The bright future of a university student living in a garage in Atlantis

MARILEE VAN DER MERWE thought that 2015 would be the year she would have to give up her education to find work. But things are look brighter than ever for the 22-year-old from Atlantis. She told Ra’eesa Pather what changed.

I persevered all through high school and made it to university, to study for a BCom in finance, but I thought 2015 would be the year I’d have to give up my education to go work. There just isn’t enough money for studies, books, transport, and everything that goes with it.

I live in a garage with my mother and sister. Mom works as a cleaner and gets paid R800 a week. She’s been on a housing waiting list for 18 years. We rent a garage at someone’s place. There’s no toilet; no taps with running water. We use an outdoor tap to wash up.

People think it’s a sad story, but it’s not. We do our best. I’ve learned that your circumstances don’t determine where you will be one day.

My mom doesn’t want me and my sister to be in these circumstances; she wants what’s best for us. She’s got a lot of debt because she made loans so that we could have the best she could give.

This year looked impossible. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme wouldn’t give me money to study, so I went through the newspaper looking for bursaries, and I read this article about the Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust.

I took a chance and I applied. When I got the email that I received the bursary, it meant so much to me. I was so happy, and my mom too. They pay R10,000, which is basically half of my studies. It’s a huge help for my mom.

I’ve had to sacrifice many things to get through the year. I didn’t have the resources many students have. On campus, I didn’t have money for food. I have to borrow textbooks from the library and sometimes the textbooks can’t be taken out of the library or they are only for overnight loan. I didn’t have a laptop, and it was difficult because I could never submit my assignments on time. I was still driven to work hard though, knowing that eventually I would get there.

After I got the bursary, the Cape Times shared my story and people just wanted to help. The university told me they would pay my outstanding fees and that they would see that I have a place to stay near campus. I’m so happy. I never expected all this help.

When I put the article on Facebook, my friends were inspired, because they didn’t know about the conditions we live in. My friends never come to visit us. Even now, some of them don’t believe that I stay in a garage. Inviting people to our house was never an option. I don’t like people to feel sorry for me. That’s why I would rather try my best, even if I don’t have as much as others.

Things are still difficult. I haven’t moved into the new accommodation yet so I have to get up at 4.30am to catch the 6am bus to campus. I get there by 8am and only get home again by 6pm. But I know I’m not the only one going through this. I’ve learned to have a positive attitude towards my circumstances.

My dream is to get my degree and start businesses. I want to create opportunities for other young people. Our community is filled with people who don’t have hope for tomorrow anymore. They don’t believe there are any opportunities for them.

I want to open an internet café, and I want to create an atmosphere for students to go there, and do their assignments. It must be a community business, where young people can make education a priority.

I’m so thankful, because now, my life has changed. When those people told me they have a place for me to stay, I was so happy I could cry. I want to do my best this year. I see myself among the top students and that’s where I want to be. I have big dreams despite what we are going through.

– As told to Ra’eesa Pather
– Featured image: By Ra’eesa Pather