NORTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan – Every day at dawn, teenager Sultan Ahmad al-Saleh gets up and starts work, 12 hours in the fields picking vegetables in this remote corner of northwestern Jordan. It's what he's been doing for the past three years, ever since he was 14 years old and his family fled here to escape Syria's civil war.
The boy and his family are part of a nearly forgotten pocket of Syria's refugee crisis — some 1,200 families who have ended up living in squalid, impromptu tent communities in the Jordan Valley. Until recently, they have lived below the radar among the 1.2 million Syrians who have flooded into Jordan since the conflict next door began in early 2011.
The majority of those refugees have moved into Jordan's towns and cities, many of them impoverished but able to reach facilities and access aid from the United Nations and other international groups. Jordan also has two organized encampments near the northern border with Syria. The largest of them is Zaatari camp, with a population of 120,000, where refugees are under direct care of the United Nations and the Jordanian government. In total, international aid reaches about 595,000 registered refugees.
But the approximately 7,000 Syrians living here, half of them children, have been largely scraping by on their own. Most of them are farming families from Syria's central provinces of Hama and Homs, both heavy battle zones between rebels and government forces. Hoping to find livelihoods, they fled to Jordan's breadbasket, in the northern Jordan Valley near the border with Israel, to work on the area's vegetable farms.
Over time, with their growing numbers, five separate tent camps have cropped up, isolated down long dirt roads, with no health care or schools and little access to U.N. food aid. Only in the past year have U.N. agencies begun reaching them with some supplies.
"We are the untold story of the Syrian crisis," said 48-year-old Abu Ahmad, a farmer who fled here with his wife and five children from the Syrian village of Maan, near Hama. "The world seems to have forgotten about us."
He wiped off his sweat with a red-checkered headdress under the scorching heat of the arid valley. He's worried that his children are missing out on an education — and most importantly, about his family's health. "If I, my wife or any of my children fall gravely ill in the middle of the night, we may die before anyone gets here to help us," he shouted.
In total, about 2.3 million Syrians have fled the three-year old Syrian conflict, seeking shelter in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, according to UNHCR figures. As in Jordan, most have moved into established communities or in organized camps, especially in Turkey. But in a few places, like near Lebanon's border with Syria and in the Jordan Valley, thousands still end up in self-made, informal camps.
In the largest of the Jordan Valley camps, home to around 2,000 people, tents are clumped together in a gully between a steep line of Jordan's mountains and the Jordan river, forming the border with Israel. The refugees have received tents from the U.N., but have to pay rent to the Jordanian farmers on whose land they've set up and pay for the electricity that has been strung out to them and the water supplies being shipped in.
On a visit the past week by The Associated Press, children, some as young as four, played barefoot in the dust. Some slid down a gravel hill on a torn-up plastic bucket near a trash dump. A five-year-old girl named Rima clutched on two wooden sticks she called her doll as she watched the boys play.
Few of the kids attend school, and most work in the fields with their parents.
"Life has no meaning to me," said al-Saleh, the 17-year-old. "When I am off work, I get bored to death because I have no school and there isn't much to do around this ghost town anyway."
His friend, 16-year-old Saleh Khaled Mohammad, who also works in the fields, said: "My life has been totally wasted."
"I had wished to be an agricultural engineer, but I dropped out of school when I was in the ninth grade a year ago and it's difficult for me to go back now because I have to work to provide for my family," said the boy.
Both said they earn about 10 Jordanian dinars, around $14 for a day's work, and they work six or seven days a week — half of it goes for rent and the rest is barely enough to pay for utilities.
Ali Awad, a 12-year-old also doing farm work, said he envied boys his age who "enjoy a normal childhood."
"They can access Facebook, they have cell phones, football playgrounds and can go swimming," he said. "But look at us. We have nothing here except the mountains and farms,"
Volker Schimmel, an urban planner with the U.N. refugee agency, said 95 percent of the 7,000 Syrians living in the Jordan Valley camps now receive UNHCR assistance, including food coupons and cash assistance. But the agency is trying to improve other areas, including children's accessibility to education and ending child labor.
Jordanian teacher Mohammad Marahleh and his wife have volunteered through UNICEF — the U.N. agency helping refugee children — to give informal weekly classes to children in the largest valley settlement.
It's part of an effort by UNICEF and the independent charity Save the Children to provide informal education for some 30,000 refugee children in Jordan who are not eligible to go back to school because they have missed months of classes, sometimes even years, because of the conflict, said UNICEF communication officer Melanie Sharpe.
"Clean up the dust off your feet and come in," he shouted as some 70 refugee boys filtered into a classroom under a white plastic tent. He said his wife gives lessons to a similar number of girls.
"I volunteered because I felt bad seeing these children wasting their time playing, instead of going to school," he said. He said there were dozens of other children whose families refuse to let them attend his classes and insist that they go back to a proper school.
On a hill overlooking the settlement, Jordanian farmer Raafat Madahneh, 18, stood watching the refugees.
"Although they compete with us for jobs, we feel bad for them, help them and share our food and water with them," he said.
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