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Largest camp for Syrian refugees becoming a city

Friday - 11/1/2013, 3:40pm  ET

In this Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, photo, a Syrian refugee woman stands between to trailers at the Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border in Jordan. With 4,000 families still in tents and more arriving, demand for the 18,000 trailers is high. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan (AP) -- The manager of the region's largest camp for Syrian refugees arranges toy figures, trucks and houses on a map in his office trailer to illustrate his ambitious vision. In a year, he wants to turn the chaotic shantytown of more than 100,000 people into a temporary city with local councils, paved streets, parks, an electricity grid and sewage pipes.

Zaatari, a desert camp near Jordan's border with Syria, is far from that ideal. Life is tough here. The strong often take from the weak, women fear going to communal bathrooms after dark, sewage runs between pre-fab trailers and boys hustle for pennies carting goods in wheelbarrows instead of going to school.

But with Syria's civil war in its third year, the more than 2 million Syrians who fled their country need long-term solutions, said Kilian Kleinschmidt, who runs Zaatari for the U.N. refugee agency.

"We are setting up ... a temporary city, as long as people have to be here," said Kleinschmidt, a 51-year-old German. The veteran of conflict zones is getting help from urban planners in the Netherlands.

Many in Zaatari residents acknowledge, if reluctantly, that a quick return is unlikely.

"At the beginning, we counted (our exile) in months, then years, and now maybe decades," said Khaled Zoabi, in his 60s, drinking tea and smoking with other refugees in a trailer-turned-men's social club.

Signs of refugees putting down roots are everywhere, just 15 months after Jordan opened the camp.

Many tents have been replaced with trailers, with satellite dishes installed on roofs. Refugees have started hundreds of businesses, offering anything from semi-automatic washing machines and haircuts to freshly baked pastries and ground coffee. The camp has three schools, two hospitals and a maternity clinic.

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Each day begins before dawn with calls to prayer echoing across the flat land. Desert nights are cold, and in October, two U.N.-issued blankets per person aren't enough. Kleinschmidt hopes to move more refugees from tents into the warmer trailers before winter.

On a recent morning, four men sat waiting around a trash fire near the arrivals area. On the way were relatives fleeing the rebel-held Ghouta district near Damascus, under siege by President Bashar Assad's troops.

One of those waiting, 18-year-old Malik Salim, made the journey a month earlier, driven from Ghouta by hunger and regime shelling. Men caught at Syrian army checkpoints risk arrest or death, he said.

Dusty and dazed, the newcomers -- often in the hundreds each day -- line up for U.N. blankets and tents.

Mahmoud Joumma, 39, stood with his wife and two boys, five and 10 years old, by a pile of blankets. They lost their home in Syria's central city of Homs last year in government shelling and for months sheltered in abandoned apartments. With shelling worsening, they decided to head to Jordan, a four-day journey.

Joumma, a former bus driver, said he hopes Assad and the opposition can reach a political deal. "If they don't, God curse them both."

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As newcomers settle in, veterans begin their morning routine.

The camp's five bread centers open at daybreak. About 500,000 pitas are handed out daily -- four per person.

At the largest center, near the main gate, women and girls enter on the left, men and boys on the right. Each hands a yellow ration card through a metal divider and receives bread.

Bread is free, as are rice, bulgur and lentils. Each person also gets six dinars ($8.5) worth of food stamps every two weeks. With that, they buy eggs, milk and chicken and groceries at markets that redeem coupons.

Refugees have created their own camp economy, but its rules are murky. Gangs of thugs have arisen to control some dealings, including a black market in U.N.-issued supplies, Kleinschmidt said.

Camp residents earn money by providing goods and services, from selling homemade pudding to school children to telling fortunes from coffee cups.

Money gets injected into the camp economy from the cash refugees managed to bring with them, sent to them by relatives or from business partnerships with Jordanians.

Another source of money: the camp employs 1,500 cleaners and orderlies, for a dinar an hour. The jobs are rotated every two weeks. Street leaders -- put in place by residents -- choose who gets them, and many complain of favoritism.

There's also a thriving business in electricity, land, tents and trailers.

Some 350 refugees with technical skills have illegally diverted electricity from the public lighting system to about 70 percent of the households, charging for hookup and maintenance, Kleinschmidt said. The "electricity ministers," he calls them, tongue-in-cheek.

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