About two weeks before my departure to Morocco I received the long-awaited email answering the great unknown: My volunteer placement for my program in Rabat. Before signing on with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), I knew the deal. Volunteers would not find out what their placement was until two weeks before the trip. It is standard protocol for CCS and although it may sound strange, it actually makes a whole lot of sense.
In order to really make a difference, there is no way for the organization to know exactly what volunteer work and service will be needed at the time of a volunteer’s arrival. This is especially true since most volunteers like me sign up at least three to six months ahead of time. As a past CCS volunteer, I knew the drill and was not concerned. Once a destination is picked, the rest would follow. Each country offers similar kinds of work such as placements in an orphanage, a day-care center for underprivileged or disabled kids, a nursing home, a hospital setting or teaching English to those in need. I had already done the nursing home last year in Costa Rica and surprised myself by loving it (see earlier blog posts filed under Costa Rica). However, I was game for anything.
As expected, my email came approximately two weeks before my flight to Morocco. I would be teaching English to local Moroccans at an organization called the East West Foundation that works with Moroccans and other Africans living in Rabat who want to learn English to improve their lives. The job sounded interesting enough (although for some reason I personally craved the chance to work with kids). I would be teaching my own class and would have to prepare some lessons in advance. Lessons? What? Then the panic hit. How would I prepare lessons when I had no idea what level I would be teaching or where the students were at? Furthermore, how would I plan lessons when I could hard plan the last two weeks left at home in Minnesota with two kids and a husband and nothing at all packed. I took a few deep breaths, remembering CCS’s words to be patient, open-minded, and flexible. Ok, I could do that, but still how on earth was I going to find the time to prepare for teaching this class?
I sent off a few emails to past volunteers at the East West Foundation and received many helpful and positive responses. Everyone who had worked there loved it and had plenty of advice for a stressed out, over-tired mom like me. I tried my best to print out the best ideas and bought a book called “Teaching ESL The American Way”, and quietly thanked myself for my past ESL experience ten years ago teaching English to illegal immigrants at a church and tutoring Somali girls at a charter high school. Sure, it was ten years ago but I could do it again successfully, especially if I was under pressure.
The days before I left for Morocco were a blur. I could hardly get everything in order before I left, let alone any lesson planning. But I remained optimistic and tried to ease any fears or concern. I’d be fine. I knew how to work in the spur of the moment and make things happen.
I arrived a day and a half early in Morocco which I spent on my own, discovering Morocco and adjusting to the time change (Morocco is six hours ahead of Minneapolis). On Saturday, I did a five hour excursion to neighboring Casablanca which was fantastic and then headed over to the CCS Home Base late Saturday afternoon to check in and get settled. There were five volunteers already there who had been volunteering in Morocco for the past few weeks. One woman was from Canada in her mid-twenties, another woman from New Zealand in her thirties, an American woman in her eighties from the East Coast, and a semi-retired couple from Canada. The new batch of volunteers coming in for my program included a twenty-five-year-old woman from CCS in New York (who is amazing and just so happened to be in a wheelchair, an amazing accomplishment in itself), a grandmother and her grand-daughter and friend from the west coast, and a well-traveled quality manager from New York in her thirties like me. We had quite a diverse group of people (ages, backgrounds, geography) which added to the fun and adventure of the trip.
Sunday afternoon we had a group meeting to discuss the volunteer placements for the week. CCS Morocco was currently working with three NGO’s inside Morocco:
1. A group that worked at the Children’s Hospital to provide entertainment and care for the children in the asthma ward (and give their worn out parents a much needed break).
2. A local NGO called “Ibny” (which means “my kid” or “my child” in Arabic) which provides care and education to the street children of Rabat who the NGO is trying to keep off the streets (in 2009, a survey conducted counted 2000,000 beggars on the streets of Morocco. Sadly enough, many parents use their children and even drug them to get money). The objective of this NGO is to get kids off the street, fed, bathed and in school, for a few hours a day.
3. The last volunteer opportunity was at an NGO called Femin Pluriel, a women’s association created in 1999 to offer courses in English, French, computers and other subjects to help improve the lives of women.
Apparently the placements at the East West Foundation were put on hold for awhile so I was slated to work at Femin Pluriel helping Gwen teach English classes to beginners. I remembered the words be flexible, be patient and be open-minded and decided to go with the flow on the change in plans. It wouldn’t actually be that different from the East West Foundation, just a different kind of clientele (mostly educated, unemployed women looking to learn English and improve their lives).
Monday morning I spent some time pouring over the CCS internal library which provides a wealth of information on ESL courses, sample lessons, vocabulary and grammar books. I decided to bring a few good books along in my bag and then headed to the CCS van that would drive us to our placements. First stop was the hospital, followed by the school which hosts Ibny, and finally we were at the gray stone building that held the offices and classrooms for Femin Pluriel.
Photo of road leading up to Femin Pluriel:
View from Femin Pluriel of surrounding street:
Entrance to Femin Pluriel:
I felt my stomach drop as we left the van and rung the bell to be let in. What would it be like? Was I prepared? Would I have enough to teach? All these thoughts raced through my head as we walked into the first floor office and were kindly greeted by two of the woman who ran the administrative side of Femin Pluriel. We took a small tour of the space which featured a classroom at the front, a long library with tables in the middle, and another classroom and computer lab in the rear. It was a nice space with tons of books in French, Arabic and English. Apparently Femin Pluriel has speakers once a month as well usually on women’s topics.
Gwen and I were lead to the classroom area in back near the computer lab where we set up shop and waited for the arrival of our students. Slowly but surely in they trickled in: Four women and two men in all ranging from their early twenties to late thirties. Overall the women were a highly educated group who were fortunate enough to go to university yet were still looking for steady employment (unemployment in 2010 was 8.6% and GDP is $4,600/person). Although education in free in Morocco, if you don’t have the grades to get in to university than you are pretty much out of luck (unless you come from a wealthy family). One of the problems with the educational system in Morocco is that many feel it doesn’t prepare graduates for a real job meaning there is a disconnect between degreed graduates and new employees.
Learning an important world language like English greatly increases a woman (and man’s) ability to find a good job, especially in commerce and the government. That is where Femin Pluriel comes into play: By offering daily classes in English at a small fee taught almost exclusively by volunteers.
The first class went much better than expected. I was extremely thankful for those grueling years of French because teaching English to beginners completely in English would have been impossible (or at least for someone like me who is not a trained ESL teacher). Thus for the most part we were able to teach the class in English and I could clarify things in French. It worked out very well! The students were delightful and very appreciative. We had lots of laughs, especially when we involved a little charades into the mix, and I truly enjoyed the work.
Inside Femin Pluriel: Our classroom
A lovely collage of pictures featuring traditional Moroccan village dress:
The rest of the week was more or less the same, except for the arrival of a new student: Yosef, a twenty-one-year-old security guards who just so happened to be a long boarder on the weekends and illiterate. Yosef was my inspiration. He was abandoned by his parents at six years old and sent to Rabat to be raised by his uncle. He never went to school and somehow managed to survive with a joie de vivre or joy of life that was infectious. His smile was so big and so enthusiastic that his presence in the classroom was hard to ignore. Although he didn’t know how to read or write, he still showed up for class every morning with his enormous grin and desire to learn. He work up every morning at 4am for his job as a security guards, then took two hours off in the morning to attend the english class, then headed back to work until 6pm. Now that is dedication! He had only been coming to classes for a few weeks and had already learned a great deal. It was truly wonderful to help him and the others out.
Our last day came before we knew it. I felt bad to be leaving so soon after we had just gotten to know our new friends and make some progress. We had talked about food, about hobbies, about jobs and about life. It was a great learning experience for us as well. As the class was ending, a fresh pot of Moroccan mint tea appeared along with some homemade Moroccan biscuits and sweats. Traditionally tea in Morocco is something that happens every day from 4-6PM and cannot be rushed. Yet the door bell rang and our van was waiting. It was time to say goodbye and hope that somehow we had ever so slightly made an impact on their lives.
Friday morning I had the opportunity to visit another work site, the asthma ward at the Children’s Hospital.
Packing up our bags of fun for the children:
There are only two Children’s Hospitals in all of Morocco: A country of 33 million people! Thus families of ill children often have to travel very far away from home in order to receive care for their children.
Picture of the outside of Rabat’s Children’s Hospital:
The volunteer work needed at the hospital was mainly entertainment (coloring, playing, drawing, singing, reading, etc) of the children in the playroom so their wary, tired parents could get some kind of break. I enjoyed this experience immensely.
Inside the playroom at the hospital:
Although the children are sick and being treated for asthma, they still are just kids and were smiling, laughing and playing with rigor and energy. It was a perfect place for me being an energetic mother of two! I played ball, I tickled and hugged them and just showed them that I cared. The mothers watched carefully from outside the playroom and a few times I caught their eyes and were rewarded with a kindhearted smile of appreciation. As a stay at home mom, I know exactly how important it is to get a break away from the kids and even more so, for these moms who were far away from their homes and villages holed up in a small, not so clean hospital room for sometimes weeks on end.
I also enjoyed speaking with a couple of interns as well as one of the doctors about their lives and work in the hospital. I was amazed by how gracious these people are to work in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital for probably a lot less money than they would receive being a doctor here in the United States. I am always amazed by the incredible people I meet when I volunteer. It sure brings hope that there are good people in the world who care about others and not only money. Truly inspirational people that keep me motivated to come back again and volunteer and help out in any way I can, even if it is small. This kind of rounds up my review of volunteering in Morocco. It was not so much what I did but everything that I learned and everyone I met in such a short time. I hope that somehow they felt the same and I was able to give them something, even if it was small. Perhaps a glimmer of hope?
Me and Mohammed, the CCS Country Manager:
Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you really enjoyed your Moroccan experience and I’m sure your time and compassion were well appreciated.