Sewing Freedom – A Story of Women’s Empowerment

Forty women had enrolled in a six month sewing training program with uncertain hopes of learning a new technical skill that could potentially lead to job opportunities.The women were nervous, excited. Daunted by the six months ahead. Not many of the women had previously completed any formal training. Seven of them are illiterate. Only four earned university degrees.

All the women are active homemakers. They prepare four meals a day from scratch, wash clothes, squeegee the floors, tackle mountains of dishes, and juggle their children’s school schedules. “My daily schedule exhausts me”, one sewer named Fatiha confesses, “but I’m committed to benefit from sewing as much as I can.” They feared that taking 10 hours a week to learn to sew was selfish and would ultimately disappoint their families.

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Fatiha

One woman named Manar shared that she always dreamed of learning to sew, but she was prohibited by her mother (and later her husband) to enroll in classes. Upon learning about the sewing opportunity, she experienced “the most intense happiness of her life,” she remembers, smiling from ear to ear as she retells the story. She secretly registered in the classes without telling her family.  

The oldest woman in the sewing training program named Rabha also experienced doubt from other community members outside her own family. “Do you still have a mind to learn?” they’d challenge her.  

The biggest mental battle happened to be the women’s own self-doubt. “How can we learn to operate a machine if we don’t even know how to hold pencils?” they questioned. “So what if I’m uneducated”, a woman named Fatima now explains, “I’ve taken the first steps in pursuing an educated life.” 

In 2019, U.S. Peace Corps volunteer Audrey Huetteman and her Moroccan counterpart launched a new sewing cooperative in a village near Azrou. They secured a grant from the Peace Corps that equipped the center with sewing machines and all essential supplies. After creating the space, they found a teacher, formed a schedule, and mobilized 40 women to dedicate 10 hours a week to intense sewing classes and 3 hours a week to educational sessions focused on soft skills, such as processing their emotions, exploring personalities, strengthening relationships, and managing anger.

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Amina (left) and Marriam (right)

The women hooted with joy after finishing each article of clothing – the explosive ceremonial chants happened at least 200 times! Sometimes they’d even dance on the table to celebrate! They stayed up to early hours of the morning talking about sewing, brainstorming new clothing designs, and researching patterns. Their final products were even featured in a big fashion show for the village. 

Sewing has captivated the women themselves, too. “We can’t sleep anymore,” they laugh, “our minds are too busy thinking about what we’ll sew next.” One woman dreams of opening a sewing shop in the village to sell her own clothes, fabric, and other supplies. She wants to be able to create her own income, become self-dependent and live a “relaxed” life. “I want the people who taught me to sew to be proud of me,” she smiles as she thinks about the future. 

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Fatiha (left)  and Fatima (right) sewing a jlaba

With the training completed, a group of six women stepped forward to lead the formation of a sewing cooperative so that they can begin seriously selling their products. By the end of 2019, they even secured a dedicated building to house the cooperative. They dream of creating a factory in their Middle Atlas Mountain valley so that everyone (the farmers, the children playing on the street, the high schoolers and the city-dwellers) will be decked-out in their designs. “And that’s just the beginning,” they affirm.

 After clocking over 250 hours of classes, crafting hundreds of articles of clothing,these women have begun radiating new positive energies.

They’ve transformed the sewing training center from a space of chaotic sounds and anxiety to a space that cultivates hope, goal-setting and celebrations that call for spontaneously using tea trays as instruments.

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 The women have created an inspiring sisterhood that focuses on embracing their limitless potentials. Despite decades of hard work in their homes, they admit that they’ve rarely experienced outward appreciation. Finally, through the sewing classes, they’ve mustered up their own confidence and realized that they can create their own pride while others cheer them on. 

 The 40 women started a project without realizing exactly what it entailed. Without realizing that it would fuel their confidence and build a culture of safety, creativity, and celebration. These women return to their homes, illuminating their communities with newfound hopes and dreams: an unexpected result from once scary alien sewing machines.

 

YES!!!

I had spent all day scurrying around my village’s new Women’s Sewing Educational Training Center assisting the women with their sewing problems such as replacing broken needles, helping remove sewing thread that had been jammed in the bobbin case, changing presser feet, running around handing out scissors, paper, zippers, needles, and fabric, helping with basic sewing, and encouraging them. I was pooped! Women commonly ask me over to their homes at the end of the day to gossip and have tea.  No offense to them, but after such a busy day, that was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed some solitude, so I made a beeline to my house, grabbed my headphones, put on an audio of Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming”, and started walking though the farm fields.

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“I’ve been struck again and again by both the promise and vulnerability of young women in our world” said Michelle Obama. She went on to describe her “Let Girls Learn” program, which worked with USAID and Peace Corps focusing on young women, the importance of their education, and creating better access to education for them. I felt like Michelle Obama was talking to me!! I started clapping my hands yelling, “YES!!! YES!!! YES!!!” as I was thinking of the 42 women in my village managing to find time for themselves to learn how to sew.

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The first months of sewing

This past January my counterpart and I opened our doors to 42 village women to our six month training program. (Thank you to my family and friends for donating money to help jump start our Women’s Sewing Educational Training Center. Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!!)

 

It was incredible that I was listening to this particular chapter here in a farm field in Morocco, after my long day at the sewing co-op, when I usually end the days trying to convince women about how I’m too tired to come over for tea. Here was Michelle Obama talking about the vulnerability of women and girls, the promise and potential they have, and here I am witnessing it in real time – the importance of giving women opportunities and an education!    

Early that day our sewing teacher had the women go around saying how they feel when they sew. Two responses really struck me, almost bringing me to tears.

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After 6 months of sewing

One woman started talking about how last year she would never leave her house, saying she was too scared and didn’t have a reason to ever leave. She would sit at home all day, everyday cleaning and cooking. Doing her everyday household work. She said, “Now I have a reason to leave my house.” (YES!!!)    

Another women yelled out in Moroccan Arabic “9lba 3a9li kant khwia”. “Before my brain

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Amina

was empty.” That is the literal translation – “Before my brain was empty.” She later went on to say that now all she thinks about is sewing. Examining clothes, looking at how they are made, rummaging through fabric thinking of things she could make. “3a9li 3mra b khyata!!” “My brain is full of sewing!!!” (YES!!!)

Everyday I find myself internally and externally saying, “YES!!!” Clapping my hands at the hard work these women have put in. Clapping to the sacrifices that they have made, to carving time out for them to get an education.

YES to the women gathering in my host sister’s home after the first day of class laughing and yelling, sharing each others notes, gossiping about the teacher and the other students.

 

YES to my neighbor sitting on her flat rooftop practicing her sewing on an old foot-powered singer sewing machine.

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Fatima the President of The Sewing Cooperative

YES to the women who dropped out of school because of an arranged marriage at an early age and later realized the importance of education.   

YES to my host sister Fatiha glowing. Her smile reaches from ear to ear as she finishes her first jlaba, saying “I’m a champion. I can sew!!!”

YES to the four young widows who are learning to sew to be self-sufficient.

YES to the women who don’t want to sit at home all day doing household work.

YES to my host sister Fatima saying, “I’m here to learn!!! I’m not here to sit and gossip with the other ladies”

YES to the women living far away and walking in rain, snow or hot sun to get to class.

YES to the women sewing while their babies are wrapped around their back.

YES to my counterpart (who is a man) for coming up with this idea. Because as he said “Women play an important role in rural Morocco and their development and access to education is crucial”   

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Sewing beads

 

YES to ALL MY LADIES bursting into cheers, hooting and hollering, to recognize their hard work. All the time spent at the sewing machine – sewing, re-sewing, sewing, re-sewing, sewing, and re-sewing. Carving time out of their busy domestic schedules by getting up early and staying up late so they can get their household chores out of the way.  

Just like Michelle Obama I have been blown away again and again by my ladies. By their strength, motivation, their desire to learn, overcoming their fears, for saying “no this is my time and only mine!!!” YES!!!

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Testing Times

“Mskin” – a word in Darija language commonly used to describe sorrow or sympathy for someone.

People are constantly calling me “Mskina”.

Moroccan – “You live by yourself?”

Me – “Yes.”

Moroccan – “Aww mskina”

Moroccan – “Do you miss your parents?”

Me – “Yes.”

Moroccan – “Aww mskina”

Moroccan – “Do you know how to cook Moroccan food?”

Me – “No not really”

Moroccan – “Aww mskina”

In early September I found out that I had a low grade stress fracture from running to much and that I was going to have to be on crutches for 11 weeks. 11 weeks!!! 11 weeks hobbling around my little farm village. A village where the roads are uneven, covered in cracks and donkey shit. My apartment is on the second floor with two flights of stairs! Half the houses around here have stairs. Remember I have no car here either… I walk throughout my village, just like all the Moroccans do. I’m also used to routinely running through the farm fields for exercise, to work of stress and to fill my time. I also routinely helping my Moroccan family around the house. How on earth was I going to survive 11 weeks on crutches?!!

As I began using crutches and I realized how difficult they are to maneuver I found my anxiety creeping back into my life again. Now, whenever I leave my house I have to mentally prepare myself. Prepare myself for the considerable strength and extra time that it will take to get from point A to point B. Prepare myself emotionally for being bombarded with questions by villagers. People will look and stare as I hobble by. I can hear them whispering to each other. “What happened to her?!?!?! Aww mskina.” Every time I walk out of my house. My life was turning into an emotional rollercoaster. Going from good weeks to bad weeks. Weeks where I felt like the 11 weeks would fly by. To weeks where I felt like I was never going to heal. Where the skin under my armpits became so raw from the crutches it would almost start to bleed. Weeks where I was so thankful for my Moroccan family taking care of me, for my American family mentaling supporting me. To weeks where the weather turned for the worst (rain and snow already!) and made it nearly impossible to leave my house.

Peace Corps tests your resilience and patience even in healthy times, and it’s times like these where it almost pushes you to the limit. Yet I remind myself there is a light at the end of the tunnel. During this time I have experienced what it is like to live in a country where handicapped accessibility is not a big priority, especially when you get further away from the cities. Where going about your day becomes WAY more complicated. There’s no supermarket around the corner. No elevators or handicapped ramps readily available. I don’t have a car to drive to places or nice even sidewalks to walk around. It’s those things that make life just a bit easier when your mobility is compromised.        

During this time I’m experiencing the privilege of being an American working for an American organization. All I did was call up the Peace Corps Doctors and tell them I had been feeling some pain in my shins for some time. They told me to come down to Rabat (the capital where the Peace Corps office is) to see the doctor. They paid for my transportation, my hotel, food, they even paid for my xray and MRI scan. When the doctor said I need to be on crutches they gave me crutches.

One of my Moroccan mothers has severe hip problems. The doctors have told her she needs to be bedridden and can only walk around with crutches. My Moroccan Baba (father) has no money and her oldest son is skeptical about buying crutches. When asking her why he won’t buy them she replies “I don’t know, but it’s his money, he gets to decide”. The decision of her having crutches isn’t even up to her, and I was just handed mine for free. She jokes about me giving her my crutches so she can walk. I awkwardly laugh saying they don’t belong to me as I sit next to her. I feel like crap. Here I am, my American privilege showing.      

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One day I was sitting next to one of my Moroccan sisters. I was sulking about how much I hate my crutches. About how badly I just wanted to walk. She turned to me and said “Thank god you will be able to walk. Look at Malak” (Malak is her 7 year daughter). Due to complications at birth she can not stretch out or bend her legs completely, they are constantly bent slightly and rigid. This means she can not stand up straight or walk straight without assistance. When she does stand up with some assistance it’s only for a couple of minutes because her legs are so weak. You can see in Malak’s eyes how badly she wants to walk and run around with the kids. Summertime and school breaks are especially hard for her. She sits outside on the steps as she watches the kids run by and she begs them to play with her. Her mother is constantly physically drained from carrying Malak around. Pushing her in her stroller to and from school on uneven crack ridden roads. The only way that Malak can truly walk is through surgery. They told me about this American Doctor they had seen who was going to take Malak to America for surgery. THIS YEAR!!! I was extremely worried and puzzled by this.

“Wait. You’re going to America???? For Surgery???? When? Where? Who’s paying for this??? You guys don’t know English.”

My Moroccan Family didn’t have many details. Lucky this summer I had the privilege of meeting their doctor. It turned out they were right. There is this American Moroccan Doctor who WOULD LIKE to bring Malak to America for surgery. BUT her case needs to be approved first. He works primarily in America.

Me – “So is this going to happen this year????”   

Doctor – “No probably not. It can take up to two years to get everything in order. Her case hasn’t been accepted yet”

Me – “Ohhhhhhh…..”

Now try telling that to your host family in broken Arabic.

My Moroccan sister was right. Thank god there is a light at the end of the tunnel for me and I will be able to walk again after 11 weeks. Whereas the dream of Malak walking all depends on whether her case is accepted. And my Host Mom doesn’t even get to decide if she can have crutches or not! And here I am complaining about everyone calling me mskina, “poor thing”, every time I walk out my door. Or sulking about how hard it is to move around. The truth is, yes, it does suck! These 11 weeks have pushed me to my limits, but on the flip side I am very, very privileged. I have the best medical coverage I’ve ever had. This injury is only temporary. And after all this is over I get to go back to America. A place where health resources are readily available in comparison and the government has laws for handicapped accessibility. But that is not the case for most people around the world.  

**********P.S GO VOTE AMERICA!!!!!!!! So we can keep our health care and make it even better!!!  Btw, I voted absentee a couple weeks ago.**********

A Snapshot Of A Year In Peace Corps Morocco

 

 

 

 

More Than Just Bread Makers

Summer is coming to an end; the days of staying up late eating watermelon and sitting out under the stars are dwindling.  It’s time to get ready for the next year. This month I will have been in Morocco for a year. A year! Even when I say it out loud I can’t believe it. And what a year it has been!

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Morocco is a strange place to serve in. There’s a reason some people call it “Posh” Corps here. I have electricity, drinkable water, and abundant food, including fresh produce; damn, I even have internet and a cell phone. When first adjusting to my site I struggled with why Peace Corps was even here. Yes, things aren’t perfect here, but what country is? I don’t see poverty everyday. At least not in the way I would see it in America. I don’t see people living out of tents and lean-to shacks like in urban America, digging through garbage for a meal. Most people live in comfortably sized houses here with the basic necessities met. Though many Americans would think otherwise, craving heating and AC, more privacy, favorite foods and the ability to have a car. 

As I approach my one year mark, and I’ve integrated into my community, the problems have slowly started becoming more visible to me. Of course, the problems have always been there, but in the beginning I was naive with little language skills while trying to just figure out what the heck was going on. Now that my language has developed it has given me the opportunity to have more conversations with my community.

 

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During summer everything slows way down so this has given me the time to deepen my relationship with my Moroccan family, mainly my sisters. We chit chat about life as I help out with IMG_7748washing the dishes and other random odds and end. These conversations vary from laughing about the time I messed up making tea for the family, to the struggles of life here as a woman in Morocco. Lately I’ve been starting to have more of these conversations with my sisters. I ask them questions about their life, like why they dropped out of school, why they have to do all the domestic work, and did they even want to get married.

Before arriving to Morocco I knew that strong gender roles exist here, I knew that women keep their bodies and hair covered here, and I knew women here have way fewer opportunities than me, but it didn’t really hit me just how deep this difference goes. This difference of gender inequality. I started asking one of my Moroccan sisters about her life when she was young. Listening to her story, the inequality really impacted me. Hearing her struggles. How she feels trapped in this life, as a single mom, a divorcee with three children. Both of us holding back tears, as she turned over the rocks of what life is like for women like her in Morocco. She just shrugged her shoulders and said “That’s life.”  In that moment all I wanted to do was scream “This isn’t fair!!! This isn’t fair!!! This isn’t fair!!! It doesn’t have to be this way!!!,” but I didn’t. I just sat next to her holding her hands, kissing her forehead, telling her that I loved her.

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In America I was taught to stand up for myself as a woman. If you see something wrong you do something about it. You stand up! You take charge! Women marching down Pennsylvania Ave holding your sign high and proud. Here in Morocco that is not the case for most women. These problems are so deeply rooted in the culture, and the culture is very, very hard to change. So for the women who want change, they are scared. As one person explained to me, “People are afraid to speak out.” Don’t get me wrong, things are slowly changing. Women can get a divorce now. You have to be 18 years or older in order to get married. But the suppression of women is still very much everywhere. Most women find themselves having to get married quite young to have a means of financial stability, and then much of their life is spent inside cooking from scratch, (imagine plucking a chicken, and making several loaves of bread from scratch multiple times a week), cleaning and looking after the children, and hardly getting out of their house. For example, one of my sisters woke up and made 6 loaves of bread, mopped the floors, prepared breakfast and lunch for 10 people, and then left for several hours in the hot sun to get a week’s worth of food for all those  people at the suq (weekly market).

I have found myself becoming emotionally drained and guilty after listening to their stories. I have built such deep loving relationships with my Moroccan sisters that when I hear their struggles, when I see them holding back tears, I can’t help but burst out crying myself. I IMG_7597can’t help but think about how lucky I am as I sit next to my Moroccan sister who feels trapped and lost. Here I am, 25 with a University degree, no family to look after. I can pick up and leave whenever I want. I can live a carefree lifestyle.

As I’m going into the next year of my service, I just pray that I can show these women just how smart they are! Show them they are beautiful! I pray that this sewing co-op will build the confidence of the women around me. As I approach my second year, I want so show these women, my sisters, my nieces, the girls in my community, what they truly are capable of and so much more. More than just making bread and cleaning the house.

 

Reconnect With Myself

June 17 marked the end of Ramadan, what is known as Eid Sghir. At around 7am I could hear the morning call to prayer echoing through the alleyways. This pray was specifically for Eid Sghir. Later, parades of people gathered out in the street giving each other hugs and kisses. Families and friends sat together sipping on tea and eating cookies, congratulating one another and wishing everyone a happy Eid Sghir. Ramadan was over, the new moon had risen.

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Eid Sghir

Ramadan is one of the holiest Islamic holidays of the year. It’s a time of self-discipline, reflection, and self-cleansing of mind and body. For 30 days people abstain from food and  water during the day, and any behavior that is ungodly. They believe it brings them closer to God.  

Once the sun goes down and the call to prayer goes off you are then allowed to eat. Everyone gathers around the table and reaches for the bowl of dates saying IMG_6536“bssmila” (god bless me). This meal is called lftr (breakfast) and later many people make
their way to the mosque while others stay at home as they 
prepare for the next meal, shuuur. Around 1:30 – 2 in the morning you can hear a man parading around the street banging his drum waking people up and signaling it’s time to eat. People gather around the table to eat their last meal of the day (actually night) as they prepare for another day of discipline and reflection.

At first I thought that during Ramadan everything was going to be put on hold, but that’s not the case. People still went about their day, just a bit slower and a bit later. Every afternoon around 4  o’clock the women where busy cooking up a storm. I could hear the buzzing of blenders as they prepare delicious juice. There were the smells of khobz shima (stuffed bread with veggies and meat), hrira (Moroccan soups with garbanzo beans, noodles and other spices), honey soaked cookies, and many other delicious foods. It was amazing to watch these women cook these delicious foods and lay out this huge spread of food, knowing that the last time they ate or drank anything was around 2:00 – 2:30am! I would watch and help my sisters cooking up a daily feast while my brothers head out to work, all pushing past those hunger pains and the longing for a drip of water. How????? Just how were they doing it??? 

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Morocco is a communal culture with a strong relationship to religion. It’s one of the things I love about Morocco. There’s something beautiful about hearing the call to prayer 5 times a day as it echoes through the alleyways. Or watching my community fasting side by side one another. Being invited to so many lftrs (the first meal after sundown) you have to turn people down because you don’t have time. People insisting that you sleep over at their house because they can’t stand the idea of someone sleeping all alone.  

Leading up to Ramadan I got a lot of pressure to fast. Everyone I talked to would ask me if I was going to fast.  And after it started, everyone wanted to know if I was fasting. I attempted to fast, partly because my community was so happy to hear that I was trying and partly because I wanted to experience what it was like. For the first couple of days I tried to fast, but I found that I lacked the discipline and willpower to truly fast – fasting the way my community was to abstain from food and water for 17 hours. I started asking myself why was I doing this? I’m not Muslim nor was I getting any enjoyment out of it. So again, why fast? This communal culture is so strong that sometimes I find my identity getting lost. I’m doing so many things I normally wouldn’t do, like fasting. People always say to me “Nti Maghribya!” “Nti Maghribya!” (You’re Moroccan!). Whenever I hear that I always feel a mix of emotions. On the one hand I’m accepted. I think, “great, I truly am integrated,” and well, that’s part of the job! On the other hand I think, what about my American identity? What about American Audrey?  

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Mt. Ouanoukrim

During Ramadam I started really thinking long and hard about that question. What about American Audrey? I have been immersed in this culture for nine months. Living side by side with my community members. There’s not a day that goes by were I don’t spend significant time with my Moroccan family.  It wasn’t until two of my closest Peace Corps friends and I went on a trip down south that I was able to reconnect with my American self and realized just how important it is to take time for yourself, to truly be at ease, without a care in the world. 

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Swimming in Ourtzagh

I’m fortunate enough that I’m able to walk away from this communal culture when I IMG_6153
want to. To take a break and reconnect with myself. I can do things like hiking the second
tallest mountain in Morocco, lying around on the beach in my sports bra and shorts, and going swimming in a lake. And that is what I did! I was able to truly be at ease!!! I was able to be my American self!!!

Ramadan is a time of refection. Reconnecting with one’s self and God. During Ramadan I realized just how important it is to reconnect with myself…to take off my shirt and jump into the water!!! 

 

****SIDE NOTE**** 

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My Ladies!!!

For the past couple of months I’ve been working with the women in my community helping them start up a Sewing Co-op. BUT WE NEED YOUR HELP!!!! We are seeking donations for our grant. This grant will help purchase additional sewing materials and machines to help start a Sewing Co-op.

More information found here –> https://www.peacecorps.gov/donate/projects/womens-sewing-coop-pp-18-378-023/

Home

“Oodree! Oodree! Oodree!” Is what I hear every time I walk out my door. Children bombard me on the streets. I kid you not, BOMBARD ME!!!! Circle me!!!! Chase me down the street!!!! All to give me kisses, high fives and say hello. Women kiss me on the check begging me to come over for tea (sometimes they literally pull me into their house) and men too say hello with a smile as I pass them by. 

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I’ve been in my final site for 6 months and Morocco for a total of 8 months.  I can’t help but reflect on when I was back in America and my biggest fear before I left was loneliness. Worrying about whether or not I would have a support system. A family that loves me, a community that would welcome me. A country that I could call my home. But I took that huge leap of faith and I no longer have that fear.

Don’t get me wrong, I do experience a form of loneliness from time to time. The longing to have a conversation were I don’t have to worry about whether I will be understood or not. Or trying to have people empathize with me on just how hard being a Peace Corps volunteer truly is. But at the end of the day those struggles are out weighed by all the positives. 

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I was not the only one who took a huge leap of faith, that was also true for my Moroccan counterpart and his family. This past week I asked my brother Abdelhaq (who is also my main counterpart) “alash bghiti khdam m3a Hayet Salam?” (Why did you want to work with Peace Corps?)  After a long conversation I realized just how much Abdelhaq was taking a leap of faith as well. Taking in a complete stranger, working with them side by side. Opening his house. Allowing someone to be part of his family. And that he did, and not just Abdelhaq, but his large family and the entire community. Opening their homes, allowing me into their lives, telling me “ma5ssiksh Hshumi. Hadi dar dyalik” (you don’t need to be shy, this is your home). 

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My sister Fatima 

That right there is what makes Peace Corps so beautiful! People taking me in, protecting me, feeding me, caring for me as if I was their own.  This culture exchange, this blind willingness to open doors, to open hearts. 

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My nieces

A couple weeks ago my parents came for their first visit. I had many emotions rolling through my body. Nervous, scared, excited, and happy, all at the same time. I image this is what it feels like when your parents are about to meet your future in laws and your in laws are from a different country with a completely different culture. At one point in the taxi ride I said “Oh my god I think I’m going to throw up!” 

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There’s only so much I can say to try and capture this love, affection and playfulness that IMG_5081I receive from and exchange with my community and Moroccan family in a blog. So it was extremely important to me for my parents to witness this first hand. 

And of course, like any first meet and greet, it was kinda of awkward at first. Different cultures, different customs and should I state the obvious, different languages. But thank god for kids to break the ice, to get us all laughing…. the universal language. Quickly my parents saw why and just how happy I am even though they couldn’t understand what the heck was being said. 

So tomorrow my parents go back to California and I stay in the place I now call home. 

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Your Guide on How to Stay Sane In Peace Corps Morocco

I don’t know if you know this, but Peace Corps is hard, like kinda really hard. I know, I know Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 4.45.01 PMyou’re probably thinking “WHAAAAAAAAT, but Audrey makes it look so easy and fun!!” Which, don’t get me wrong, all in all I am very, very happy here, but I still have those days. Those days where I’m hitting my head against the table because I’m frustrated with my language level. Or when I haven’t changed my clothes in a week because it’s just too damn cold to expose my skin to the elements. Those days where I’m trying so hard not to freak out too much because I haven’t written any lesson plans. Or those days where I’m just so exhausted from just simply existing.

If you’re going to survive in Peace Corps Morocco you have to have a “How to Stay Sane Plan”. It really is the only thing to keep yourself from flying over the cuckoo’s nest. So I thought I would share with you my 5 tips on “How to Stay Sane Plan” while serving in Peace Corps Morocco.

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  1. Meditate EVERY MORNING!!! No, but really! Every morning I lie in bed and meditate for at least 10 minutes before I start my day, just to ground myself. Once I walk out of my house I don’t know what’s going to happen. One minute I’m being chased down the street by the neighborhood kids and the next I’m at a baby naming party that’s lasting for god knows how long.
  2. Workout!!! Go on a run!!! GET THAT HEART RATE UP AND THOSE ENDORPHINS FLOWING!!! My runs have truly been my saving grace. I just put on my music and RUN!!!!!

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    a run with a view
  3. SOLO DANCE PARTIES IN MY KITCHEN!!!! I put on my favorite tunes (which has been a lot of motown and rap lately) and just dance like a crazy person. It’s very freeing, especially because I have been told repeatedly that I can’t dance like a Moroccan. Which is true. I don’t know how they move their hips like they do. But everyday I blast my American music and have a solo dance party where no one is telling me I’m dancing all wrong…Sorry neighbors for the loud music.
  4. Laugh!!! A LOT!!! You have to have a thick skin in Morocco… you just do. And when you feel like shit is hitting the fan or you’re so confused as to what the heck is going on, you just got to laugh. Your have to laugh at yourself… laugh for feeling like a big toddler. You have to laugh at awkward situations you find your self in. And most importantly!!!! Joke around!!! Be funny!!! I’m constantly joking around with my family and neighborhood kids. Mimicking and rough-housing with them. Laughter truly is the best medicine.

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    My Nieces Zakia and Duwnia
  5. Talking for hours and I mean HOURS on the phone with your Peace Corps Friends. (I get unlimited phone calls to volunteers. I know your probably rolling your eye Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 8.48.59 AMright now thinking “oh yeah, Peace Corps is sooooo hard!!!”) My Moroccan family thinks I have a phone problem because I can easily spend and hour and a half talking to my friends.

So yeah, that’s how I keep sane here in lovely Morocco. Meditate, working out/running, solo dance parties, laughing, and talking to loved ones. Honestly everyone should live by these 5 tips no matter where you are in the world. Life is hard. You have to keep your mind and body healthy, otherwise you will fly over the cuckoo’s nest.

Got to go…  “Proud Mary” just came on… time to get my groove on!!!

Let’s Get Down To Business

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Most Peace Corps volunteers will tell you that in the first couple of months at your post you don’t really do a whole lot. Heck, even during your first year. Usually the first couple of months and year is really focused on integrating into the community and making as many connections as possible. Here in Morocco that means doing a lot of sitting around while eating bread and drinking tea! So the days leading up to heading to my final post I was mentally preparing myself for doing just that. Sitting, eating, and drinking and maybe, maaaybe starting to do something like teaching one or two English classes. Oh boy, was I wrong!!! But hey, this is Peace Corps we’re talking about. What ever you think is going to happen, more times then not, the opposite ends up happening!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Only two days within arriving at my post my older “brother” Abdelhaq, who is president of the Association (i.e, community center) sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do. Caught completely off guard, I looked at him dumbfounded like I had no idea what he was talking about (which was partly true because he was talking to me so fast). In my broken Darija (Moroccan Arabic language) I just told him Peace Corps wanted us to start with teaching English, which is true because it’s the easiest thing to do with our limited language skills early on.

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So just like that I started teaching English to the elementary school kids in my community! Which ended up being a total bust. The little kids were more excited to see me and be around me than learning English. The whole time that I was trying to teach, kids would be jumping up and down yelling “Audrey! Audrey! Salam! Salam!!!” They also said everything in a French accent because in elementary school they start learning French. We quickly learned teaching English to the little kids isn’t the best idea at this point, but hey, Peace Corps is also about a lot of trial and error.

Now I teach conversational English to the high school and middle school in my town for an hour Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday and Saturday I teach adults. Which as of a couple weeks ago more women have been showing up, which is awesome!!! The women definitely are the best students in the classes.

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Teaching English has been both fun and challenging. Challenging because Peace Corps doesn’t give us lessons plans to work from! So every week I have to write a lesson plan on what I’m going to teach that week and just pray that it goes somewhat smoothly. (Which let’s be real, is probably about half the time). Teaching English is very fun, because it’s sooo satisfying when they understand what I’m trying to teach/say in their Darija language or when they’re really getting into the language exercise I planned.

  • Side note – if you would have told me a year ago that I was going to be teaching English. I would have laughed in your face! Life is a funny thing!

Sundays have now turned into teaching sports and fitness. With the help of my Association I’ve started up a girls basketball club. Every Sunday I teach basketball to the girls in my community. That sounds a lot more impressive then it is. It’s more like organized chaos with a basketball. But they seem to have fun and get exercise so that’s all that matters. Then Fatiha (my “sister”) found out that I had been doing yoga in my room and got mad at me for not teaching her, which then lead me to start teaching aerobic and yoga classes for the women in my community!  We’ve only had 2 classes so far, but they have been quite a blast! Full of lots of laughter as the women tried to move their bodies in ways they have never moved before. There was one point where we were all in the yoga position “downward dog” (on “all fours” with straight legs and arms) and I told them to walk their feet up to their hands on the floor and then slowly stand up. Half of them didn’t quite get it and instead started crawling across the floor. It was absolutely hilarious!!! The women really enjoy it and it’s now going to be an activity every Sunday.

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Besides teaching English and playing sports my Association and I are in the very early stage of starting up clubs in my community. So far we have:

  • An Environmental/Health Club called – Green Ait Yahya Oualla
  • Music and Arts Club
  • A Woman’s Club
  • Travel and Summer Camp Club

And as for the mornings, twice a week I study Darija language with my tutor, and on Thursday I attend a sewing class at my Association with my sister Fatiha which has been a great way to meet the women in my community.

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So yeah, so much for sitting and doing nothing my first couple of months!!! All I can say is I am so grateful for working with such an organized Association!! An Association that immediately opened their arms when I arrived. An Association that passionately listens to my ideas as I stumble through with my limited Darija language skills. An Association that re-explains things to me over and over again until I finally get it. None of this would have been possible without the help of everyone involved and for that I am truly grateful and can’t wait to see what the future has in store.

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Meeting with my Association

 

 

All You Need Is Love And A Big Fat Moroccan Family

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It was a cold and rainy day when I arrived at my final site. And I’m not just saying that so it sounds like a cool introduction. It really was pouring rain and freezing out. Perfect weather for traveling with 2 huge bags. Two other volunteers and I, with the help of a veteran volunteer, flagged down a taxi as we prepared to be dropped off one by one to our final sites. Sitting in the car all I could think about was, “here we go, this is it – my 2 year service starts today!” All the information I had about my site was that it was a small village outside of Azrou. I’d be working with a local “association” having no idea what exactly they did or what I’d be doing. And I was going to be living for the first month with the president of the association and his family. A family of 5, two kids in their mid-20s and one 2 year old.

Well Peace Corps got one thing right, my village is tiny!!! Oualla has one main road down the center. The downtown is probably less than a mile from start to finish. It’s surrounded by the foothills of the Mid-Atlas Mountains and little farms. Kids run around in the street playing soccer as the men sit in cafes and socialize. The women gather in each other’s houses or on streets, soaking up the sun and gossiping.

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I quickly learned that the association I was assigned is the community center for the town. They put on many activities and classes for the community like Arabic classes for women and children. They do community projects like trash pickup or mural painting. They take kids hiking in the foothills, teach dance lessons and much more. I’m still working out exactly what I’ll be doing, but I think it will be a little bit of everything. Right now my main focus is on English because it the easiest way to start working with the community.

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The Local Association
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Starting with the basics

As for my family, weeeell Peace Corps left out some details. Instead of walking into a family of 5, I walked into a family of 11. Yes you read that right not 5, but 11!!! With 3 other family members living down the street who basically live there too, so it’s more like 14. Plus 4 that live in Fes and come over from time to time. So that’s a grand total of 18!

Let me draw out the family tree for you….

So there’s…

  • Baba Mohamed (Grandpa)
  • Mama Iesha #1 (Grandma), she lives in Fez so I only see her on occasion.
  • Mama Fatiha #2 (Grandma), yes, Baba has 2 wives and together they have…
  • Hassan who is the oldest and has 3 year old daughter Lena. They live in Fez. Still haven’t meet him yet
  • Fatima who lives down the street with her husband and 2 kids: Zaika (10 yrs old), Downa (8 yrs old)
  • Fatiha who has 3 kids: Omar (12 yrs old), Malik (8yrs old), Kadisha (3yrs old)
  • Abdelhaq and his wife Karima and their 2 year old daughter Woda who calls me Bodley (Peace Corps got the part right)
  • Norden who comes over from time to time. He also lives in Fez.
  • Hamind not really sure where he lives, I think Fez.
  • Nora
  • Said
  • And lastly there’s me!

Hard to follow????? Yeah that’s why it took me 6 days to figure out how everyone was related to each other and probably still missing a few other family members.

So back to when I first arrived. Very shocked and confused, wondering if I was even at the right house. I was immediately pulled into the house with food pushed in front of my faces as everyone one yelled “Kuli!, Kuli! Kuli!” (Eat! Eat! Eat!), “Mr7ba! Mr7ba! Mr7ba” (Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!). (The number 7 is written to represent a hard H sound.) And I kid you not, about every 10 minutes someone would come up to me asking “Kulshi bhir??” (is everything good?) and I would respond, “Kulshi bhir, himdullah!!” (everything is fine, thanks be to god), and they would all start laughing and smiling. It didn’t take long at all to feel a part of the family. Two days to be exact. Quickly relationships started forming with everyone.

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My nieces

There’s my Mama Fatiha, which we call Mama buboza, well because she kinda fat (their words not mine!!). Every morning she checks to make sure that I’m wearing at last 2 layers of clothes. She literally grabs me and lifts up my clothes and checks saying “brd bzzaff brra!” (its really cold outside).

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Mama Fatiha sifting the grains for making bread

Now my Baba Mohamed, he’s quite the character. He loves to make a fool out of me. One way he does this is by having me name every single family member in the room. Which of course I admittedly fail at because I am meeting about 5 new people a day. He just sits there laughing as I struggle through the names. He also likes to get me to say “7shuma” (shameful) words without me knowing it. I’ve quickly caught on and just yell back “7shuma Baba!!! 7shuma!!” and we both start laughing our asses off.

Fatima is so sweet and kind, always asking why I don’t go to her house more often or about my family back home. She also asks if I’ve talked to my parents today, saying “Mom, Baba, Kayla mzen (good)?”, replying “mzen himdullah (good, thanks be to god)!!”

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Fatima

Karima, Abdelhaq’s wife, who is only 25 years old does all the cooking for all 14 of us. Every time I see her she’s cooking away in the kitchen with a big smile on her face.

Noura, now she’s a little goof ball. She also does funny impressions of people saying everyone in this family is crazy and by the end of the 2 years I’ll be just as crazy as them. She also has been helping me with my Darija language, which has been so helpful.

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Noura

Said is the little brother of the family. He’s 23 and loves to joke around with me. We have this on going joke that he’s going to marry my sister (Kayla). We have also started to go on runs together in the morning, which has been amazing and I’m so thankful for!!!

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Said

Then there’s Fatiha, who has quickly become one of my closest friends. The second day of knowing each other she dragged me to the 7ammam (public bathing house) and gave me a good scrub down. Every night we sit by the fire chit chatting and joking around, make

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Fatiha

fun of each other and laughing the night away. She asks me about my family back in America and tells about her past. I have evenstarted to teach her some English, which has become one of our favorite things to do together. Like many women in Morocco they get married very young and never get the chances to go to University and learn English. Fatiha got married at 20 and had her first kids at 21. She is now divorced which it has only been the last couple of years that Morocco has allowed for couples to get divorced. Fatiha always tells me how she wishes that she studied more and how important education is. So every night when I come home after teaching the kids at the Community Center there’s Fatiha with her notebook going over the vocab I had taught her the night before. My heart fills up with joy because I know how empowering it is for her to learn English, even if it’s just a couple of phrases.

 

Lastly there’s Adblehaq, the president of the Association, who on the first day of meeting him kept say I’m 1,000 times welcome here and that he and I are “kif kif” (same, same). Since then I have been shown nothing but that, respect and that we are equals. If you know anything about Moroccan culture you know that gender rules play a HUGE part in Moroccan society. Men have so much freedom. They can run around in the street playing soccer, stay out late at night, and sit in cafes for hours. Where as for woman that is not the case. They mainly stay in the house cleaning and cooking, looking after the children. But Adblehaq has made it very clear those rules don’t apply to me. Besides being president of the Association, his main income is from running a community soccer field, which you guessed it is mainly for men. But everyday I tag along with Adblehaq to the soccer field, the only woman there, kicking the ball around with the guys. Another time he showed me that we were equal was when he asked me if I wanted to go the café to watch a soccer match. In most cafés, unless you’re in a bigger city, you won’t see a single woman. Cafes are a man’s space and even as a foreigner you don’t challenge it unless you see other women there. So there I was the only woman entering in a man’s space, surrounded by around 30 men watching a soccer game with Adblehaq right by my side.

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Adblehaq

Also, for the other family member, Mama Iesha and Norden, I too have experienced nothing but love. I damn near almost burst into tears when Mama Iesha said “aji bnti” (come over here daughter) when we were taking family photos.

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Mama Iesha and Noura

Every night when I go to bed and go over my highs and lows of the day, all I can think about is how I’ve only been here for less than a month and I already love this family so much. I can’t even image what our relationship will be like in 2 years. (Hey, maybe I’ll stay here forever…. that’s what they keep telling me.) So, yeah, I’d say I hit the jackpot with my site and my family. That’s all I needed – a little village in the foothill and a BIG FAT MOROCCAN FAMILY!