With his tough, direct talk, the 50-year-old Mr. Kleinschmidt – who has such hot spots as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Somalia on his résumé – has earned the respect of most older refugees, who see him as battling hard for their interests. But he can’t seem to win over the children. “They’re a major headache,” he says bluntly. “Sixty thousand kids who are bored and traumatized.”
Mr. Kleinschmidt knows first-hand just how dangerous that combination can be. He was walking down the camp’s main market street this spring when a boy of about 10 narrowly missed him with a rock.
Rocks are hardly in short supply. In an effort to keep down the sand and minimize the ferocity of the daily dust storms, UNHCR laid a carpet of stones – a decision Mr. Kleinschmidt now regrets. “The UN provided these kids ammunition for the next 20 years,” he says with a sigh. Many aid workers’ cars have cracked windshields.
Fed up, he decided to give chase down a narrow alley, only to have the boy turn and pull a knife, which he luckily managed to wrestle away without injury.
Mr. Kleinschmidt is not the only authority figure to feel the wrath of the Zaatari generation. Young gangs swing into action whenever the smugglers need a distraction, pelting Jordanian police positions with stones. On one occasion, they went so far as to overrun police headquarters during a shift change, making off with whatever they could.
Zaatari is the first camp, Mr. Kleinschmidt says, where he has found the behaviour of the children to be the biggest worry. “Anyone who walks near kids thinks, ‘When are the stones coming?’ I’ve never seen that anywhere,” he says. “I’m afraid of the kids here.”
For sale: anything from fine pastry to underage prostitutes
At the heart of Zaatari is a potholed dirt road dubbed the “Champs-Élysées.” It’s hard to imagine anything further from the glitter of Paris but the street is nonetheless a testament to the resilience and enterprise of the stranded Syrians.
Tiny hardware stores and shawarma restaurants sit beside juice stands and barber shops, each stall made with sheets of corrugated tin. It’s said you can buy anything, from wedding gowns and baklava pastries as good as those in Damascus, to child labourers and underage prostitutes.
Not far from the camp’s main gate, Mahmoud Hoshan has a mobile phone shop. He sells few of the old Nokias hanging on the wall, but is an expert at fixing screens and keypads destroyed by Zaatari’s epic dust storms.
Mr. Hoshan sends his daughter to classes, but keeps sons Basel, 15, and Raed, 8, with him at the shop. It’s more important, he explains, that they learn the family business than go to a school he believes is full of violence, and where students accustomed to learning about their homeland, and French as a second language, are struggling with a Jordanian curriculum and English.
Basel and Raed are among untold thousands of working children in Zaatari. The highway that leads to Mafraq, a city just to the west, is lined with kids – some just four or five years old – selling donated food and other goods to passing drivers for badly needed cash. Within the camp, children push wheelbarrows through the alleys for about 35 cents a load, or work as runners for the mighty smugglers.
Most of the labour isn’t strenuous, but many of the children are now starting their third straight year outside the classroom. They may never go back. Whenever this war ends, a country that has long prided itself on having a well-educated population will face a generation with almost no schooling at all.
One other reason Mr. Hoshan refuses to enroll his boys is sheer optimism – he believes everyone will be going back to Syria as soon as the U.S. bombs the Assad regime and turns the tide. U.S. President Barack Obama’s vow to punish the regime raised expectations that the ordeal is about to end. The nuances of his talk of a “limited strike” and the politics that saw him postpone his plans this week in favour of a Russian-led diplomatic effort are lost on most.
“Everybody is waiting for the strike. They don’t want to be disappointed. People are selling their things, getting ready to go back,” Mr. Hoshan says.