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Syrians Flee to Safety in Jordan

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Mafraq, Jordan -- They cross the open desert in a single file, sometimes well over a hundred Syrians in a single group. The darker the night, the safer they are from Assad's border guards. For more than a year, it's been a fluctuating but constant flow. The refugees say they know they're safe when they see the dark outlines of buses waiting for them on the Jordanian side.

"We were afraid our children would be injured or killed, so we fled," Fawaz told me, two months after his family escaped from the besieged city of Homs. Squatting on a straw mat, the 59-year-old patriarch sipped tea as he described the day his family fled. "The army came to the house and stole everything. And then our non-Sunni neighbors turned on us, firing from nearby rooftops. Close to a dozen family members surrounding him nodded as they listened, remembering the terror.

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Photo: Ned Colt/International Rescue Committee

The United Nations now estimates that a half million Syrians have been uprooted by violence in the past year. While four in five of those displaced have remained in-country, there's a constant flow across borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.

In the case of Fawaz's family, it took them 23 days to discreetly travel from their homes in Homs to the safety of Mafraq, a border city in Jordan. At 200 miles, the trip is about as far as New York to Washington, D.C., but finding transport for 48 members of an extended family -- while avoiding constant threats of violence -- turned their travel into an odyssey. They moved by bus, van, and car, and when they finally reached the desert border they crossed the last five miles on foot, under cover of darkness. Fawaz tells me at least 150 Syrians crossed into Jordan on that moonlit night -- a long line of refugees protected by a handful of Kalashnikov-carrying rebels from the Free Syrian Army. Once on the Jordanian side, they say they were met by buses and driven to a temporary camp where they registered as refugees.

The number of refugee arrivals in Jordan fluctuates daily and is linked to the level of violence across the border. In recent months, refugee flows have ranged from 20 to 400 new arrivals every night.

Through late winter, many were still crossing at one of Syria's two border checkpoints with Jordan, but that changed after widespread reports of Syrian border guards demanding hefty bribes to guarantee safe passage and then increasingly turning refugees back after taking the cash. Like Fawaz and his family, the vast majority now enter illegally -- crossing at shifting locations along the 230 mile long desert border to avoid Syrian troops. They then vanish into Jordan's border cities, packing entire families into small apartments.

That makes them very hard to track. Estimates of Syrian refugees in Jordan range from 27,000 to 110,000. Even if the lower figure is accurate, it 's still a significant influx in a country still coping with large numbers of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees who've made Jordan their home, many for more than a generation.

The majority of these latest arrivals come with next to no belongings. Fawaz's family is fairly typical. Eleven people now live in a formerly abandoned two-room cinderblock structure. Water damage has left holes in the ceiling and the roof looks like it could collapse at any moment. The family hangs its clothes and blankets from nails driven into the wall to avoid water leaks and the rats. They do have water, piped from the home of a neighbor into a plastic cistern provided by a local aid agency which also provided sleeping mats and a cylinder of compressed gas for cooking. There's nowhere to bathe and the toilet is a hole in the ground behind the front door. A sheet hanging from a wire offers a bit of privacy. Electricity is supplied by one of a web of wires stretching from another neighbor's home.

They shouldn't have to live in such wretched conditions. But with more refugees arriving daily, the humanitarian aid available is no longer adequate and it's often inconsistent. One week there might be a distribution of macaroni and canned fish, the next may bring clothing or rent support. My organization -- the International Rescue Committee -- has opened medical clinics for refugees to address the health care needs of the growing Syrian population in Jordan and has distributed mattresses and other supplies. But the needs are growing fast. Much more assistance is required.

"Sure, it's better here than in Syria because we're safe, at least," say Fawaz. "But it's difficult. We have no money to buy fresh food, and everything we have now is charity."

How long do they expect to stay? Fawaz's sister Njood, dressed in black, mourning a husband she says was killed by Syrian soldiers, shrugs.

"It won't be before the end of Ramadan," she says, speaking of the Islamic month of fasting, which this year ends in mid-August. "While we'd like to be home by then, we won't return until he's gone." There's no doubt whom she's referring to, and among these refugees, there's not a lot of optimism that the object of their hatred will be gone soon. Until then, a two room concrete hovel in a foreign country is home.

Ned Colt is a regional communications manager with the International Rescue Committee. He's a former foreign correspondent for NBC News.