attacked by kids. They were laughing,” he says. “We still get times when we’re surrounded by big groups. Or when huge crowds arrive at base camp and we think, now they’re coming to get us.”
Almost as soon as he leaves base camp, groups of Syrian children surround Kleinschmidt, although they come bearing smiles, not stones. They’re chanting “Hello, welcome, how are you” and any of the other English phrases they’ve learned at one of the three foreign-funded schools here. It’s not long before their parents peer out of their caravans to see what all the commotion is about. “Welcome Mr Killian,” one says, and invites him in for tea. As he’s walking through the door, a neighbour leans through his window. “Keifak [how are you], ya Killian”, he shouts.
With winter approaching, many of the camp’s biggest challenges – electricity, water and the plight of those still living in tents – will be exacerbated. Last winter, floods made many of the camp’s streets impassable. Kleinschmidt is determined to be better prepared this time around.
As if on cue, the electricity goes off. The householder explains that he’s worried that floodwaters will pose a risk to the electricity cables running along the ground. “We’re going to put pylons in,” Kleinschmidt promises, “but we need time.” More than two-thirds of households and shops have electricity now, most of it stolen. Hackers have been connecting wires to the street lights. But instead of getting the cables cut, Kleinschmidt has found a unique solution that pleases everyone. “We’ve started working with the guys who were illegally tapping the electricity,” he says. “We have 350 [refugee] electricians in the camp, with various chiefs who sell the [illegal] connections.” They’ll be given jobs installing the pylons and new, more powerful transformers.
The bulky German is in his element walking through this maze-like warren of pathways (Zaatari was originally laid out in a grid system, but Syrians wanted to live near people from their village, so they redrew the map to create their own communities). He can navigate his way even in the pitch black. And he gets a reaction wherever he goes: Kleinschmidt is a popular politician walking through his constituency. Adults and children shout his name, come up to him to shake his hand and give him high-fives. And they almost always ask the same two questions: “When will you sort out the electricity problem?” and “When will we move into a caravan?”
When Zaatari opened in July 2012, nearly all the Syrians lived in tents. But with no end in sight to the war, foreign donors have been sending caravans. The aim was to move all Syrians out of tents by the start of winter, but 40 per cent of Zaatari’s inhabitants are still living under canvas. The arrival of caravans, many of them donated by Gulf states, has slowed – in part – because of stories of these pre-fab houses changing hands for hundreds of dollars within the camp, many converted into retail spaces. One trader tells me it costs $2,120 to buy a large shop and $635 for a small unit.
When refugees leave the camp, either to go back to Syria or to move to a Jordanian city, they are supposed to hand their caravan back to the UN. Few do. The trade in caravans has been a key driver in the creation of a Zaatari economy. It has allowed Syrians to build a souq that seems to stretch the length of the refugee camp. Kleinschmidt estimates that the marketplace has a capital turnover of eight million Jordanian dinars (Dh41.5m) per month. And where are refugees getting that kind of cash? From the UN.
Initially, the World Food Programme handed out meals twice a day in pizza boxes. The Syrians hated the little juice cartons and packaged food. Refugees now get ration vouchers worth 6 dinars every 15 days, which has given them more independence and has fuelled the growth of Zaatari-based businesses. The camp has two-thirds employment, keeping refugees busy, providing them with a wage and allowing them to invest in their city.
“People are very busy settling,” says Kleinschmidt. “People have built fountains, cemented their inner courtyards, we have a pet shop in town now, we have people putting in plants and flowers. Houses have electricity connections, the kids watch the Disney Channel, people are very busy developing a social life that they didn’t want to develop a few months ago because they thought they were going home.”
With increased spending power comes eating out. In the evening, the smell of grilled meat wafts along the main souq and Kleinschmidt is heading into his favourite restaurant, called simply Arabi and Turki. There’s an open barbecue on the street and three large dining rooms made out of caravans. A team of wait staff dash around, all wearing the same sparkling white uniform. Kleinschmidt likes the place, not just because of the quality of the food, but because of the attitude of the owner, Abu Mohammed, one of Deraa’s biggest restaurateurs. “He provides a safe haven,” says Kleinschmidt. “When there was a rush of new arrivals, he stayed open all night for family reunifications.”
Outside the restaurant there’s shouting. One of the Swiss TV crew has been hit in the head by a stone. She comes inside to take a seat: there’s no serious injury but she looks shaken. “We need to bring the big guys,” says Kleinschmidt. “When we’ve got a camera crew, we need the community de-mobilisers, because people can get a bit excited. I thought things had calmed down a little.”
But they haven’t and the reason soon becomes apparent. After the meal, the crew takes Kleinschmidt outside to interview him. Within seconds, they are surrounded by angry young men. “Filming is prohibited here,” one shouts. Kleinschmidt looks incredulous. “I’m the boss,” he says. “We can film here.”
The teenager gets out his smartphone, and shows him an Al Arabiya story that was filmed by an undercover journalist who’d sneaked into Zaatari. “We’ve been here for one year and we’ve never seen a single camera,” the Syrian says. “And then we see these lies.”
Kleinschmidt replies: “It was wrong; you’re angry and I’m angry.”
The Swiss team pack up their equipment but, despite the tension, Kleinschmidt isn’t running back to the safety of his barbed-wire compound. With one of the TV crew translating, Kleinschmidt engages the crowd, reassuring them that the Swiss TV report isn’t going to be another hatchet job. More people have joined the crowd, interested to see what all the fuss is about. They use the translator to tell them of their woes, and yet again, it’s all about caravans and cables. Kleinschmidt is holding a town hall meeting in a dark street with an angry mob, but somehow he turns the situation around and there are nods of satisfaction by the time the crowd has dispersed. The encounter sums up perfectly the way Kleinschmidt has convinced Syrians to stop rebelling against Zaatari and start building this Syrian city.
There’s still a lot of building to be done, though. As he walks down one of the small sand side roads that has yet to be asphalted, Kleinschmidt has to dodge a massive water-filled crater. These holes are a regular sight on the backstreets: Syrians dig up the sand to use in building work. A water truck overturned in this one and flooded the street, and it couldn’t have picked a worse place to do it: right outside Abu Wael’s caravan complex.
Abu Wael is one of seven “chiefs” in Zaatari: southern Syrian tribal leaders whose power and influence has migrated with them across the border. These men can make or break the UN’s plans, and Kleinschmidt knows it.
A woman opens the door and invites Kleinschmidt into the caravan. A few minutes later, there’s a flurry of activity and three large men in black jalabiyas and headscarves walk in and each hug Kleinschmidt in turn. It’s like the arrival of an international delegation. These are three of the big seven, a triumvirate that Kleinschmidt refers to as “the three abus”. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, they exude power, and it’s clear that Kleinschmidt holds them in high regard.
They sit for an hour, Abu Wael telling him what his people are complaining about and Kleinschmidt making sure the tribal chief backs the UN’s big winter work programme: electricity and caravans, as well as the asphalting of the sand roads.
Kleinschmidt gets up to leave and the three abus insist on walking him back to the main road. As he steps out of the caravan, Abu Wael puts his arm around the German’s shoulder. “You know, you’re Arab, you’re just like us,” he says with a laugh. “We call it going native and the danger of being too close,” Kleinschmidt tells me later. “Of course there’s a distance and there will always be a distance. There’s no reason for me to live like a refugee.”
For a couple of nights a week, though, he does.
He heads back past the G4S security guards and into base camp, where he steps into his caravan – exactly the same kind of accommodation used by 60 per cent of the Syrians here. It will be his last night in Zaatari for a few days: Kleinschmidt’s family has just moved from Nairobi to Amman and they’re starting to demand more of his attention. “I probably have already three messages from my wife saying: ‘When are you coming and remember you have to buy milk’, so there’s a bit more pressure now.” His wife recently spent a day in the camp. “She said: ‘Are you crazy?’ Most of our families don’t want to know. It’s very important to have a family in this business, but it’s very difficult. The divorce rates are something like 70 per cent. I always say the other 30 per cent don’t have the chance to get divorced because they have no time.”
“I once took one of my sons to Sarajevo, where I was working. We visited a refugee camp and he said: ‘Papa, now I understand what you do. I thought you were in the military, because you’re an officer, wherever you go there’s a war and [most of the time] we can’t come. Now I understand you’re actually one of the good guys’.”
At 2am, this good guy finally falls asleep; he needs to be up in a few hours for another day of meetings.
As I’m leaving the next morning, I overhear two men in suits saying their goodbyes to the casually dressed German. “You’ve got an accent, but I can’t figure out which part of the country it’s from,” says one of the visitors. Kleinschmidt looks uncomfortable with this kind of small talk. The man in black probes a little more. “Where were you born?” he asks. Kleinschmidt replies without missing a beat. “Zaatari.”
Sakhr Al-Makhadhi is a regular contributor to The National.
• To find out more about the work of the UNHCR at Zaatari camp, watch Zaatari: A Day in the Life, a Yahoo Uk News documentary series at http://en-maktoob.news.yahoo.com/zaatari-camp/