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Meet the 'Invisible' Urban Syrian Refugees

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Suad Maheushsheuty is a 30-year-old Syrian mother of five children, with her sixth due any day now. After she fled Syria in 2012 with her family, their journey ended in a squalid two-bedroom apartment in Amman, Jordan. Without jobs and her children out of school, they spend their days in the cramped apartment longing to return to Syria.

These are far from the conditions she wants to raise her children in.

But she has little choice, given the civil war being waged inside her home country. Recently, that civil war -- which has led to deaths in excess of 100,000 -- escalated dramatically, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill 1,400 Syrians.

While Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, which houses more than 130,000 Syrian refugees, has been making news headlines, camp residents only represent a minority of the 520,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan. The stories you are less likely to hear about are the invisible refugees like Suad and her family, who live in crumbling buildings, tattered tents and other makeshift homes far from the camps, often isolated with little savings or community support. With male family members frequently absent, dead or missing, women, in particular, face additional cultural and gender barriers that hide them from society.

Last month, I traveled to Jordan with the poverty-fighting organization CARE to meet Syrian refugee families living outside the camps to better understand the consequences of the humanitarian crisis. Unlike the refugee camps where Syrians live closely together and receive regular food and health services, urban refugees often live in seclusion in vacant buildings and makeshift shelters. These refugees are trapped in a no-man's land, unable to move forward or go back home to Syria. As new tenants in large numbers, they also put an enormous strain on Jordan, a small country of 6 million people where the cost of accommodation and many basic items are on a par with those in western Europe.

It was common during my visit to hear Syrian families talk about the difficulty of accessing food, water, jobs and healthcare. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a key reason why they are afraid to let their children go to school. A majority of Syrian refugees are unable to work because they do not have the proper Jordanian work permits.

And with each new day, the families face rising rental and living costs.

I walked up a small dirt road, littered with garbage, before I arrived at Suad's cramped apartment of no more than 350 square feet. The walls are cracked, with thin fabric attempting to mask the deep lines. A Syrian flag hangs over the corner of the living room, a small memory of home. There are two flat cushions on the floor where they welcome us to sit and drink tea. Even in times of desperation, their Syrian tradition of hospitality shines.

I learned how NGOs and community organizations are responding to the needs of urban refugees. Many are working to help Syrians build support within their host communities and instill a sense of integration. As Americans, we should be proud of the humanitarian assistance we have provided so far -- and the hope we are giving these families. Because of our efforts, CARE has been able to provide urban refugees with emergency cash assistance and case management support to critical social and health services. Suad's family used the money for her husband's medical expenses.

But with recent chemical attacks and a civil war inside Syria with no end in sight, such humanitarian services will need more support in the coming months. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports the number of Syrian refugees has topped the 2 million mark and has predicted this number could rise to 3.5 million refugees by the end of 2013. It's also possible that the refugee crisis will persist for many months or even years beyond any resolution of the political conflict.

As I finish my conversation with Suad's family, a crowd grows outside her apartment. More Syrian urban refugees appear, voicing their need for help. It's become clear that neighboring host countries like Jordan, who have been generous so far, will need our help for years to come. Our diplomatic and financial support will be critical to mitigate tensions that could lead to further instability across the Middle East.

While we debate over how to appropriately respond to the actions of the Syrian government, there should be no doubt that the United States needs to assist in ensuring the welfare, protection and safety of refugees, particularly women and children. The spotlight needs to not only be on refugees living in the camps, but also those residing in urban areas. It's important to continue building the linkages between short-term humanitarian response and long-term development for the stability of the region. We must also assist the generous but overburdened host countries struggling to cope with the influx and address the critical needs of uprooted Syrian civilians.

We cannot turn our back on Jordan -- and families like Suad's.