By Caroline Gear
The best decision that I made last year was to say yes to hosting a State Department Professional Fellow, through the Institute for Training & Development in Amherst. Hosting Sana Lamtara in October opened my world to a profound experience that has given me a wonderful friendship and has brought me, and four other civic-engagement non-profit folks from the Pioneer Valley along with our ITD leader extraordinaire, Katie to Morocco.
I had very little expectations as to what the trip would be like, except that I was incredibly excited to see Sana again. After so many hours of conversation about teaching and learning while she was in Northampton, seeing her in action with public school English teachers in training was truly inspiring. On arrival we were met with Moroccan mint tea, an extraordinary number of different cookies and a warmth of welcoming that would be the overarching theme throughout our stay.
I was honored that Sana had asked me to present to her students about ILI’s civic engagement and a quick, non-traditional way of looking at teaching pronunciation. I loved being able to share my knowledge and passion for teaching as Sana did in Northampton with our staff and teachers in training. I was impressed with the students’ English language skills, their own presentations and the thoughtful questions that they asked me about teaching. As with all of our visits, we felt that our guests truly felt it an honor to have us visit them and despite their busy schedules, dropped everything to make sure that we were welcomed and that the visit was well documented.
This trip not only reunited our professional lives, but our personal lives and that evening Sana welcomed us to her home for kaskroate, Arabic for snack. Sana went above and beyond in preparing our welcome and that ‘snack’ turned out to be an incredible meal with new tastes including a delicious avocado juice. Sana has a wonderful family and as I said goodbye to them, I was overcome with emotion of how lucky I am to have had this opportunity.
Another memorable visit was at SimSim and learning about all the work they are doing including being the incubator for Innovation for Change, a global network of people and organizations who want to connect, partner and learn together to defend and strengthen civic space and overcome restrictions to basic freedoms of assembly, association and speech. SimSim is ITD’s partner in Morocco and the Director, Ismail Ilsouk and his staff’s level of attention to detail has made the trip run incredibly smoothly and more importantly Ismail has given us access for dialogue with a wide variety of fascinating people allowing us to dig deep into the Moroccan culture as well as understanding the bigger picture of civic engagement in Morocco. Plus, Ismail is truly patient, engaging and fun to hang around with!
A quick request to see a potential partner at the Center for Cross Cultural Studies was arranged by SimSim and SimSim staff member Marouen accompanied me, helped navigate the Medina to find the Center, housed in the former home of a polygamous and my meeting with Farrah Cherif D’Ouezzan, Founder and General Director of the Center became the start of an additional new relationship in Rabat.
Hearing what all the Fellows are doing in their work as well as their Action Plans is so inspiring. The themes of youth empowerment (and youth means as old as 40), advocacy and training, innovation in technology and entrepreneurship have been consistent in all of the Fellows work.
At the Ministry of Education Abel shared with us how he creates educational and promotional videos for scholarship opportunities that are shown on the 10 government-controlled TV stations. Plus, I was able to speak Spanish with him – he is self-teaching himself and already has a lot of fluency. I am amazed with the Morocco multilingualism of French, Arabic and Amazigh language, known as Tamazight and made an official language in 2011. In addition, many of the people we have met have a high command of English, too. Hands down, the most multilingual country I have ever been in.
What has struck me are the close relationships that have developed among the Fellows and these have grown into current and certainly future collaborations. This was evident when Rim joined us to visit Abdel as well as the hours at a café with the original focus of hearing about Khaoula’s work (working with youth in a variety of different capacities; helping them focus on capacity building as well as the Losje Morrocco chapter). What started with a small group of people having coffee grew larger and larger as other Fellows arrived and more stories unfolded about what this impressive group of Fellows are working on. I think that Majda summed it up the best when she left the Action Plan session that the Fellows presented: Thank you for what you are doing. Not only is this for your professional growth, but you are helping our country move forward.
Our next visit was to Kenitra, a city the size of Springfield, Massachusetts, and where Khalil is working to help educate youth and also push forward the plan of creating a sister-city partnership including a cultural exchange that would send musicians from Kenitra to participate in the Springfield Jazz Festival. We were welcomed with another wonderful reception and a special presentation of a trophy for ITD and pictures.
After Kenitra we were back in the van with our driver, Youseff, at the wheel who has a wonderful smile and willingness to help correct my feeble attempts at Moroccan Arabic. I have so enjoyed being in the shoes of my students as they try to navigate a new language. What I have found is that everyone I have met is willing to help me – another example of how welcomed I have felt in this country. Thank you to ITD and the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This was a life-changing trip for me and I will never forget this experience of meeting such wonderful Fellows, team members from the Pioneer Valley and the fantastic food and exposure to a new, exciting and extraordinary welcoming culture. People to people diplomacy at its finest.