AZRAQ, JORDAN - The Syrian refugee crisis is growing worse by the day as host countries face economic and political pressures as they struggle to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled their war-torn nation.
In Jordan, about 80 percent of the 620,000 registered Syrian refugees are living in urban areas. But 20 percent are mostly housed in camps.
Jordan's newest Syrian refugee camp, Azraq, was opened six months ago to relieve some of the pressure from urban areas by housing 130,000 people. But so far, only 15,000 refugees have moved in.
About 100 kilometers east of the Jordanian capital, Amman, lies an arid desert. The Azraq refugee camp sitson nine square miles.
Abdullah Ali al-Qasim arrived three months ago. He left Syria after seeing eight of his family members killed in a missile attack. But he still wants to return.
He said the rats, the high prices at the market and poor food quality are making life in what he calls an open-air prison impossible.
“The rest of my family is still in Syria, and I talk to them and they want to come, but I’m telling them not to come, because it’s not in their interests. They’re under the warplanes and bombardment every day in a village, they’re displaced going from village to village, but there is still better, it’s enough that they’re free," said al-Qasim.
By free, Abdullah means they can move around however they want. Here, there’s no work for him, and the $28 he receives every month is barely enough to feed his son. But he can't leave the camp unless a Jordanian vouches for him.
“My relatives are Syrian, and they can’t be the person vouching for me. It has to be a Jordanian related to me by blood or marriage, and there have to be security procedures,” he explained.
Still, Abdullah's neighbors have it worse. Nearby, an elderly mother who did not want to give her name lives with her two adult daughters and their eight sons. They arrived only days ago.
“We practically died coming over, it was awful. We were in the desert for three days, without water, and the kids were going to die without water but it was all to get away from Bashar’s bombings,” she said.
All three lost their husbands under tragic circumstances.
“I was next to him, and he was shot, the bullet went into him here and out from here. They shot him deliberately, face to face. And now nobody asks about how my kids are doing. No religion would accept this. What state would accept this?" she said.
Watching his father get killed has left serious marks on Mohammed. He doesn’t talk much anymore, and stays with his mother most of the time.
Like Mohammed, more than half of the inhabitants at the camp are children, but many are even less fortunate than he is, having lost their entire families. A number of aid agencies are focused just on helping soothe that trauma. Safety is another priority, and a key agency, CARE, has built a cultural center in the center of the village.
On one recent day, they celebrated a holiday with traditional Syrian music.
Mahmoud used to play in Damascus bars and restaurants before the war broke out. He’s been at the camp with his family for one month but wants to leave.
“There are a lot of bad things that happened here in the camp, a lot of bad things. Life here isn’t livable. I’m hoping to submit for someone to vouch for me,” said Mahmoud.
But that may take some time. Overcrowded urban areas, such as refugee camps in Amman, are not a much better alternative. Refugees can’t get work permits and the rents are inflated.
For now, brief moments of what once was will have to do.