Calm Boss Overseeing a Syrian Refugee Camp’s Chaos
By Jodi Rudoren, NY Times, May 24, 2013
ZAATARI, Jordan—Kilian Kleinschmidt had a problem. The afternoon before Kuwait’s ambassador to Jordan was scheduled to visit the overcrowded Syrian refugee camp here, children vandalized mobile homes that Kuwait had donated, stealing windows, doors and floor mats.
Mr. Kleinschmidt, who runs the Zaatari camp for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, called the police, but they were busy with a riot as thousands of Syrians tried to cram onto a handful of buses headed back to their embattled homeland.
"Naughty, naughty kids—the best stone throwers on earth," said Mr. Kleinschmidt, 50, a ruddy-faced German whose résumé reads like a Wikipedia entry for the last few decades of international disasters. "I don’t know what I’m going to tell the ambassador of Kuwait tomorrow. He is going to be very upset. He wants to see these placed and happy families moving in there."
About half the size of a small Manhattan studio apartment, the 161-square-foot and 194-square-foot trailers—called caravans and costing $2,500 to $3,500 each—are the most coveted commodity in Zaatari, separating the have-littles from the have-lesses.
Moving families from tents to caravans is the cornerstone of Mr. Kleinschmidt’s plan to overhaul Zaatari, where he took the reins on March 12 after a series of temporary directors. By July, he promises, all of the more than 100,000 refugees sprawled across Zaatari’s five square miles will be in caravans, more than 25,000 of them. They are less than halfway there.
Mr. Kleinschmidt also wants to divide the chaotic camp into 12 neighborhoods, put up street signs and assign everyone an address. He envisions issuing business licenses in the vast, unregulated marketplace of corrugated tin stalls. He wants to install water and electric meters, too. And, eventually, he hopes for a biometric identification system and debit cards to cover food, health care and other services—like the system he oversaw for more than one million displaced people in Pakistan.
But first: a secure fence—better yet, a wall—around the aid workers’ compound, and Zaatari itself.
"Fences don’t work," he told a representative from the European Union the day after the caravans had been looted. "One message to the E.U. is, recruitment program for an East German wall specialist. I want to build a wall. I like walls."
The son of teachers, Mr. Kleinschmidt grew up in Berlin and worked as a roofer, then joined a cooperative that raised 35 goats to make cheese in the Pyrenees. At 26, on a motorbike trip to Mali, he met an aid worker in a bar and ended up helping to build a school near Timbuktu.
He has been working for United Nations aid agencies pretty much ever since. He helped organize a camp for the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan; was in Mogadishu in 1993 during the military operation in which 18 Americans were killed and which inspired the book and movie “Black Hawk Down”; spent two years as a sort of liaison to the Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka; coordinated one of the largest humanitarian airlifts in history for Rwandans caught in the rain forest in Congo; and, in between, worked in Kosovo, Kenya and Uganda. His nickname in aid circles is “the Lion in the Desert.”
"What makes Kilian tick is the same thing that makes him difficult," said Pilar Robledo, who worked closely with Mr. Kleinschmidt for four years in Pakistan and now serves as a consultant to a project here run by the United States Agency for International Development. "He is a man who thrives when mired in chaos, and seems like a different person when an emergency situation has normalized."
Mr. Kleinschmidt has five children, one stepson and a 6-month-old grandson, from four relationships. His wife, a jewelry designer, is from the Caucasus and lives in Nairobi; they have not seen each other in two months.
In Jordan, Mr. Kleinschmidt’s official title is senior field coordinator, with a salary of $14,000 a month. But he calls himself “the International Mayor of Zaatari” or, simply, the boss.
"I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss!" he barked into the phone one morning. "I decide everything," he explained later. "Whether to fix a fence or to throw out a refugee—everything."
Deciding is one thing, doing another. Mr. Kleinschmidt still does not know exactly how many refugees live in his camp or how many aid workers operate there. Almost daily, there are demonstrations, often suppressed with tear gas; last month, a Jordanian security official was critically injured, prompting residents of villages near the camp to block access to it for hours, threatening the refugees’ water supply.
"This is one of the most unruly places I have ruled," said Mr. Kleinschmidt, who sleeps several nights a week on a mattress on the floor of his caravan-office. "The refugees are in sort of a vacuum in terms of who are the authorities. They think of us as the little brothers of Assad—authority is evil," he said, referring to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
One of the first things Mr. Kleinschmidt tackled was electricity. Throughout the camp, dangerous spaghettilike masses of wires pirate power to market stalls, tents and caravans. He said refugees had “established their own power company,” with Mafia-like gangs collecting payments and controlling connections. “They have said, ‘We will destroy the whole camp if you disconnect the power.’ “
So the boss had a summit meeting with a refugee he refers to as the electricity minister, promising to install a new, more powerful transformer if the spaghetti was unraveled. But this month, the Jordanian power company cut the camp’s electricity for nearly eight hours because the bill for the first four months of the year, topping $1 million, had not been paid.
As for the caravan crisis, the Kuwaiti ambassador ended up postponing his visit. But later that week, while showing the South Korean ambassador the happy families moving into 388 of the 1,700 caravans his country had donated, Mr. Kleinschmidt was swarmed by complaints.
"This man, he is here about four months, and he doesn’t receive anything!"
"The toilet is too far from my caravan!"
"I have a small daughter, I need a caravan!"
Mr. Kleinschmidt fought back. “You’re all so jealous,” he said. “If I give you, then he is coming and he is coming.”
The sun was starting to fall, and Mr. Kleinschmidt was called to a more serious situation. Since morning, six refugee families had been occupying new caravans intended for others. That meant the six families that had turned in their tents had no place to sleep.
The boss tried to reason with a refugee representing the squatters. If they returned to their tents, Mr. Kleinschmidt vowed, he would get them caravans after the weekend.
"Look, brothers, everybody listen to me," Mr. Kleinschmidt told the growing crowd. "Everyone in Zaatari will get a caravan. If you’re all starting to take, to grab, it will not work, and we will stop, and nobody will get a caravan.
"If I accept that people just take what they want, we are finished here. We will leave and you can stay. They need to move."
They would not. So instead of expediting their caravans, Mr. Kleinschmidt said he would cut off their ration cards.