When you enter Hassna’s shelter you will get enveloped by the wonderful aromas, she is a qualified botanist who has spent 33 years of her life studying the medical properties of plants for various research centers.

She and her husband, Farouk, had homes in Dera’a and Damascus. Two years ago, he travelled to the capital while she remained in Dera’a, intending to follow him shortly afterwards. She has not seen or spoken to him since. “After he left, the roads were blocked and the phones stopped working. My relatives have been told that he is still alive, but I don’t know any more than that.”

“I brought 15 books with me, about the study of medical plants, and I also brought my most beloved seeds.”

A year later, when fighting surrounded her village, she packed her things and made her way alone to the Jordanian border. I ask what she took with her when she fled. “The most important things. I didn’t take any clothes. I brought 15 books with me, about the study of medical plants, and I also brought my most beloved seeds.”

She shows me her qualifications and certificates earned during a lifetime of study and research, spreading them proudly around the floor of her shelter. While we chat, an elderly Syrian woman comes to the door complaining of chest pains.

Hassna asks a few questions before retreating to the rear of the shelter and rummaging around among the books and herbs. She emerges with a small brown bottle and gives the woman a spoonful of syrup that smells of honey and thyme, before seeing her out with a friendly admonishment to give up smoking.

“I’ve tried to help people with herbal remedies and by using my knowledge,” she says. Word of her treatments quickly spread within the camp, and she now receives several visits a day from people seeking her help. Her eczema remedy is the most sought after, but she also uses her knowledge and some basic equipment to make skin creams, lip balm, facemasks, herbal teas and various syrups. Few residents of the camp have money to pay her, but sometimes they give her herbs or other useful ingredients by way of thanks.

She tells me she is happy to be able to help people, as it gives her life in the camp a sense of purpose. “When people come to me for help I don’t feel so useless. I want to be able to leave something behind – a footprint showing I was here.”

Her smile fades when she plays me a video sent to her by a neighbour of her home in Dera’a. It shows a tangle of smashed concrete riddled with bullet holes. Her tears, when they come, are not for the bricks and mortar, she says. “I can rebuild the house, but in my garden I planted seeds that I brought back from my travels, from India, Italy, France. I just pray that my plants are still waiting for me when I get home.”




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