Syr­ian fled war for love in SA

CityPress - - News - BIÉNNE HUIS­MAN bi­enne.huis­man@city­press.co.za

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

PHOTO: OMAR SANADIKI / REUTERS

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

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