ZARQA, Jordan – Nine-year-old Aya Qassem tried to recite the Arabic alphabet, but stopped halfway through. She couldn't remember all the letters because she hasn't been to school in two years.
Aya and her family fled to Jordan from the Syrian city of Hama in December 2011 — an early stage of the civil war — when she was in first grade. Since then, she's moved around the working class city of Zarqa with her mother and two brothers, living hand-to-mouth on U.N. cash aid and food vouchers. There's no place for Aya in Jordan's public schools, already bursting at the seams with other refugee children.
Aya's mother, Randa, said it is painful to watch her youngest lose her future.
"I was dreaming of having my kids be something, and now they've become something else," she said.
The loss of an education is just one of the many problems faced by the many Syrian refugees who have settled in Jordan's cities.
Most can't legally work, aid officials say. Some scrounge for off-the-books jobs in construction or on farms. Refugees say they earn less than Jordanians and live in fear of getting caught by police. All are eligible for U.N. food vouchers, but fewer than half qualify for cash aid.
Psychological burdens compound the struggle. The refugees often feel isolated or say they are resented by their Jordanian neighbors, whose own rents have risen and wages fallen in areas with large numbers of Syrians.
The vast majority of refugees have settled in cities: Of the 550,000 in the country, about 423,000 are in urban areas rather than in camps.
Jordan has taken in millions of refugees over the years — Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis. Syrians now make up more than 10 percent of the population in the country, which suffers from double-digit unemployment and a record budget deficit.
Some say Jordan cannot afford to take in more Syrians; others feel for the displaced.
"We went through the same experience, so I sympathize with them," said accounting student Ahmed Samir, 21, a Zarqa resident with Palestinian roots. But, he said, "they are competition on all levels."
With the civil war dragging on and the number of refugees rising sharply, international aid officials and the Jordanian government agree that the current system of assistance is not sufficient. But they're proposing different solutions.
Jordan says the world needs to contribute more. Foreign aid covers only 30 percent to 40 percent of what Jordan spends on refugees, or $250 million in 2012, said Information Minister Mohammad Momani. "We are doing this (hosting the refugees) on behalf of the world, and the world cannot sit by and watch," he said.
The Syrians pose an economic burden regardless of where they live, Momani said, but the government prefers them in camps, where they are easier to deal with. About 100,000 already live in the Zaatari camp, and a new facility, Azraq, has been set up for tens of thousands more refugees.
U.N. aid officials are trying to come up with long-term solutions, saying emergency assistance is not sustainable and aid programs are chronically underfunded.
The refugees need to be able to earn a living and contribute to Jordan's economy, instead of being viewed only as a problem, said Volker Schimmel of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan. Unfortunately, he said, "there's still the perception of a zero-sum game" among many Jordanian officials.
Zarqa, a city of 500,000 with a relatively large industrial base, is 18 million dinars ($25 million) in debt and cannot provide for the newcomers, said Mayor Emad Momani. "We have a huge burden on services," he said.
Like the cities hosting them, the refugees struggle to make ends meet.
Aya's mother, Randa, ran a successful beauty shop in Hama, once Syria's fifth-largest city, for more than 20 years. She was the Qassem family's main breadwinner, since her husband's civil service job paid little. She earned enough to build a three-story family home, but it was destroyed last year by shelling.
Now the 45-year-old counts every penny. A refugee for nearly two years, she lives in a two-room apartment in Zarqa with Aya and sons Omar, 16, and Abdel-Aziz, 24. She pays 150 dinars ($212) a month in rent, but gets only 100 dinars ($141) in U.N. cash assistance and 120 dinars ($170) in food stamps. Randa sells some of her food coupons to cover the rent, and tries to supplement her income in other ways.
She brought her hairdressing supplies and 13 wedding dresses from Syria in hopes of opening a business, but was told by Jordanian authorities she could not operate a bridal shop from home. Randa, who wears a black robe and face veil, hopes to find work at a hair salon, but has no firm offers.
She also makes and sells stuffed meat pies, or koubbeh, on demand. Her kitchen is relatively well-stocked, with spices and a meat grinder. Omar and Abdel-Aziz contribute whenever they find construction jobs. Her sons and eight cousins recently took a bus to the southern town of Tafila after word spread that contractors were hiring there.
One of Randa's relatives, 31-year-old Abdel Karim, said he last worked about two months ago and has stopped looking, worried about getting into trouble with the Jordanian authorities.
Abdel Karim, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Syria, said a friend was arrested by Jordanian officials for working illegally.
"They detained him for four days and warned him he would be deported if he does it again," he said.
Randa's biggest worry is that Aya and Omar are not being educated. While open to Syrians, Jordan's schools are overcrowded. Randa tried to register Aya, but was told the one in her neighborhood is full.
The loss of education is a problem for the more than 2.1 million Syrians who have fled their country since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. Seven of 10 refugee children in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt are not in school, the U.N. refugee agency said.
In Jordan, more than 86,000 out of 200,000 refugee children are enrolled in schools, said Michele Servadei of UNICEF, the U.N. child welfare agency. Of those not enrolled, 50,000 have been out of school too long to return to classes and need remedial classes or vocational training.
The U.N. has set up three schools in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp. In the cities, more than 40 schools have set up double shifts and dozens more are to follow, Servadei said.
He estimated that about 30,000 refugee children work in Jordan, roughly on par with the level of Jordanian child labor. In some families, boys are the only breadwinner.
They work on farms during harvest, as street vendors or as helpers in cafes and car-repair shops. A survey in agricultural areas in the Jordan Valley indicated more than half of 3,500 refugee children who didn't enroll in school were working, he said.
One young worker is 12-year-old Mohammed, who lives with his mother, 13-year-old brother and three sisters in Zarqa's Hashemiyeh district. He first worked for a blacksmith for seven dinars ($10) a week, then found a job with a mechanic for 20 dinars ($28) a week, but spends nearly half on bus fare.
Lanky and shy, he said he often feels tired and misses school but needs to support his family. Rent alone is 150 dinars and isn't covered by the 100 dinars the family gets from relatives every month, said his oldest sister, 23-year-old Hadeel.
The women in the family are mostly housebound. Hadeel was a semester shy of a teaching degree from Damascus University when the family fled in December, but can't afford to attend a Jordanian university.
Enforced idleness is taking its toll, said Hadeel, who asked that the family's last name not be used to avoid Syrian government reprisals. "We are emotionally exhausted," she said, holding back tears.
The highlight of her once-active life is a twice-monthly trip with her 18-year-old sister Huda to a supermarket in Zarqa where refugees redeem food vouchers of 24 dinars ($34) per person per month.
On a recent evening, shoppers carefully calculated prices as they piled eggs, milk powder and canned goods into their carts. Only food items are allowed, and baby diapers and toiletries are not covered by the vouchers.
Randa Qassem's 28-year-old niece, Rahaf, was excited to learn that sunflower seeds were now on the approved list and put a sack in her cart. Cracking the shells of the seeds is way to pass time and ease tension, Rahaf said as she carried her sleeping toddler, Ahmed.
As one monotonous day blends into the next, refugees dream of escape. Unable to return home or start a real life in Jordan, many talk about emigrating to the West.
Germany's decision to accept several thousand Syrians raised hopes at a recent family gathering in Abdel Karim's living room — a noisy affair, with children running around, adults sitting on mattresses on the floor and everyone seemingly talking at once.
Randa said she's been talking to relatives in the Netherlands and Australia about sponsoring her there, but seemed unsure about the bureaucratic process involved.
She said that in her desperation, she sometimes even thinks about going home and pitching a tent on the ruins of her house.
But, she said, reason quickly returning, "it's not safe."