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New camp rises

A desert settlement

It’s 10:30 in the morning. The sun is pressing down like a hot iron.

Forty flat miles east of Amman, on the road to the Iraqi border in the vast nothingness of a Middle East desert. Everything is brown. Dead. Nothing moves. The only sound is the whistle of a hot wind. Heat waves shimmer up from the sand.

Thousands of gray aluminum outhouses, lined up in perfectly straight rows. As they stretch off into the distance, they look like headstones. But they are actually signs of life, the first hint of what could soon be one of the world’s largest refugee camps.

More than 2.3 million Syrians have fled war in their country, including nearly 600,000 now in Jordan — 120,000 of them in the Zaatari refugee camp. U.N. officials predict the crisis is going to get markedly worse.

Jordan has already seen hospitals, schools, water systems — even graveyards — taxed by the massive influx of Syrians. Officials concede it is a problem that will be measured in years, if not generations.

So at Azraq, Jordan and the United Nations are preparing a camp that has four times the land of Zaatari and can handle even more refugees. It has the capacity to be expanded virtually without limit in the endless empty desert.

Andrew Harper, who heads the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan, says there are now 6.5 million Syrians who have been forced out of their homes inside Syria. He says 400,000 of them are squatting within 36 miles of the Jordan border, so it would not take much to spark a large new wave of refugees into Jordan.

So Azraq grows where nothing else will.

Dust blows constantly in the breeze. It is as light and fine as talcum powder. Stomp your foot in it and it poofs out in great clouds. Drive through it with the wind blowing just right, and your car is enveloped fully.

The architecture here is different from other camps in Jordan and Turkey. There will be no trailers or tents. Here, the United Nations is building one-room structures with metal frames and peaked roofs that look like small bungalows.

Harper says they are better suited to the harsh environment. Tents would be in tatters in the wind and sandstorms. Harper says the camp will be ready for 30,000 refugees soon, and that can easily be expanded to 100,000 or more.

In the distance, a lone figure walks along a baking asphalt road in plastic sandals. It is Shadi al-Hayek, 23, a Syrian refugee who earns $20 a day as a laborer. Mostly, he is sort of a guard.

“I make sure no one steals anything,” he says.

It is hard to imagine what might be stolen. There are a few empty school buildings here and there. Outside one, a basketball court seems all set to go, except that the fiberglass backboards are still wrapped in the shipping cardboard, the red-white-and-blue netting hasn’t been attached to the hoop, and that sticky feeling on the bottom of your shoes is the asphalt court melting in the heat.

View of a metal caravan frame that will be home to one of thousands of Syrian refugees at a camp under construction in Azraq, Jordan.

Hayek came to Jordan with his mother, father and sister seven months ago when the Syrian government started shelling his village. They are living an hour up the road in the Zaatari camp. But for six months, Hayek has been mostly living here, sleeping on the floor of a school building.

“It doesn’t even look like planet Earth out here,” he says. “But people are going to have to come here. They have no choice.”

There is no smell of anything on the breeze. Even the air is dead. It is hard to imagine anything living here, let alone tens of thousands of people.

Then suddenly, a flash of gray. An animal sprints from behind a latrine. It stops and looks back. A desert fox. Long ears, pointy snout, bushy tail. Somehow, it finds enough to eat and drink out here.

Somehow, it manages to survive.

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.