Syrian fled war for love in SA
Four years ago, Nelia Marrash* dodged bullets by hiding behind her brother’s new car during the first attacks in her home city, Homs, Syria, in the run-up to the country’s civil war.
On many evenings, her family watched bullets light up the night from their third-floor apartment as neighbours of different religions, who once had eaten together, turned on each other.
Now she lives 7 877km away in a small fishing village on the west coast near Cape Town, and follows Syria’s fate on TV.
In September, department of home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete told News24 South Africa had not been officially approached by Syrian asylum seekers. In a foreign policy briefing on September 15, President Jacob Zuma said European countries should open their borders to Syrian refugees, but South Africa would not.
Marrash (31) isn’t a refugee. She came here for love. She spoke to City Press on condition of anonymity for fear of her family’s safety.
Homs, referred to as the “capital of the revolution”, was one of the first cities attacked by the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
In May 2011, government security forces killed 62 anti-government protesters. Since then, shelling and bombs from fighter jets have destroyed much of the city and killed thousands of its residents.
Marrash’s father, a former Arabic high school teacher, and her mother, a housewife, still live there. She is one of five children.
Marrash moved to South Africa in 2012 after marrying a South African automation engineer, who she fell in love with at a sugar factory in Homs, where they both worked. She was a secretary and spoke to him in English, which she had learnt at school.
“My family thought South Africans were bad, with drugs, alcohol and other habits. But we fell in love and I managed to convince them he was not [bad].”
Marrash is Arab-Christian and she and her husband married twice – first in a Catholic church in Homs, and then at a Dutch Reformed Church in Durban, where her husband’s family is from.
Now she works as an Arabic-English translator with high-profile clients, including a popular chicken takeaway franchise, courts and government.
“I had a business trip to Joburg last week. “People can’t believe I’m Syrian. They always say: ‘You look so normal.’ But Syrians are normal people.”
Marrash says her husband won’t allow her to go to Syria to visit. Friends and family keep her updated with footage and photos of rubble-strewn streets.
“My city was beautiful; my family was well educated. Education in Syria was free. At school, I had Muslim and Christian friends. Our apartment was in a street so safe you could walk around at 3am and have a hubbly bubbly at a restaurant,” says Marrash.
*Not her real name
SHATTERED CITY A recent photo of the al-Qosour area of Homs in Syria shows how the government’s bombing campaign has destroyed several buildings in the city