Improve Rural Moroccan Schools: Sami's Project

by High Atlas Foundation
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Improve Rural Moroccan Schools: Sami's Project
Improve Rural Moroccan Schools: Sami's Project
Improve Rural Moroccan Schools: Sami's Project

On the 9th of December, 2022, I visited the High Atlas Foundation (HAF). It was my first visit to the Foundation. I have never forgotten that day.

Before I went to the Foundation, I was all the time thinking about the building, the people who are working there. All the time I wondered about it even though I had some information through the HAF’s website. But I had a strong feeling that I had to pay a visit to HAF because of its noble and human objectives realised by the staff and president, Dr. Ben-Meir, based on sustainable development in Morocco. Its work rests upon the participatory approach, which sees local people participate in their communities’ needed development projects.

 I have first known about HAF on the 16th January, 2017, during the annual celebration of tree planting that took place at a high school where I was working at the time. That was the first time I met Dr. Ben-Meir, and though we have kept in touch, I have never visited the Foundation because of my work.  I followed all the High Atlas Foundation’s activities because I believe in HAF’s sustainable development objectives and projects. For all these reasons, I have been curious to visit the Foundation and I finally did last December.

I phoned Dr. Ben-Meir to inform him about my arrival to the city and to agree about the time of my visit to the Foundation. We agreed that I would come to the Foundation at 1pm. I was first received warmly by Dr. Ben-Meir. He presented every member of the Foundation to me.

My first remark is that the HAF’s building is very simple and modest in comparison to the huge work they are doing all over Morocco. The wall’s colours are simple and reflect a warm peaceful energy and the offices of the staff are modest as the people working in them. The High Atlas Foundation’s staff reflects one of its main principles supporting cultural diversity. The people working at the Foundation are all sincere and nice. They all belong to different ethnic groups and different religious backgrounds. They are Americans and Moroccans, Jewish, Christians and Muslims, speaking various languages: English, French, Amazigh and Arabic. This variety mirrors their cultural diversity, which is amazing. Belonging to different cultural and religious backgrounds for one unified noble objective that is mainly helping and sustaining communities in need of help and such projects. They all respect each other’s cultural backgrounds.

When I arrived there was a Friday prayer, and I noticed that there are some members of the staff who were preparing themselves to go for prayer. It was really noticeable to me that the staff of the High Atlas Foundation was working at ease because while the president of the Foundation was moving around presenting me to the staff I noticed an exchange of respect but still friendly relationship between Dr. Ben-Meir and everyone. There is trust among all of them because his office was all time open; he didn’t close his office. Personally, I have really appreciated the relationship between him and other members of the Foundation. They were all working together as a beehive and that is one of the main causes of HAF’s prosperity as a non-profit organisation. There is a mutual respect though the multicultural characteristics of the Foundation’s components.

Since my visit to HAF, I have a strong feeling that I should participate and help at least in one of the Foundation’s cultural and sustainable development projects. I wish to pay another visit to the Foundation in the future.

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"Joining the legal clinic was the best decision I made in 2022.

It has greatly contributed to my academic and professional growth.”

Soufiane is now a 26-year-old legal clinician trainee with a master's degree in business law. During the second year of his graduate studies and last planned year of formal education, he felt the need to deepen his knowledge and sharpen his skills to better face the job market, be ready for the post-graduate world, and feel more legitimate and confident. As such, he applied to be a part of the Legal Clinic of the Faculty of Law (CJFD) in Fez.

From the beginning of his tenure with the “clinic,” he made a good impression and easily stood out through his commitment, participation, and curiosity. He put his heart and soul into the activities of the program and participated ardently in all of the events organized. The experience allowed him not only to perfect his knowledge of the law and to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for learning by offering him a myriad of fruitful and eclectic activities, such as study days, practical workshops, and field trips, but also to perfect his public speaking and oratory skills through debate and moot court competitions and, finally, to enlarge his professional network and to meet new people.

"It is a complete, qualitative, and no-frills experience,” says Soufiane. “The legal clinic is an absolute godsend that allowed me to think outside the box and learn the law by doing. And all for free. What more could you ask for? If I had to do it again, I would do it gladly.”

According to Soufiane, his integration into the program was the turning point in his academic and professional life.

First, he succeeded in joining the Youth Parliament of Morocco, occupying the position of legal assessor since his first participation and being elected as a Minister for the next legislature, which will take place in July 2023. He claims to owe much of his success in joining the inner circle of young Moroccan parliamentarians to the “clinic” and the various skills he learned as a student clinician.

Secondly, his interest in defending the cause of women increased tremendously after meeting and assisting women who have experienced abuse and gender-based violence during his year as a student clinician. Wanting to do even more to help them, he created, with several of his peers, an association called eve4ever to improve the status of Moroccan women and promote their socio-cultural and economic condition.

Even in light of his notable success, Soufiane does not claim it for himself. He always insists on expressing his gratitude and appreciation to all those who helped him along the way. "Being a clinician is more than an experience. It's a valuable identity that sticks with us, makes us proud, and helps us shine in all areas," he says.

The Legal Clinic of the Faculty of Law (Clinique juridique de la faculté de droit - CJFD) in Fes aims to elevate the status of youth, women, and underrepresented communities by providing pro-bono legal aid and entrepreneurship training as a means to engage civically and economically.

Over the three years since its inception, the program has trained 231 (50% women, 50% men) master’s and doctoral students of law to administer legal aid and facilitate capacity building with community beneficiaries in the Fes-Meknes region of Morocco. In that time, student clinicians have worked on a total 267 case files pertaining to entrepreneurship, immigration and asylum, family mediation, psychological support, human trafficking, employment, and real estate. Additionally, 256 have benefited from the establishment or growth of 39 private income-generating projects and entities following entrepreneurship training and mentorship.

The program was established first as a pilot project in 2019 as a collaboration between the High Atlas Foundation and the Faculty of Legal, Economic, and Social Sciences at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fes. From 2020 to 2022, the program’s continuation and expansion to include concentration on the promotion of entrepreneurship was funded by the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).

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Recently, I joined volunteers and staff of the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) for a dental health awareness event at the schools of Bouchane.

Seventeen American dentists traveled with us to rural Morocco to improve oral health and hygiene practices, beginning with a short welcome ceremony upon our arrival in order to get to know each other.

After a short instruction on how to brush teeth properly, the children were first sent by a volunteer to the general check-up by a dentist. Myself and another volunteer then sent the children to await either polishing or dental surgery. The majority of the children had healthy teeth; however, they were often brown, not from poor oral hygiene, but rather from phosphates in the water that bring decay to teeth.

By mid-afternoon, we gathered in a dining room, where school children danced and played music while we were eating chicken couscous. Shortly after lunch, we began to work again. I was with Arabic-speaking volunteers and attended a cultural activity with a class, where children had to connect pictures of Moroccan provinces with the corresponding province on a map. After the lesson, we continued our morning jobs with the others to guide the children to the right rooms, then leaving for Marrakech in the late afternoon.

The next day began like the previous one with an early morning departure and a visit with a smaller group of dentists and staff members to another school where we checked the teeth of children aged six to ten. This took about three hours, after which we had a lunch of chicken couscous again: a favorite, traditional dish that is always appreciated. After lunch, my assignment was to work with a staff member to play with the children after their dental surgery while the other volunteers continued the other work from the day before.

On the third and final day in Bouchane, I assisted the dentists in the operating rooms, holding the children’s hands to keep them calm and prevent mishaps while they had their teeth extracted. Other volunteers played with the children and gave them medicine in the post-op area. Following a mid-afternoon lunch of—you guessed it—chicken couscous (just as delicious as on the previous days, prepared by the villagers’ loving hands), we completed extractions for 20 more children before saying goodbye to the people of Bouchane.

On my fourth day of volunteering, we went to a school in Oukaimeden, a small village in the mountains. This was my first day in Morocco that was not 30+ degrees Celsius. High in the mountain, from where the mothers could watch their children, my job was to work with my Austrian colleagues to paint children’s teeth with a special paste to strengthen and whiten them.

We were an efficient team as we varnished the teeth of 119 children in just three hours.  The community served us again with chicken couscous and lben, a kind-of soured milk. As this school was smaller than the one in Bouchane, work was often outside. For example, one staff member instructed the children in the school’s garden while my friends and I varnished the teeth in front of one classroom. After 43 children, the working day was over and we went home.

We were again in Oukaimeden on the final day, where my job was again to help with varnishing the children’s teeth outside, in front of the classroom. We were finished by midday since only a few children were brought to school (as it was the sabbath day). For this reason, we took our lunch at a rest stop along the road back to Marrakech, reflecting on what was a very interesting, fun, and meaningful week. 

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The road to Tiznit from Marrakech runs through the mountains, a landscape that floats and rises and arcs like the mezzanines and cantilevers and walkways of what could only be a heavenly architecture. Over the red and rocky landscape, the mountains truly seemed to be the spires of fairy-tale castles, and as we progressed, the world changed from furnace-blasted plains, to mountains, to fog, and then to the coast, where the Atlas flings itself into the Atlantic.

After a five-hour bus ride across this landscape, I stepped into Tiznit hoping to explore the town, but I was forced to pause. It was quiet. Compared to Marrakech, it felt like all the pent-up energy and commotion and chaos of everyone all along the Eurasian landmass had exploded in a stampede of wild horses across the Atlas and came here to descend into the water. Maybe it was just my relief from getting off the long drive from Marrakech, but Tiznit felt harbored from all the insanity of the world.

 The Vice President of Tiznit invited the HAF team to a conference with the city government, including the head of the ministry of culture and the head of the ministry of farming. These officials were proud of their town, and the cultivated atmosphere of tranquility, and they were happy to talk with us about Tiznit. We discussed the importance of culture, agriculture, and sports to their vision of development in town and throughout the countryside.

Through culture, they hoped to identify, improve, and advocate for important sites around the area, such as Jewish and Amazigh shrines that may have been forgotten over time. Through agriculture, they hoped to expand production of commodity crops like argan, which grows best in the Sous-Massa region. But I was confused by what sports could bring to this vision. It often seems that sports can be confused with big arenas and drunk fans and riots, all consumed in big commotion and craziness that is certainly antithetical to Tiznit, and would probably belong better in Marrakech. What place would sports have here?

Then we went an hour into the country to visit a middle school. There was a big dance from skilled Imazighen professionals. There were presentations on local culture, especially focusing on music and argan. The students had spent a lot of time studying the ecological practices that benefit argan production — a big industry in the region, and a bigger point of pride for many of the people. There were presentations that detailed every step undergone in creating argan oil, workshops on uses for argan, and even a play about protecting argan trees.

I was impressed by the enthusiasm shared by the students and faculty for sharing their knowledge about the argan tree, as well as the depth of knowledge covered in middle school classes about the local ecosystem. In the United States, I learned nothing in class about the environment around me, while subjects like history and state politics were endlessly drilled every day. Although history and politics are important, I think it is important for schools to instill knowledge and respect for our environments, especially as climate change presents looming challenges to the stability of landscapes everywhere.

After the presentations, we had dinner with the kids and were shown around the campus. Pretty soon, my friends and I found a basketball court with a couple of balls nearby. We asked if we could shoot around, and the Amazigh-language teacher was happy to allow us. While getting used to the different rims, the professional dancers who had originally greeted us at the school entrance came up and asked if we wanted to play. Of the HAF interns, we were four, and of the dancers, they were four — good numbers for a full court game. Soon, we were running back-and-forth across the middle school court, the dancers moving light on their feet to get open and shoot, while the HAF interns used quick passing to try and open up lanes for flashy dunks on the short hoops.

As the sun began to set out on the west coast just beyond the school, we eight people from all around the world had been brought together by an urge that may have been more powerful than even music or food. And as we exchanged phone numbers to stay in contact throughout our time in Morocco, I think I realized why the government of Tiznit found sports to be just as important as culture and farming for the city. Something about a good game can bring together myriad people, even where language might fail.

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There was a holiday atmosphere at Al Mansour Eddahbi Middle School when the HAF team arrived on the 26th of May, 2022. Children were arranging display tables in the shade of the cloister; the eighth grade girls were just beginning to emerge from their dorms in multicolored kaftans; the schoolchildren's elected representative, a little boy, was running back-and-forth across the courtyard in his suit, giving orders in his walkie talkie; and the physics teacher, whose figure seemed to tower towards the sun, stood watching the commotion with satisfaction. The anticipation and excitement was so thick that I could practically scoop it out of the air and bottle it. There was going to be a big celebration that evening: the one hundredth anniversary of the school.   

I came to help the HAF Dakira program experts conduct an activity on the history and cultural patrimony of Morocco, a theme the school was celebrating for its anniversary. The activity involved gathering sixty students for a pre-test, a discussion, and a post-test, though because the kids were shy, we also conducted an icebreaker where everyone introduced their name and a fun fact. Afterwards, there were still a couple hours before the celebration, and the kids were allowed to ask questions and chat with Mary-Grace and me, the two University of Virginia interns. The kids were extremely curious about my hometown, my dog, and what I thought about Morocco, but they were even more interested in teaching me Darija. As students responsible for communicating in French, Darija, and FusHa at school, and sometimes Amazigh and English at home, they turned-out to be natural teachers. Surrounded by thirty schoolchildren who all wanted to be ambassadors of their country, I soon learned the right way to say too many words to remember.

Then, we joined everyone at the assembly hall to hear alumni speak about its history. It was founded one hundred years ago as a Jewish school, but it opened its doors to any Moroccan. These men and women spoke passionately about their days here, and how grateful they felt to the Jewish community for their role in empowering  the entire neighborhood. Yet while grateful for the opportunities they were afforded by this school, the alumni were most proud to speak about the Jewish history of Morocco, about new bridges being built between Morocco and Israel and the USA, about the power of interfaith dialogue, and how the school itself stands as a symbol for the patrimony between all Moroccans. After a brief speech from the director of the school, everyone went outside for the celebration.

Outside, there were presentations from the robotics club, Moroccan desserts prepared by an alumna, a family life club, a glass-making club, and an electronics club. I was especially impressed by the students' pride in learning  about Moroccan culture — plants from many climates across Morocco were grown by the ecology club as an exercise in respecting the cultures and practices that correspond with these regions; even the kaftan worn by the eighth grade girls were representative of each region. While schoolkids, HAF workers, teachers, alumni, and government officials all congregated in the courtyard, I lingered under the shadow of the cloister, exhausted from the long day. There, the president of HAF, Dr. Ben-Meir, stood lost in thought. We were speaking about the clubs and the speeches and especially the desserts when music suddenly began to play, and all the kids gathered to dance in a circle whose circumference was bound only by the limits of the courtyard. I listened without speaking. Dr. Ben-Meir's face lit up, almost as if a golden light had dawned on him.

"It's a Moroccan-Jewish song," he said, speaking not necessarily for my sake, but out of some impulse. "It's a traditional song, centuries-old, and they're celebrating the school's anniversary with this."

We stood and listened. Then he continued, "Instead of focusing on the present, they're honoring the past. Not even the schoolchildren have forgotten."

Then, Dr. Ben-Meir smiled. The first shivers of dance were working up his body. Clapping to the beat of a song written generations ago, he left the shadows of the cloister and joined the circle.

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Organization Information

High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Yossef Ben-Meir
President of the High Atlas Foundation
New York City, NY United States
$54,058 raised of $100,000 goal
 
811 donations
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