ZAATARI, JORDAN -- In Zaatari, one of the largest camps for Syrian refugees in the Middle East, hundreds of girls sat this week in makeshift school tents provided by Unicef. In one, third graders were learning basic addition and subtraction. In the next tent, fourth graders brushed up on their Arabic vocabulary.
"No one can predict how long this will last, but all the focus seems to be on the conflict itself, in Syria," Anthony Lake, executive director of Unicef, said on a visit to Jordan. "We need to look behind the headlines to the human reality, within Syria but also in neighboring countries."
Unicef is a key provider of schools and health care in the refugee camps. Mr. Lake, a former national security adviser in the Clinton administration, said providing aid, both for refugees and the communities hosting them, might prove crucial to maintaining stability in the region.
"If we don't help, with much greater attention to the burden being placed on governments here and the local communities, then you could see over time more difficulties in the surrounding countries, which will have an impact on the whole region," he said.
The burdens are huge and growing. The latest estimates by the United Nations put the number of Syrian refugees at more than 300,000 in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, up threefold from estimates in July. More than half of the Syrian refugees in Jordan are under 18 years old.
Last week, Unicef opened 14 school tents in the Zaatari camp, which now houses about 30,000 refugees just 15 kilometers, or about 9 miles, south of Jordan's border with Syria. Thousands of more Syrians are scraping together an existence outside the camp.
"The underlying problem is they miss their homes in Syria and they don't know what the future holds for them," Mr. Lake said Monday in an interview.
During his visit this week Mr. Lake met with government officials and refugees and visited the makeshift schools inside the Zaatari camp.
The flood of refugees is straining the limited resources of both the Jordanian government and aid agencies. Jordan has witnessed waves of refugees in the past, but this one is particularly dire.
The savings of Syrians renting apartments outside the camps are drying up and tents will be increasingly inadequate to house those inside the camp as winter approaches.
"Many of them have left Syria with just the clothes on their back," Mr. Lake said, "but those clothes are suited for hot weather and we face an even bigger task of turning tents into prefabricated buildings and schools."
In a dusty haze last week, construction workers could be seen building more permanent structures. A few white prefabricated buildings were standing behind a large fence. Trucks filled with water -- a scarce commodity in Jordan -- were entering the camp.
Water is being trucked in from local wells, but aid organizations plan to begin drilling a new well and develop a water system that will serve the camp in order to prevent taking scarce water from the host community.
Jordanian teachers at the camp are struggling to cope with the large numbers of children and their needs.
"There are currently 60 children in my class," said Manal Isaa, a Jordanian teacher at the camp, "And it is extremely crowded, but there are plans to split them into two classes."
Girls from a third grade class darted in and out of the tent classroom, others raised their hands every time their teacher asked them a question. Some sat quietly, drawing homes they left behind in their new notebooks.
There are 1.2 million people who have left their homes but remain in Syria, according to U.N. figures. Hundreds of Syrians cross the country's borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan daily, according to the United Nations.
Some 2,300 children already attend the Zaatari camp school. More than 17,000 Syrian children are registered at schools across Jordan.
"It is difficult to prepare for class," Ms. Issa said, "and we are trying to cope as best as we can in this environment in order to create a sense of normalcy for them."
Dozens of boys at the camp stood with their faces pushed against metal gates, waiting for their turn to attend classes. The school operates on double shifts -- girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon.
This month, Unicef also began installing prefabricated classrooms in five public schools in the border town of Ramtha -- an impoverished city across the border from Dara'a, birthplace of the rebellion. Ramtha has become a haven for Syrians.
The Jordanian education system is known for its rigor and some refugees may find themselves academically behind and will need to go to less demanding informal schools run by charities, experts say.
Some of the Iraqi refugees who fled the violence in their country and emigrated to Jordan could not cope with the public school system, and many turned to informal schools outside the system.
"There is only one school in Jordan that has 1,500 students, so the Zaatari camp school is suddenly the largest school in Jordan and we are not used to managing large schools," said Curt Rhodes, founder and director of Questscope, a private British aid organization that works in the Middle East. "I don't know if anyone has long-term thinking right now but we need to assess alternatives to kids who also drop out, because I have had my own experience with Iraqi children who dropped out from the formal system."
At the beginning of the conflict, many Syrians took shelter with relatives in Ramtha and other border towns, but with their own economic conditions growing increasingly tough, Jordanians are becoming wary of hosting yet another long-term wave of refugees.
In a poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan two months ago, 65 percent of Jordanians opposed allowing any more Syrian refugees to enter the country, while more than eighty percent of those surveyed said Syrian refugees were straining the country's water and energy resources.
The majority of those in favor of closing the borders were from low-income families.
Although aid agencies say they are trying to steer funds to poor Jordanians, foreign assistance is only slowly trickling in, leaving many in need.
The U.N. aid agencies and others have issued a funding appeal for nearly $500 million for the region. The United Nations projects that the number of refugees outside Syria could reach 700,000 by the end of the year.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.