Imagine living in a refugee camp. For most, that phrase is enough to conjure images of makeshift tents, dusty pathways, queues for water and food, and above all, fear. Now imagine living in Zaatari refugee camp in a northern part of Jordan 7.5 miles from the Syrian border and Dar‘a region, sharing an area only about three square miles with 100,000 other refugees in one of the most densely populated “cities” in the Arab world, with near-constant shuffling and reshuffling of households, food and water distribution points, and other services, and refugees arriving and leaving all the time. Who, would you imagine, is responsible for keeping you and your family safe, fed and housed? Who will help you make sure your children can go to school, and do so safely? Who, in short, is in charge?

The “President of the Street”

When Abu Muhammad walked into the Jordanian police colonel’s office in early March 2014, he was looking his best. He was dressed in a long brown robe with a red-and-white-checkered Jordanian shawl draped over his shoulders. His clothing was brand new, and even held the creases from the plastic bags. Abu Muhammad, now 55, had been one of the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Zaatari nearly three years before. Col. ‘Abdallah, sitting behind a grand oak desk, sported an impeccably pressed and spotless uniform. As he smoked cigarette after cigarette, junior officers came in and out of the large office, requesting signatures and approvals to continue whatever bureaucratic processes they were responsible for keeping in motion.

Abu Muhammad has spent much of his time in Col. ‘Abdallah’s office since he came to live in Zaatari. The two men appear to have a friendly relationship, one of mutual respect, although it is punctuated by tense moments of jockeying for power. Abu Muhammad is a “president of the street” in his section of Zaatari — a self-appointed leader, part of the camp’s multi-layered and highly informal internal security apparatus — who has taken on responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of his neighbors. According to local gossip, he has also skimmed off the top of resources he helped distribute to his neighbors in a self-determined amount of “payment” for his services. His meetings with Col. ‘Abdallah link his informal security activities to formal security structures, which are overseen by a combination of Jordanian government and international actors. These meetings also give Col. ‘Abdallah important information about the goings-on in Abu Muhammad’s part of the camp. Col. ‘Abdallah has direct power over legal issues, infrastructure and resources, but Abu Muhammad holds important cards, as well. He has knowledge. He knows the families on his street, the shopkeepers along the now-famed “Champs-Élysées” market street and the key tribal players in the internal struggles for space, access and power in Zaatari.

The interaction between these two men is often mutually beneficial, but when Abu Muhammad entered Col. ‘Abdallah’s office that morning, he had an urgent personal request. After sharing coffee and cigarettes and trading gossip, he revealed that one of his Zaatari neighbors and competitors, another “street leader” known as Abu Husayn, had obtained a video of Abu Muhammad drinking alcohol and dancing with Russian prostitutes in a Syrian nightclub. Abu Husayn had posted the video on Facebook, and now the 100,000 refugees in Zaatari, not to mention the countless Syrians in other refugee camps and those still in Syria, were passing around the embarrassing clip. It promised to compromise Abu Muhammad’s position with his neighbors and family members, and — most threateningly — with the Jordanian government and the non-governmental groups working in the camp.

Before approaching the colonel, Abu Muhammad had sought help from the senior international official inside the camp, Kilian Kleinschmidt, with whom he is also on cordial terms. But Kleinschmidt, who was the senior field coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the time and the self-proclaimed “mayor of Zaatari,” had told Abu Muhammad that even his power did not extend to Facebook, and sent Abu Muhammad to Col. ‘Abdallah. And so Abu Muhammad was there in the colonel’s office, asking him, with all hope and sincerity, to have Facebook take down the video.

Of course, such an action is far beyond the reach of anyone in Zaatari. Nonetheless, such encounters raise questions about power holding, resource brokering and access in the camp. Each of the actors involved holds distinct understandings of where power, resources and access come from and how to manage security both formally and otherwise in the second largest refugee camp in the world.

Securing the Camp

According to the Jordanian government, nearly one third of the 3 million Syrians who are now refugees are in Jordan. This count differs from UNHCR’s acknowledgement in September 2014 of 646,000 registered “persons of concern.” The Jordanian government holds the number at 1 million or more, asserting that some 400,000 “unregistered refugees” have entered the country and have not yet sought formalization of their status as refugees with UNHCR. Zaatari, which opened on July 28, 2012, is home to about 100,000 of those refugees. Only the Somali refugee camp Dadaab houses more. One hundred thousand residents also make Zaatari the fourth largest “city” in Jordan. Most Zaatari refugees are from the nearby southern Syrian region of Dar‘a, where the uprising began in 2011.

Zaatari’s population is relatively stable, despite the fact that up to 1,000 refugees arrive in Jordan every day, because Zaatari also reports a population decline of about 1,500 people each week as men return to Syria to fight or families leave to rejoin their family members in urban areas or other camps. Some other refugees inside Zaatari are “bailed out” of the camp by way of the kafala system, through which a Jordanian citizen, often a relative or tribal connection, posts a bond of 15 Jordanian dinars or about $22 per refugee. Should the refugee be found breaking local laws or leaving the country, the sponsor must pay an additional 5,000 dinars, equivalent to about $7,000.

Beyond the sheer number of people, more than 80 percent of Zaatari residents could be classified as “vulnerable”: 56 percent are children (boys and girls under 17) and 25 percent are women aged 18 and older. Some 15 babies are born every day in the camp. Protecting these people in the camp — and their livelihoods — is paramount. While Zaatari has become synonymous with chaos and violence, especially inside Jordan, legal complaints and formal reports of assault, including sexual and gender-based violence, are extremely hard to come by, as are exact figures about the number of violent incidents. Despite widespread fear of violence, refugees are not reporting such incidents to the Jordanian police for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that the camp is a newly established conurbation without a durable, formalized security apparatus. Jordanian Lt. Gen. Husayn al-Majali told Julie Bindel of Standpoint, “There are assaults, burglary, homicides in Zaatari. It’s a town. These things happen.” [1] The lack of information, combined with statements like this one from a senior member of the formal security apparatus, raise fundamental questions about who is in charge of policing and how the security of this new community is being safeguarded. It is exactly this context that creates a space for men like Abu Muhammad to step in.

At the formal level, the work required to secure, host, house, feed, care for, educate and otherwise support the refugees is an internationally coordinated effort, based on a 1998 agreement between UNHCR and the Jordanian government. More than 50 UN agencies, and national and international NGOs, fall under the leadership of UNHCR, which supervises camp administration and management. The Jordanian Ministry of the Interior is in overall charge of the camps through the Syrian Refugee Assistance Department (SRAD) and the Jordanian police. Members of a specialized police unit, who are known as “gendarmerie” and refer to themselves as a “SWAT team,” are called into Zaatari only when the regular police cannot maintain order. The gendarmes arrive, for example, when they fear a demonstration will turn violent and put refugees, UN staff or police officers in harm’s way, as has happened several times since the opening of the camp. Otherwise, the gendarmerie stands at the ready outside the gates. UNHCR also coordinates with the Jordanian armed forces, whose personnel are the first to receive new refugees at entrance points along Jordan’s 233-mile border with Syria. The army is not present inside the camp; rather, it maintains its duties of border protection, which includes transporting refugees to the processing center at Raba‘a al-Sarhan, a 15-minute drive away from Zaatari. The final player in formal camp security is SIREN, a private firm hired by the British Embassy to implement a “community policing” project.

To grasp the underlying political structures of internal security, as conceptualized by UNHCR, the Jordanian government and SIREN, it is vital to understand the camp’s physical layout.

Mapping Zaatari

Zaatari is comprised of 12 districts. Six of these are the oldest areas, and thus the most densely populated. The space allotted for each district (numbered in blue in the map below) is meant to keep each one’s population at around 10,000 residents.

Each district has numerous dirt paths or gravel “streets” — hundreds, in some cases — and a great many of those have a “street leader” like Abu Muhammad, who is responsible for tasks that vary from district to district but include: collecting and distributing donated goods and resources to the residents of his street; advocating for vulnerable residents; approving those residents that desire to move in and out of the street; and otherwise serving as gatekeeper of information passing between residents and Jordanian officials and UNHCR. It is an informal system, but one rife with corruption as street presidents, such as Abu Muhammad, take a payment in goods or money from residents for his services.

Refugees from the Dar‘a governorate are a demographic majority in the camp at 90 percent of the population. Those from the Dar‘a district within the eponymous province (in red in the map below) are particularly able to wield collective power in gaining access to resources. They reside closer to the hospitals, schools, sources of electricity and NGO distribution centers. The remaining 10 percent of Zaatari’s residents report home origins of Izra’ (in blue) and al-Sanamayn (in green). Refugees “not from Dar‘a governorate” (in yellow) live at the outskirts of Zaatari and have to walk many miles to reach the resource centers of the camp. For these refugees at the margins, goods and services can be difficult to obtain as the local street leaders are less well connected.

In media reports, Zaatari has gained a reputation as a chaotic city, difficult to navigate and full of unsafe spaces hidden away between streets. Streets themselves are not laid out in a grid-like pattern, having evolved as much by refugee decisions as by UNHCR or other administrative design, with and without input from the Jordanian police. Although each household is assigned to a district, refugees generally decide for themselves if they will stay where they are placed; housing structures or “caravans” are mobile and moving is relatively easy. Young men and boys do a brisk business as “caravan haulers,” using flatbed wagons to move households from place to place within the camp. With the unsanctioned but unavoidable approval of presidents of the street, some refugees are able to move where they want. Motivations for moving might be to be close to family or friends, to the Champs-Élysées or to a particular hospital, school or playground. Other refugees, however, are pushed out to the margins. Those “not from Dar‘a” or those unable to pay the costs of a particularly corrupt street leader are more likely to be channeled into the more isolated and vulnerable districts.

Competing and Overlapping Narratives

There is tremendous confusion over who among the Syrian refugees are “in charge.” With whom do UNHCR, the Jordanian police and SIREN work in the camp? At the most local level, the Jordanian police and SIREN agree on their use of the terms “street leader” or “president of the street” to refer to their contacts. These are men like Abu Muhammad, who are self-styled leaders among the refugees on their streets. UNHCR refers to these men as “Abus,” the plural of an Anglicized form of the Arabic word for “father.” Beyond this basic agreement, however, the UN, the Jordanian police and the British agency have come to no consensus about the camp’s internal security apparatus, even arguing over how many Abus or presidents of the streets there are and where they operate. The UNHCR, Jordanian government and SIREN do not agree upon the idea of one leader per street.

The UNHCR narrative, for example, introduces several layers of complexity. The internal political structure of the camp consists of the Abus at the street level. UNHCR, however, also recognizes the existence of at least 12 “Super-Abus” who act as mafia-like bosses, overseeing the Abus. In essence, the Super-Abus are district leaders. Recently, UNHCR has claimed the existence of a third and highest tier of power brokers, the “Super-Super-Abus.” This multi-layered, yet surprisingly neat understanding of how the camp is organized implicates all levels of political leadership in forms of corruption, with two or three middlemen receiving a cut each time resources are distributed.

As UNHCR tells it, the original Abus emerged in the early days of Zaatari’s existence, eventually developing into street-level “bosses” who demanded protection money or otherwise took advantage of the destitute refugees in their areas of control. For much of 2014, UNHCR claimed to be working to coopt these original leaders—or, failing that, to replace them with new Abus who would be more responsive to the needs of their fellow refugees and represent them better.

UNHCR’s efforts to construct a narrative of political leadership in this way, including the misappropriated Arabic terminology, appears to center around the personage of Kilian Kleinschmidt.

As a 2013 New York Times article indicated,

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.” [2]

It was often a point of criticism of Kleinschmidt that he constructed a simplified “Abu Org Chart” out of a chaotic and decidedly not straightforward geographic layout. The UNHCR man, according to many NGOs we spoke with, was culturally insensitive (to say the very least). [3] Many NGO personnel feel that Kleinschmidt himself drew up the organizational structure of the Abus out of his desire to “decide everything.”

Meanwhile, the non-profit organization Northern Ireland Cooperation Overseas is running a European Union-funded community policing program in Zaatari. SIREN, a for-profit security firm, implements the program, training Jordanian police in “community street skills” such as building good rapport with the Syrians, listening to refugee complaints in order to develop action plans for improved community development, localized problem solving and administering first aid. In an early 2014 interview, SIREN’s lead international consultant (a retired police officer from Britain) told us,

We train for “public order” — a non-political activity that benefits everyone: refugees first and foremost; UNHCR and aid staff; and Jordanians themselves. We do that only; we do not train for counter-intelligence work! We’re not seeking information from people. We’re seeking their help in securing their community. [4]

In practice, community policing asks uniformed and specially trained “beat cops” to show themselves daily in order to deter criminal activity. The cops also collect complaints about conditions in the camp and submit reports to SRAD and the Jordanian police. Beyond reporting the information they receive, Jordanian police officers are trained by SIREN to promise nothing to the refugees. Community policing began as a pilot program in one district, and was extended to all 12 districts in March 2014. SIREN has also worked with the Jordanian police to expand the services of the camp police station and the emergency phone system as well as a comprehensive mapping program. The policing program has trained a total of 20 officers in a three-week regimen, which another 60 are scheduled to undergo. It is unclear how much ground 20 officers can cover.

SIREN asserts not only that each street in Zaatari has a street leader or Abu, but also that the so-called Super-Abus are present, although the firm counts only five or six of these district leaders, whereas UNHCR claims twice that number. One member of SIREN acknowledged that the term “Super-Abu” is one he “inherited” from Kleinschmidt. He also indicated that he believed the Abus and Super-Abus to be people who had been sheikhs or respected elders in Syria. They were, he believed, people who came to Jordan with money or muscle or both, and hailed from large families with high reputations, which is why Abu Muhammad was so worried about the video on Facebook. With their stature, the Abus can advocate for specific persons in their spheres of influence to UNHCR or the Jordanian police. The select numbers of Super-Abus, in particular, tend to reside in areas in Zaatari that are full of people from Dar‘a.

Our SIREN respondent asserted that there is yet another layer of power in the camp — a “Super Imam.” This man had introduced himself to the SIREN consultant as “the imam of all imams,” asserting his leadership over the 54 mosques and prayer rooms in Zaatari. This distinction of religious authority is only being made by SIREN, but it demonstrates that power in the camp may not align entirely or exclusively with district boundaries.

By contrast, the Jordanian police only recognize and deal with the “presidents of the street.” They do not call the presidents “Abus” like UNHCR and SIREN, preferring instead to use the Arabic words ra’is al-shari‘. Nor do the Jordanian police acknowledge Super-Abus or Super-Super-Abus, seemingly aiming to keep police involvement as simple as possible. When asked about Super-Abus, Col. ‘Abdallah responded, “If there were presidents of the districts [Super-Abus], then the presidents of the streets would be more accountable and the presidents of the districts would be more corrupt.” He seemed to be intimating that local politics are the least corrupt and that, accordingly, the Jordanian approach is most successful. Col. ‘Abdallah reported: “For eight months the camp has been under Jordanian control and Jordanian law. We don’t have any security problems anymore.” [5]

Col. ‘Abdallah was also reluctant to discuss the presidents of the street in depth. He quickly dismissed the topic, saying that the SIREN model of community policing will work only if it engages the refugees directly. To emphasize his point, the colonel recounted a “success story” from the community policing program. One part of the camp, he said, had a gravel street poured through the middle of an existing neighborhood. The street was designed to remove standing sewage, but it also divided the neighborhood in two, with 135 people on one side and 40 on the other. The side with 40 people also had the neighborhood bathrooms near their tents and homes. Through direct interaction with residents, rather than the interlocution of the street president, the Jordanian police came to understand that they needed more toilets on the side of the street where 135 people lived. The police worked with UNHCR and NGOs to install five toilets on the more populated side, leaving two on the less populated side. There were still 20-30 people sharing each toilet on both sides of the street, but the police considered the project a success. They see direct dealings with Syrians as the ideal approach to camp management — which, to them, includes overall camp security — as opposed to working through Abus or Super-Abus.

Zaatari’s Lessons

Syrian refugees in Zaatari, and undoubtedly throughout Jordan and the region, are highly resilient and entrepreneurial as they navigate the complexities of their inherently insecure environment. There are many players in and around Zaatari, just as the Syrian crisis itself has become a proxy war in the region and the world. Still, Zaatari is the place 100,000 or so refugees must call “home” — temporarily, yet with no end in sight.

Securing the lives of Syrian refugees in Zaatari is the number one priority of all involved: the refugees, UNHCR staff, local and international NGOs, the Jordanian police and even the private contractors. All of these actors are learning security lessons they will use elsewhere in Jordan and the region. UNHCR officially opened its latest refugee camp in Jordan, Azraq, on April 30, 2014. UNHCR administrators and Jordanian police in Azraq told us that, indeed, they had learned a great many lessons from Zaatari — starting with how to prevent “Abus” or “street leaders” from emerging and instead how to work directly with refugees to determine community leadership. [6]

As the world continues to suffer refugee crises seemingly without end, it may be that all of the actors in Zaatari — Jordanians, internationals, perhaps even the Syrians themselves — will be called upon to bring their knowledge to bear in other places. Even if the lessons remain local to Zaatari, as long as violence is reduced and lives are saved, then it will be success enough, until such time as Zaatari closes and its residents return home to a safe and secure Syria.

No one we interviewed thinks that will happen for at least ten to 15 years.


[1] Julie Bindel, “Women Come Last in Syrian Refugee Camps,” Standpoint (April 2013).
[2] New York Times, May 24, 2013.
[3] Interview, Amman, March 20, 2014
[4] Interview, Amman, March 20, 2014.
[5] Interview, Zaatari police station, March 3, 2014.
[6] Interviews, Azraq camp, June 18-19, 2014.

Images: UN satellite image of Zaatari refugee camp; UN map of Zaatari by refugee district of origin.

How to cite this article:

Denis Sullivan, Sarah Tobin "Security and Resilience Among Syrian Refugees in Jordan," Middle East Report Online, October 14, 2014.

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