The Power Of One: Meet Leila Al Marashi

BY Emily Baxter / Oct 18 2017 / 15:51 PM

In honour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Leila Al Marashi is turning her personal experience of sorrow into a silver lining for others

The Power Of One: Meet Leila Al Marashi

Photography by Richard Hall

Cancer is a clever, cunning disease that freely takes people and their lives hostage, indiscriminate in who it ensnares in its wicked embrace. It has touched, hurt and stolen so many people. While many are left reeling in its wake, with lives ravaged by its brutality, there are others who refuse to yield, standing strong against its bitter blows. One such woman is Leila Al Marashi, who lost her mother to breast cancer two years ago. On a quest to find a silver lining to her sorrow, Leila’s mission is to foster productivity out of affliction by creating more awareness of cancer and its potential for harm, but also in building a support network to those in need.

It was a “long” but beautiful journey, Leila says of the five-year battle her mother, Najah, fought from diagnosis to death. “I was just back from my first Hajj with her and my family,” Leila explains. “She wanted us to go together but she found it very overwhelming and she was very afraid.” It was a month later, back in Dubai, that Leila’s mother felt a burning under her arm. She visited the doctors several times over two months but they weren’t able to give a diagnosis. Fortune would have it that a specialist oncologist from Korea was visiting the hospital for four days and happened to be present when Leila’s mother, then 58, was there. “They did a biopsy and found a very small and aggressive lump in the under arm,” she explains. “She also had pain in her legs. She knew something was wrong. They told us it was stage two, but when she had the PET scan, they told us it was stage four breast cancer. It was in the bones.” 

Leila Al MarashiLeila wears: Dress, Dhs13,900 Gucci at Ounass

Najah’s emotions moved from fear to anger to understanding, eventually embarking on her beautiful journey, says Leila, in which she transformed from this “tough woman what was very opinionated to becoming very soft and child-like,” recalls Leila. “Towards the end, she became like a baby, really, very cute, bubbly and happy. She never complained about the pain, and I know she was in a lot of it.”

With a mission to do nothing bar shower her mother with love (“at this stage, you just give them love, you give them whatever they want”) Leila and Najah embarked on a five-year journey of healing. “We made so much peace,” says Leila. “We got to talk, so it’s really nice to have that closure and truly make peace.”

Najah’s passing, on May 22, 2015, was “incredibly smooth”, says Leila. “She just let out one last breath. It was too difficult to see her in pain, but she was very peaceful after that. She was happy, she didn’t go miserable, she was ready to go. Trust me, God takes someone when they are ready.”

Since that day, Leila has had “a project swimming around in my head,” working on turning her grief into goodness. “It’s a project that’s very deep because it speaks to a lot of people. Everyone I speak to about it has gone through the same thing, so many people have lost someone...”

Leila Al MarashiLeila wears: Abaya, Dhs7,300, Chador at Ounass

And so the idea of The Power of Pink was born – a social-cum-educational initiative to raise awareness for cancer and the journey we all go on when touched by the disease. The project soft-launched in June with a suhoor for 70 guests, and officially launches with a 25-square-metre room installation at Abu Dhabi Art in November. Each wall will talk about a decade of my life. From when I was born and always wrapped in pink, with a pink blanket by my side. Then I had my beloved Barbies and Disney princesses, and was told that I was a princess who would meet my prince. Then you hit puberty and your first bra is probably pink. You’re told that you can go out into the world and do anything, and you want to be taken seriously, but there’s always an element of comfort when you come home and you have your pink slippers or pink diary and nobody can judge you.” Another wall focuses on the colour pink from a marketing perspective and why it’s used to target women, when it was introduced and why companies such as Estée Lauder chose pink – rather than peach – for the pink ribbon breast cancer campaign it launched in 1992. “Everything is going to be pink and the room is a gift to my mum, so there is also going to be a fundraising element for cancer research.”

Supported by RAHMA (the Cancer Patient Care Society in Abu Dhabi) and The Pink Ladies Association, Leila’s vision is to have an ongoing campaign spread over six months, and then to take the project to London. “The project tells a story. It’s a personal story that should resonate with you. I don’t want it be a heavy story. I want to raise awareness of cancer, and how much support there is and how many people have gone through it and lost people like I have. They want some kind of comfort. I want to offer that, and to end on a positive note. The way cancer affects your life, it forces you to focus on what’s important: to be mindful and present. I don’t expect to heal cancer tomorrow but I feel it’s important to express and do something in a positive and inspiring way.”

Abu Dhabi Art runs from November 8-11

Photography by Richard Hall

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia