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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to the Middle East, inside the conflict in Syria. There are so many political players it can be difficult to keep track, including some outside Syria. Today, we're going to the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert which has grown to 120,000 residents fleeing the war in Syria. More refuges arrive every day, sheltering in tents and trailers.

Officially, aid workers run the camp. But if you ask the question, who's really the boss in Zaatari, you will get a very interesting answer, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: On these wind-blown streets, Mohammed al-Hariri commands respect. Refugees and aid workers call out his name as he passes. At 48, his beard is neat, his steely hair blow-dried, shoes clean and polished, remarkable in this dusty place. He's deceptively small, almost delicate, a mafia don by some accounts. He's the most powerful man in Zaatari.

He invites us to his trailer for tea.

MOHAMMED AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) This here's the kitchen. It's a humble kitchen, as you can see.

AMOS: Not by the standards of a refugee camp. Hariri's living compound is a relative palace. He's got a private water tank, the artificial turf in his courtyard is a relief from the wind and the rocks in the camp. His children watch cartoons in a separate air-conditioned trailer. A storage room is filled with blankets and food.

So this is your fridge here and this is another fridge and this is a third fridge? He taps electricity from a camp hospital, he says, and he helps others get free power too.

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) I have people who climb these different poles and they install lines for me. I currently have four lines. One of them is from the Italian hospital.

AMOS: So you're essentially stealing electricity, correct?

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) Look, everyone does it. And finally, if they want me to pay, I'll pay gladly. But so this, we're in the 21st century. Even animals in a barnyard have electricity.

AMOS: Hariri can delivery more than electricity. An indoor fountain in a refugee trailer in the middle of the desert. Sure thing. His workmen create the pools out of concrete and stone. Running water cools the dry, hot air.

AL-HARIRI: (Through translator) I mean, come on. A cup of coffee by the fountain in the evening. It's an extraordinary thing.

AMOS: He makes no apology, insists he serves his people. He gets them what they need and he rages against aid workers and NGOs.

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) Most of these clashes here happen with NGOs. And all the NGOs here are thieves and robbers and they are corrupt.

AMOS: Before he became the boss of Zaatari, he taught air conditioning repair and studied some law in the Syrian town of Dera'a. But he says when the protests started against President Bashar al-Assad, he joined a rebel brigade, led a commando unit. He fled to Zaatari last August and saw how he could be another kind of leader.

Jordan's desert air is cold at night, so when he first arrived he asked an aid worker for an extra blanket.

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) And they said: No, this is not an easy thing to do. You have to be given some kind of coupon for it. And I said: Look, give me the stuff now or I will separate your head from your body.

AMOS: He got the blankets. From then on he built an empire and a network inside the camp. Ask how he does it, and he won't give a straight answer. There are rumors here that he can have people killed.

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) I could if I wanted to, but I would never let it get to that point.

AMOS: Can you start a protest?

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) I mean, of course I could if I wanted to start one, but think of it logically. You would start a riot, people would bash the building, loot what's going on, and what has been solved? Nothing. Instead, I make sure that a problem has been solved. I do not leave until it is solved.

AMOS: Solutions. That's what everyone wants here. Aid workers want to stop the riots, the looting, the electricity mafia stealing power for free. The refugees want dignity and safety in a camp now as big as a city. When we drive him to the front gate, Hariri is greeted by Killian Kleinschmidt, a burly German aid worker who manages Zaatari for the U.N. refugee agency.

Kleinschmidt calls himself the mayor of Zaatari. Still, he greets Hariri as an equal.

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) Fine, thank you.

AMOS: You two know each other, right?

KILLIAN KLEINSCHMIDT: Yes we do. We work together.

AMOS: Hariri invited Kleinschmidt to his trailer a few weeks back and over tea they reached an agreement.

KLEINSCHMIDT: We made a deal that we wouldn't work against each other because we're two powerful men in this camp, so if we would work against each other, the camp would explode.

AMOS: Yeah, amongst other things.

Back in the courtyard of his trailer, Hariri sees a stream of visitors. Two women pour out their troubles, one says her daughter is about to give birth. She wants to go back to Syria. Another one has a husband stuck at the border. Can Hariri get him into Jordan?

He snaps open his phone, barks out order. Can you solve this? Can you help these ladies?

AL-HARIRI: (Through Translator) Of course, it's already been solved.

AMOS: How he solved it he wouldn't say. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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