Najwa Marsheh (L) and Issa Alchadaydah
‘I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full.'
Najwa Marsheh, 38 and her husband Issa Alchadaydah, 50 are quite possibly the most cheerful couple I have ever met. Najwa’s laughter regularly punctuates our conversation; her smile is broad and her eyes twinkle with happiness. Issa is a little more reserved, but happy and charming all the same. The couple recently moved to private rental accommodation in Lalor, but on this occasion they have come back to revisit Unit 109 at the Eltham Project which has been their home for the last seven months.
Najwa and Issa were living in Syria’s capital, Damascus where they both had jobs that they loved: Issa was a Sales Manager for an import company and Najwa worked as a teacher in the Arabic language. For five years they lived close to the firefight between Free Syrian Army rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
‘That was a lot of pressure for us,’ says Issa. ‘The whole situation is not good - a lot of bombs, you are not safe. We stayed for five years and that was enough for us.’
They made the difficult decision to leave their family, friends and jobs, and fled to Iraq.
‘We encouraged each other to leave,’ says Issa. ‘The first thing is to be safe. If we aren’t safe, we can’t do anything. This is our aim: to be in a safe area so we can start our family.'
Najwa agrees: ‘We want our children to be in a safe country, a safe environment. We don’t want them to live in a war situation; to see what we have seen. So it was our choice to come here, even if we have to start again from scratch.’
They stayed in Iraq for eight months before arriving in Australia in October 2017. In January 2018, they signed a lease to stay at the Eltham Project where they felt at home almost immediately.
‘It helped us from the beginning,’ said Najwa. ‘We had friends, we had a community, services helping us. Also the price was good – affordable for us. Everything was nice and friendly - the people living here were very friendly and very helpful.’
Issa is also positive about the Eltham Project: ‘It works very well for couples. This can help them to start – maybe some of us can save some money because the rent is not too expensive. And this place is enough for a couple. We don’t need more than this space. It’s good for one year maybe, to start a new life, to search for a new place. It’s good.’
Issa and Najwa have visited Canberra and Sydney and both agree that Melbourne is best.
‘We love Melbourne; the nature is really good and the people are very nice,’ says Najwa, though adding with a laugh that ‘the weather is not very good!’
Najwa has started a course in Medical Administration and hopes to find work in this field, while Issa is enrolled in a course that will help him to prepare his resume and find a job. Both are also attending English lessons.
For those of us who have grown up in Australia, it is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to live in a war zone. Daily bombings and explosions reducing your city to a crumbling ruin while the community around you is decimated by death and displacement. How many of us know what it feels like to abandon everything you have built and loved to start all over again in a foreign land?
Exiled from their homeland, Najwa and Issa know. They lost everything and yet they have so much joy and hope. As they face their future with optimism, determined to build a new home in Australia, you can’t help but believe that theirs will be a life that is lived to the full.