By Kieran Guilbert
NOUAKCHOTT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Terrified of being dragged out of university and thrown into civil war like many of his fellow students, 23-year-old Amer fled Syria, hoping for a new life free of suffering and strife.
Amer escaped to Lebanon in May 2013 - two years into the conflict - before flying to join his father in the West African nation of Mauritania, one of the few Arabic-speaking countries to allow Syrians to enter and move freely.
But life in Nouakchott, the capital of the poor, mainly Muslim nation, has been a deep disappointment to the young refugee.
"I left my studies, my family and my life behind for nothing - there is no life here," said Amer, slumped in a chair on the patio of a local community center in the sweltering midday heat.
"I wish I could have returned to Syria... I would have suffered, but it would be better than suffering here," added the former management student, sitting next to his father Tiseer.
Amer and Tiseer are among the thousands of Syrians to have arrived in Nouakchott since the war in Syria erupted in 2011, most having flown to the country from Lebanon or Turkey.
While Syria's neighbors have become overwhelmed with refugees, other Arab countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have enforced visa restrictions on Syrians and Europe has tightened its land borders, Mauritania has kept its doors open.
The West African nation has a small but growing number of Syrians seeking refuge, yet most of the arrivals see the country as a stop-gap or gateway to Europe, rather than a new home.
The majority cross the border to Mali and head through the Sahel on long, dangerous journeys, often with people smugglers.
Many go to Libya and Tunisia before setting off across the Mediterranean on perilous boat journeys to Italy, or apply for asylum in the North African Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
"Mauritania is not the ideal destination for Syrians... in fact it is often their last resort," said International Organisation of Migration (IOM) representative Anke Strauss.
"HERE, LIFE IS HELL"
While Syrians who stay in Nouakchott have been welcomed, due to a common language in Arabic and sympathy over the war, many complain of a lack of work, and poor education and healthcare.
Many former professionals, including architects, doctors and lawyers, work in restaurants to eke out a living, said United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) representative Mohamed Alwash.
"Syrians in Mauritania feel like they are stuck in limbo. They struggle to adapt to the culture, and to poorer living conditions and quality of life than they once enjoyed in Syria".
Outside the community center, traffic and traders pushing vegetable carts inch down crowded, dusty streets strewn with litter. The Syrians describe the ramshackle city of more than one million inhabitants as "hot, dull, bleak and lifeless."
Tiseer, who worked as a laborer in Syria's capital Damascus before fleeing in 2011 and arrived in Mauritania after being denied entry to Tunisia, does odd construction jobs but said bogus contracts and disputes meant he often did not get paid.
The 50-year-old refugee said as neither his heart condition nor the post-conflict trauma suffered by his son Amer could be treated in Nouakchott, they were often too ill to work, and not strong enough to attempt the journey across the Sahel.
"Life in Syria before the conflict - with my family, my car and secure work - was paradise. Here, it is hell," added Tiseer, who did not give his full name for fear of retribution towards his wife and seven other children who are still in Syria.
The UNHCR helps Syrian refugees and asylum seekers to access education and healthcare, offers psycho-social counseling and provides cash grants towards schooling, health and food costs.
But for some families such as Mohammed, a former mason who says he cannot work due to health problems, his wife Amal and their three children, such support is not enough.
"We only receive $50 per month... we rely on food from our neighbors to get by," said Mohammed, who also asked not to be identified as his family fled Syria in 2014 to avoid compulsory military service for their eldest son.
DREAMING OF THE WEST
The number of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers in Mauritania has increased tenfold to 340 since March 2015, when Algeria became the latest Arab nation to impose visa regulations for Syrians, cutting off a popular gateway to Ceuta and Melilla.
But given that most of those arriving in Nouakchott do not register, as they plan to travel through Mali and towards Europe or have the wealth to live independently, the number of Syrians now residing in Mauritania is probably far higher, experts say.
There are at least 3,000 Syrians living in Nouakchott, its suburbs and certain southern towns, said the Alwava Initiative of Tayerett Youth, a local group which works with Syrians.
"Most who arrive either head straight on (through Mali) if they have the means, or stay in Nouakchott to earn money until they can afford to move on," said Strauss of the IOM.
The vast majority of Syrians registered with the UNHCR in Mauritania have flown from Turkey, which has won international praise for hosting more than 2.5 million refugees.
Yet Turkey has closed most of its border crossings amid pressure from the EU to prevent refugees traveling on to Europe, which could lead to more Syrians flying to Nouakchott.
Campaigns have been launched to inform Syrians of the dangers of crossing Mali's lawless desert north towards Europe. Most arrivals are unaware of the risks, the IOM and UNHCR said.
"We are not just talking about young men, but families with small children," said Alwash of the UNHCR. "It is a harsh journey, taken in desperation due to a lack of alternatives."
Conscious of the dangers, Mohammed and Amal dream of being resettled in Europe, like some of their Syrian friends and relatives who have been granted asylum in Germany and Sweden, to give their children a better education and future.
But the process can take years and only one percent of refugees worldwide are given the opportunity to start new lives in countries including the United States, Britain and Australia.
Tiseer and Amer exchange fleeting smiles as they discuss the prospect of being resettled in Europe or further afield.
"We would go anywhere where there is life, where we can have a proper life," Tiseer said. "Anywhere but here."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Additional Reporting by Kissima Diagana and Makini Brice, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)