What a couple of weeks it has been! Living and working in Ireland was challenging in many ways, but now, Morocco, oh boy – big change.
I arrived on Halloween to Marrakech where I spent the first few nights in an AirBnb. Now I’m living in an apartment close to Gueliz (the city center) with a Moroccan woman. I (almost) have housing sorted for the three months – a Watson year is not very conducive to stable housing arrangements.
The day after landing I went straight to the Amal Women’s Center where I was greeted with open arms by Oumaima, the director of the center and the woman with whom I’ve been in contact for the past 15 months. My, what a super woman Oumaima is! I sat and watched her run back and forth from the kitchen to the patio to the office, answer phone calls left and right, welcome random people who wandered into the center, and meet with other staff members.
Oumaima spoke to guests in French, to trainees in several dialects of Arabic, to me in English, and even to a deaf and mute girl over a video call in sign language. Oh, and if running four women’s training centers and cafes isn’t enough, she’s also an MBA student. Super woman, I’m telling ya.
But Oumaima isn’t the only super woman at Amal. Amal, meaning “hope” in Arabic, is a non-profit culinary school/training center dedicated to Moroccan women in difficult social situations. These women have little-to-no income or education, have no marketable skill, and are either single moms, divorced, orphaned, or widowed.
The women go through 6 months of training in both practical and theoretical skills. From a culinary standpoint, they learn everything from Moroccan and international cuisine to restaurant management and service. In addition, every day they also spend 30 minutes to 1 hour learning anything from English and French, to how to write a resume or sit for an interview. Amal also provides them with a living stipend of about 100 euros per month, breakfast and lunch, free bus transportation (donated by the bus company), and any tips received from the restaurant or events. During the 6 months, the women do an internship with a restaurant in Marrakech to gain professional experience. Finally, at the end of the program, Amal helps the women find jobs in riads, hotels, restaurants, and private homes.
Since opening its first training center in 2013, Amal has graduated 240 women, 80% of which now have stable jobs (meeting or exceeding minimum wage of about $270). Six women even have their own businesses.
Amal started in 2012 when Nora Fitzgerald, a Moroccan-American woman, kept seeing the same woman begging in the streets as she walked her son to school. Every day she would be there begging, and every day Nora would give her a little change. But eventually Nora realized that wasn’t helping the woman’s situation. Nora invited the woman, along with a few other women, to her home where she taught them how to make Moroccan pastries and helped them sell them. Six months later, a Swiss organization called Drosos caught wind of what Nora was doing and helped fund what is now the Amal Women’s Center. The original location opened in central Marrakech in 2013 as a training center for 10-15 women. It is also a restaurant that serves a daily-changing variety of Moroccan and international cuisine.
In 2016 Amal opened its second location just outside the city, where it trains 20-25 women and operates a busy catering kitchen. During schooldays, 150 nursery and primary school kids receive a 3 course lunch delivered directly to their school! And it’s no joke of a lunch, I’d be one happy third grader if that were mine. The Targa center also serves couscous on Fridays (a Moroccan tradition) and a big vegetarian buffet on Saturdays. Finally, a big activity for the Targa center are Moroccan cooking classes.
But wait, I’m not done. This past year, Amal has focused on several “social inclusion initiatives.” You know the old saying, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”? That’s Amal part one. Some people push back on that saying with a response along the lines of “But what if the man is an amputee, blind in one eye, and can’t fish?” Welcome to Amal 21 and Amal Sign Language Café. Two cafes, located on a college campus in Marrakech where 7 women with downs syndrome and 2 deaf and mute women work. After graduating Amal’s rigorous program, it was difficult to find an employer that would hire a woman with downs syndrome or who was deaf and mute. So, Amal decided to open two cafes where these women could work, be welcomed, understood, and transition into the larger restaurant world.
There’s a lot going on here. As for me, I’m at the location in Targa and am part Communications Manager, part Environmental Manager, and part “Sierra can you help with this” manager. In a typical day, I’ll start with the cooking classes where visitors learn from our amazing chef Fatiha how to make tagines, couscous, pastillas, and more. Then I’ll spend some time moving compost and water bins around or researching recycling companies in Morocco (not too many out there). I’ll also take pictures and write social media posts (follow us! @amalnonprofit). And after that, who knows what. I could be cleaning school lunch containers, setting up tables for an event, refilling spices for the cooking class, trying to ask the pastry chefs what cookies they have for sale that day, or all of the above.
Amal really is a remarkable place, and I can’t describe how incredible it is to be working with an organization that is literally changing lives every day.
I have much more to say about Amal, Morocco, Moroccan food, and trying to blend in with Moroccan life, but I wanted to focus this post on laying the backdrop so you can get a glimpse into what I am doing in Marrakech and how inspiring a place Amal is. More to come (I promise).