Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting

by High Atlas Foundation
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Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting
Multicultural Cooperation for Fruit Tree Planting

Since early June, an estimated 15 to 26 million people across the United States have participated in protests against the death of George Floyd and the persistence of systematic racism in America, making it one of the largest movements in the country’s history.

Recent trends have shown that support for the Black Lives Matter movement—now more than 67%— has doubled since 2016, and the majority of Americans favor working directly with black Americans to solve local issues.

As the United States embraces improving race-relations, black culture and heritage become more than just an expression of the Black community, but something that is inherently all-American.

As the movement brings light to nationwide change, it may be helpful to consider the methods of Moroccan multiculturalism, where cultural protection is tied to development, limiting socioeconomic divides and welcoming diversity.

A Model for the World

There is a word for the Moroccan ideal of multiculturalism—a word borrowed from the Spanish—the idea of “Convivencia” or coexistence. Originally a reference to the relative harmony among Christians, Muslims, and Jews living in Muslim Iberia (al-Andalus) during the Middle Ages, it now represents the shared history, culture, and heritage of Morocco’s diverse national identity and a guide for modern multiculturalism.

Moroccan Judaism has roots in the time of Antiquity. Jewish merchants came to Africa around 500 BC, likely to take part in the riches of the Carthaginian gold market. Before the Arab conquest, several Amazigh (native Moroccan) tribes were converted to Judaism, one of which, located near Sefrou, survived long into the 11th century.

In 1948, about 265,000 Jews were living within the French and Spanish protectorates of Morocco, although the numbers began to decrease as many emigrated to newly-formed Israel. Those who remained resided mostly in small towns and villages, dispersed throughout the country, limiting their access to educational institutions and health care. Illiteracy rates among some Jewish populations were more than 40%.

When Morocco gained independence in 1956, after rising hostilities and anti-Jewish rioting in 1948, many Moroccan Jews believed they had no future in a country where they felt they were unwelcome.

However, despite these setbacks, Morocco has and continues to be protective of its Jewish community as a model for inclusion. The 2011 Amendment to the Moroccan Constitution redefined Moroccan national identity, establishing difference—Arab, Muslim, Jewish, Amazigh, Andalusian, African, Mediterranean—as a facet of Moroccan identity. It also made Tamazight (spoken by native Imazighen—roughly one third of the Moroccan population) an official language. And two years later, Morocco’s New Migration Policy regularized 24,000 migrants, beginning the first phase of a human-rights approach to migration and strengthening support of Morocco’s African heritage.

In combination with Morocco’s Municipal Charter (requiring participatory methods in community planning and thus involving minority voices) and Morocco’s stance within the UN Alliance of Civilizations (which ties multiculturalism to development), this solidified a tradition of multicultural preservation, arising from the efforts of King Mohammed V, King Hassan II, and King Mohammed VI.

The Role of Society

Moroccan preservation of cultural heritage has led to greater community development and reduced poverty in neglected minority areas. Cultural preservation projects, funded by the Ministry of Culture in the Mellah of Marrakesh—a Jewish quarter whose traditional name was reinstated in 2017—have restored streets and town squares, creating a safe, clean space for its inhabitants.

The “House of Life” project, initiated in 2010 by the Chief Rabbinate of Morocco and the Ministry of Interior, provides rehabilitation to 167 mausoleums and cemeteries in 14 different regions within Morocco. This has led to the development of pilgrimage destinations such as Ouezzane Cemetery, where Jewish Moroccans who emigrated to Israel return to visit.

On lands surrounding these protected cemeteries, the High Atlas Foundation, a developmental organization in Marrakesh, creates nurseries for medicinal and fruit trees, which are then given to farmers as a way to diversify local produce and improve local economies, promoting both Jewish heritage and community development.

These projects are made possible through participatory methods, where members of the communities they serve decide which resources are most in-need, a method that could be useful in underrepresented American neighborhoods. Promoting black art, culture, and history, gives recognition and provides a basis for the rest of the country to learn about difference.

“I always advocate for education.” Says Laziza Dalil, guest speaker on a series of cross-cultural lectures hosted by the Kivunim Institute, and Vice President of Association Mimouna, a Moroccan organization run by Muslim university students in promotion of Jewish culture and tradition. “[Education] is a building bridge. It causes people to deal with diversity in a more positive way.”

While the Moroccan case is not identical to the United States, the development and support of a Moroccan multicultural society, through cultural preservation and promotion of minority visibility, can serve as a guide for NGOs and policymakers in America working to combat systemic racism.

Such a plan may include funding the preservation of buildings and landscapes infused with black culture and history, funding small museums or exhibitions on African American activism and achievement, and supporting arts programs focused on diversity and inclusion.

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Sustainable development refers to the pattern through which we meet human needs without compromising the future generations’ ability to meet theirs. It requires a comprehensive approach with components that can be individually achieved, including but not limited to economic prosperity, independence, and social well-being. In some ways, individuals may become radicalized precisely because these components are not met.

In ‘The Three Pillars of Radicalization’, Arie W. Kruglanski and Rohan Gunaratna defined the 3Ns: three determinant factors that result in individuals’ radicalization. The first N refers to these individuals’ need to feel valued and personally significant within their society. The second determinant is the [ideological] narrative these individuals have been exposed to while growing up that influences not only their personalities but their relationships with their states, society, and environment. The third and final N refers to the network these individuals are embedded in that validates, if not nourishes, their narratives. While the literature on this topic mainly focuses on the reasons leading to individuals’ decisions to join extremist groups, deradicalization -- the ways we could disconnect them from these groups--is equally important. 

The term deradicalization remains broadly used, usually referring to the programs, methods, and techniques aimed at stopping or controlling radicalization by the state. But is full-scale deradicalization possible? Are the rehabilitation programs sufficient and effective? To answer these questions, this article explains how sustainable development can decrease radicalization.

Sustainability as an integral part of the human development

Environmental education helps change our awareness, values, and ethics, all of which are fundamental parts of sustainable development. Sustainability acts as an organizing principle and connects bridges between different parties -- the state, NGOs, and civil society. It legitimizes state actions and is integral to economic and human development. However, we find that radicalization seeks to delegitimize the state and official actors and to create gaps between the state and its people, giving extremist groups the opportunity to brainwash and overtake the dominant rhetoric in the public sphere.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow argued in 1954 that people’s needs are ranked in ascending order from physiological to self-actualization. And according to Micheal Redclift’s Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions, the priority of peoples’ needs changes in the course of development, from the satisfaction of basic needs, such as clean water, food, and shelter in developing countries, to more aesthetic and extravagant ones in more developed nations. Putting this into perspective with the three pillars of radicalization, achieving sustainable development helps to deradicalize society as it allows various groups to meet not just their basic needs but also psychological ones by fostering a sense of belongingness, accomplishment, and fulfillment. Met needs that achieve the people’s quest for significance change the narratives they are exposed to and their membership, or network, in the authors’ words, that adheres to the narratives. Sustainable development has a critical impact on social cohesion, human security, the efficiency of state institutions, and their alignment with society and individuals. Strengthening the relationship and trust between the different parties that constitute a society increases the feeling of belonging and self-value, which, if absent, pushes people to seek it elsewhere through radicalization.

Sustainable development for long-term deradicalization

Deradicalization programs have regularly been described within the realm of counter-terrorism strategies and policies as well as in the capture of violent extremists. This will not guarantee the end of a radicalized group, nor would the use of violence and military power, because these groups can continue to recruit more new members. However, offering prospective recruits concrete reasons not to join extremist groups in the first place has a greater potential to stifle the proliferation and existence of such groups. Meaning, as mentioned above, the people who seek radicalization tend to be those who have nothing to hold on to economically and socially. A study conducted in India by A. Nageswara Rao and Dr. Kumara Srivedi titled Economic Importance of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) in India has proven that sustainable development offers opportunities for poverty eradication, enhanced human well-being, and increased livelihoods that ensure the socio-cultural integrity of people. According to the study, as much as 50 to 90 percent of the total source of livelihoods of poor people is said to come from non-market natural goods and ecosystem services.

Sustainable development calls on everyone to participate. Local and small businesses and initiatives, for instance, enable the creation of wealth and skills necessary for a better future, cultivate personal significance, improve the quality of the economy, and target the gap between the rich and the poor. The state must give them a seat at the decision-making table, either directly or indirectly. Giving small communities the ability to learn and develop their own projects generates collaborative efforts and fosters free decision-making. Members of the society learn the necessary skills to efficiently put the resources available into appropriate use. This requires engagement and a high level of commitment from various stakeholders for a sustained period of time. In the end, it will provide the economic stability and self-empowerment necessary for the people to achieve their goals.

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Recently, I had a moment of self-reflection brought about by the passing of someone who made a difference in the trajectory of my life. Years ago, I lived in the home of Omar Himmi Ait Omrar in the village of Amsouzerte in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Sharing stories about those two years (1993-1995) living in Omar’s home and what followed, those stories of life, may be meaningful to others.

In the early 1990s, getting to this very distant village, caught between the provinces of Ouarzazate, Taroudant, and Al Haouz, was difficult. Of the five valleys surrounding Toubkal mountain, the tallest peak in North Africa, only one is on its south side: the Tifnoute. What is special about that fact is that about half of the Toubkal National Park is the summer pasturelands for the Tifnoute people’s herds. Yet, until that time there had not been adequate communication between the park management and the Tifnoute community of 44 villages (about 12,000 people) because it is so remote that it takes 24 hours to get there due to having to circle around the Atlas Mountains in order to arrive, with the last 70 kilometers of which being unpaved paths. When, as Peace Corps Volunteers, we were assigned to the Toubkal park, we could choose to live anywhere among its valleys of villages, so when I heard that no one had gone to the Tifnoute, I said, “OK, I’ll do it, I’ll go.” I traveled in segments, and it took me three days to get there that winter in 1993.

When people arrive in the Tifnoute, they would always be sent to Omar Himmi. No one knew I was coming, and there I was planning to stay for two years. I remember that the first meal I ate was an omelet, after which I immediately felt tired and sick from the long, cold journey. I was ill for two weeks, unable to leave my room and having terrifying hallucinations, which I had never had in my life. I decided early to watch the menacing shapes in my mind like a spectator would a movie, and I even ended up missing them once they were gone. At night, I would feel Omar Himmi’s hand on my head because he was genuinely worried. He would make sure I had hot soup and also tangerines for Vitamin C, which thankfully were in season in Morocco.

After a few days, the local sheikh came to visit me, and I mustered enough energy to sit up, show my passport, and ask whether the people would be happy if an American lived among them for two years, to which he replied, “Yes.” That was all. But it became more complicated because the Caid did not feel the same way. At that time, community empowerment and participatory development were words that no one had heard of, and these ideas of organized change were not particularly trusted - and to think their implementation is now mandated in Morocco. That the Caid did not want an unexpected sojourner to live in the Tifnoute, yet that someone was sick and confined to bed (or rather the covered floor), presented a dilemma for Omar.

As I was still weak, Omar convinced me to go to a hospital, which was in Taroudant. I was not getting better, and I was not really walking, nor did I have energy. I reluctantly agreed. But, when I arrived at the transit, I saw that all of my luggage was packed in the back of it. I knew that if I got in, it would be hard for me to come back. So, I refused. I turned around and went back to Omar’s home. When I passed him on my way to my room, his face was like a stone because he knew that his way out of the conflicting situation had not been successful. But he accepted me.

That was our beginning. Very soon after that, we worked out an arrangement where I lived there and had breakfast and dinner with him. In this way, he had the biggest influence on my personal life during those years because he agreed to do that even though, at times, he was made to feel he ought not to.

Another story I recall, somewhat indicative of the times we lived in almost thirty years ago, occurred one night at dinner. It was always just me and him, in his 70s at the time, a grandfather who later became a great-grandfather and lived to the age of 103. One night, Omar and I were talking about the Tifnoute people, and we ended up talking about the sheikh, Haj Lehcen Ait Ouahman, a complicated and quite a thoughtful man, I would later learn. I asked Omar if he was friends with the sheikh, and he said to me, “Before he became sheikh, we were great friends!” And he laughed, which made me laugh. We laughed so hard that we cried.

The next day, I went down to the village store, the owner of which was a close friend of Omar, who was also there when I entered. I walked in on Omar relating the story of the previous night’s happy tears. When he got to the point where he had to refer to me, he did not want to call me “aghmoy”--the Tashelheit word for a foreigner or outsider--because it might have been considered a bit insensitive. Instead, he asked me my name. So, I had been living in his home for some months at that point, having breakfast and dinner with him every day, sitting together from about 4:00 in the afternoon when the sun went down behind the mountain, and talking, and he did not know my name! You can think about that in multiple ways, but can you imagine? We would talk about personal experiences: Omar told about when the Jewish people lived there, when his brother was sheikh and had a Jewish advisor. Every day, we would be talking and sharing, and there is a warmth to the fact that this went on without him knowing my name. There was a trust there to receive me in this way without asking to see my passport, without any formal contract, without concern for whether I would pay him on time or be able to be found. He really was just accepting and gave unconditional hospitality. That is how I came to feel about the relationship and what I learned in those early years here in Morocco.

Omar’s older brother Mohammed, the sheikh (which is what bestows upon the family the title, Ait Omrar), had passed away in 1951 from poisoning. Can you imagine drinking a cup of coffee that has such destructive sickliness that it turns your kidney into a liquid that you then regurgitate? It makes me realize the nature of poison. People can quarrel, but we draw a line at poison because of the hiddenness of it--not just the treachery but the cowardly deceit of it. Why was he poisoned? Because, according to Omar, he would not permit the local men to marry more than one woman. Around that time, he visited a village below Amsouzerte, had this cup of poisoned coffee, returned home, and lived only two more days. The day after his return, he asked Omar, “At what point is the sun?” Omar told him where it was. Gesturing, Mohammed said, “When it gets to [this point], I will be passed.”

I was greatly influenced by the ongoing conversations with Omar of all the stories and deeds and attitudes that he could remember about his brother and the people. As an example, one that has stuck with me all these years and was even part of my master’s thesis focus is the issue of water supply in that region. There is a water spring source there called Ouray that flows north instead of south, but it belongs to the southern Tifnoute community. They had been working on a project, digging into the mountain to reverse the direction of the water flow that would have changed the life course of fourteen villages, several thousands of people and their generations that followed. The project was stopped upon Sheikh Mohammed’s death all those years ago, and, to this day, they are still suffering without adequate water, having to pipe an insufficient amount from eight kilometers away rather than having their own source--an unsustainable remedy. Ouray became a project that I really wanted to work on during my service, still want to do, and for which I continue to advocate. Living in Tifnoute, I would go into my room after these conversations with Omar, and I would write these stories in my journal. The stories of the past, like Ouray’s, were brought alive again in the present as I tried to make good on the necessary work that was started many decades prior.

After the two years, when I was soon to leave, Omar brought to me the small tea kettle of silver that Sheikh Mohammed would drink tea from with his wife. Only the two of them would drink tea from that kettle--a family heirloom, a regional heirloom--and he gave it to me. This was a hugely thoughtful gift. I brought that tea kettle with me when I returned to New York. I showed it to my family, and I said, “This is the tea kettle of Sheikh Mohammed, and he would drink tea from it only with his wife.” I explained to them that he tried to do the right things, and he was murdered for it, that he was inclusive, and that the kettle was approaching a century old. To others, it was only an old, unpolished kettle from the mountains that they had little affinity for, and they seemed not particularly moved by the story. It became clear that that kettle was in entirely the wrong place. Its meaning lay in Toubkal. So, though it took some time, after a few years I returned to Omar, and I brought back the kettle. I said, “Omar, this kettle belongs here.” And fixing a wordless look on me, he understood, and he accepted it.

Jumping to the end, our last conversation, a few days before he passed away in May 2020, he could no longer speak. He could whisper to his grandson, Mohammed, who related to me what Omar said. I would respond to Mohammed, who would convey my comments to his grandfather. The very last thing he said to me was, “This is your home,” meaning his home was a place I was always welcome to be. And, from time to time, over the course of thirty years, it has been a place where I have found myself. There was something there, whenever I was there, that was soothing as nowhere else.

Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is a sociologist and President of the High Atlas Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to sustainable development in Morocco.

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Meandering through the dusty foothills of the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, I played an earnest game of speculation. I knew of my destination, its history and constitution, but had yet to see it or feel the restless potential it encapsulated. The gentle hum of the engine, propelling me past the road’s serpentine bends, coalesced my frenetic thoughts, slowly reconciling my uncertainty for what was to come.

Just after midday, I reached the millennia-old mausoleum of the venerated Hebrew saint – or tsaddik –, Rabbi David-Ou-Moché, one-hour northwest of Ouarzazate, the Gateway to the Sahara. Through brilliant sunlight, my eyes traced the alluring white silhouettes of buildings standing starkly against their earthen decor. It was these very same edifices that had imbued themselves into the mind of Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir – the President of the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) – more than a quarter-century ago. This sacred Jewish burial site, one of over 600 within the Kingdom, emanates reverence. It is a vestige of the once half a million strong Jewish population that had called the region home for two thousand years, and, in its persistence, a testament to Morocco’s unshakable multicultural ethos. Today, this holy place also serves as a paradigm for the future. It is home to the High Atlas Foundation’s House of Life project, and, subsequently, one of only two intercultural tree nurseries in Morocco.

From the first moment I learned of the House of Life initiative, it commanded my attention. As someone with Jewish heritage, albeit secular, and friends of many faiths and backgrounds across the world, I have sought to understand why the relations between religious and cultural groups in North Africa and the Middle East are perpetually marred by divisiveness and convoluted historical debates. Yet, the biography of intercultural cooperation I found presented by House of Life deviates from these narratives, illuminating, rather, the age-old solidarity shared between different groups in Morocco – notably, Jews and Muslims. House of Life upends the oft accepted belief that the millennia of violence and conflict within this topography is intractable and incessant, and, instead, presents a hopeful and intimate account of the abiding mutual respect and kinship fostered between different sects. 

Although the construction of the nursery at the tomb of Rabbi David-Ou-Moché has not reached completion, the skeleton of what will soon be an effervescent body is rapidly taking shape. High above the sublime buildings, at the crown of the hill, an industrial digger hews out a hectare-long agricultural terrace, tossing great heaps of earth to the side. This space will be the wellspring for more than one million seeds – particularly varieties of almond, carob, cherry, fig, pomegranate, and walnut. Over three years, the majority of these saplings will be donated to approximately 5,000 local farming families and 2,000 public schools, with the remainder dedicated to arresting rampant erosion in the area. At these locations, and hundreds of others, HAF continues to germinate the environmental, social, and historical awareness of future Moroccan generations. The Foundation’s longstanding educational programs on these subjects raise the cognizance of participating students while also setting forth action-based measures, tree planting and empowerment training, that individuals can emulate in their daily lives.

None of the development efforts at Ouarzazate – and the ensuing benefits generated for the local community – would be possible without the benevolent support of HM King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan government. Their continued sponsorship of intercultural projects, including the restoration and preservation of historical and holy places, sets Morocco apart from its peers and the international community at large.

While the nursery near Ouarzazate will, indeed, be monumental, it is not the first of its kind. That distinction falls on the facility adjoining the 700-year-old burial site of healer Rabbi Raphael Hacohen, located 25 kilometers south of Marrakech at Akrich.

“My grandfather was the guardian in this place,” says Abderrahim with a smile, “everyone [from the nearby Muslim community] came to him to offer their animals and food to visiting Jews.” Abderrahim Beddah has a kind face, with dark, bright eyes that beam out from beneath his straw hat. He is not unlike the hundreds of other men and women I have met these past months on my sojourns in the Moroccan Atlas and beyond – generous, affable, forthcoming. Yet, the position he occupies is unprecedented. As a Muslim tree nursery caretaker and stalwart overseer of the holy Jewish tombs near Akrich – the site where three generations of his family have stood guard –, Abderrahim is on the front lines of a blossoming partnership, one that would likely be judged inconceivable in anywhere but the Maghreb.

Nevertheless, erecting an archway between disparate, and, otherwise, extraneous societal pillars has not been an easy or straightforward feat to accomplish. Such a task requires the reciprocation of all involved. Coordination between Muslims and Jews, while rarely a straightforward undertaking, has been possible in Morocco. As Abderrahim explained, this mutuality mirrors how Jewish pilgrims, journeying to Akrich, help the local Muslim residents in the same ways that they aided them. 

This pluralistic relationship has only flourished since 2012 with the High Atlas Foundation facilitating the free lending of Moroccan Jewish community land for local Muslim farming families’ cultivation – a vision that came to Dr. Ben-Meir 24 years prior while overlooking Rabbi Moché’s mausoleum near Ouarzazate. Thus far, the results of the Akrich nursery have been inimitable, both qualitatively and quantitatively. In the past eight years, it has grown over 180,000 almond, argan, carob, fig, lemon, and pomegranate seeds, which, at maturity, have been transplanted to individual plots across Morocco, under the care and for the benefit of approximately 1,000 local farming families and 130 public schools and their students.

Abderrahim, as a benefitting member and leader within the surrounding community, attested to the palpable human impact the tree nursery has delivered. He himself receives health care and social security coverage under the project’s administration, both of which he did not have access to before. “Previously residents could not find fruit trees and [when they did] they had to get them at high prices from faraway places like Ourika,” which is over an hour and a half away. In contrast to past communal tendencies, he relished how now “the [High Atlas] Foundation supports all farmers in the region by giving them trees for free,” and discussed his hope that the nursery’s activities will continue far into the future “to [both] combat desertification and improve livelihoods.” 

However, the residual social and environmental impacts of HAF’s House of Life initiative are farther-flung than merely offering fruit trees to those who desire them. The presence and prosperity of these nurseries are the ultimate manifestations of an unparalleled relationship forged between different Abrahamic religions and their followers. Despite their novelty, the roots of these tree nurseries are ancient and entrenched, derived from the esteemed sects they celebrate. In this way, they are as timeless as they are current and momentous. While it is illogical to suppose that all countries are as well-positioned as Morocco to cultivate intercultural solidarity on this scale, it is not unreasonable. For, they must only turn – just as I did – to the relics of the Jewish diaspora in North Africa to see for themselves the hope that grows there.

Nicolas Pantelick is from the United States on a gap year before university. He has been exploring Morocco’s cultural history and traditions through conversations with local people around the country

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Is it hubris, that in the face of worry and challenge and fundamental concerns about the future, that we put aside from what we may have, to plant trees for a tomorrow - a benefit for a distant day?

May it actually be our nature to uphold nature, even when we are confronted so suddenly with a threat to ourselves and to people we hold dear?

Yes, we are saying - plant trees. Plant them now. Plant them well and far. Plant with us. Ask others to plant. Plant in the face of our shared trial.

When the same wisdom from a most and least far past, and from places surrounding and furthest – that is, when a specific knowledge from across time and place – is delivered in front of us, it seems an interesting pearl, and one to take to heart.

Planting life seeds is practical and soulful, it is for today and tomorrow, it refines our bodies and mind, it satisfies all senses, it brings a beautiful rest, it is personal and communal for all coming time, it is the epitome of existence, especially when we do it with children.

It is also what we can do right now. Plant with hope in the face of confinement, restriction, and scare about health.

Today, we cannot do it with schools, but a farmer can do it in a nursery and field – a lovely opening for an everlasting good, in the face of a trial.

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High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Website:
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Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Yossef Ben-Meir
President of the High Atlas Foundation
New York City and Marrakech, Morocco
$15,910 raised of $28,000 goal
 
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