Creativity sparks civic engagement

By Amy Shapiro

These days in Morocco seem like weeks. I appreciate the care and attention to our well being by Katie (ITD), Ismail (Sim Sim) and the Moroccan Fellows who have made it possible to soak in the sights, sounds, smells, and culture of this country. Getting to know and learn from the Moroccan Fellows, hearing about their projects and experience Morocco in a way that the Fellows directed has shaped my assumptions about the country. All these experiences and learning has provided an insight to how the country’s history and politics impact the future choices of young people. From the Fellows, the mural artists, Ynis, and Hamza at Craft Draft I see over and over again how young people are making choices sometimes seeking creative solutions for shifting the paradigm to make change that provides opportunities and a quality of life for young people.

Friday March 22, 2019 we gathered at the MCISA center to hear the Fellows present their projects, challenges and seek support from the group. This was my first opportunity to meet the other Moroccan Fellows and learn about their innovative projects. They are amazing people who are taking initiative in creative ways, who love their country and are committed to civic engagement.

The celebration continued to Menorah restaurant where our American and Moroccan Fellows shared a joyful evening of stories, filling in gaps of learning, and eating good Moroccan foods. What a wonderful moment for both American and Moroccan Fellows to deepen their relationships. We presented Amina, Rim and Latifa sweatshirts printed with their new logo to help launch a new collaboration as well as Yassine with his logo. The gifts were a symbol to remind them of the support back in America. We witnessed the Fellows reconnecting again for the first time since their fellowship that displayed optimism for the future of Morocco. The evening of friendship and cross-cultural exchange was wrapped up with Hatim singing to everyone.

Sunday March 23, 2019: In Fez Fouad took us to the Medina for a special cultural experience. We were greeted by Yunis, a man who lives in the Medina with his family, who became our guide for the day. We walked narrow paths that wove all around like a maze in between buildings with small businesses along the way witnessed by others for hundreds of years. Yunis invited us to his home to meet his family, have tea. I was again touched by an authentic experience that introduced us to his world of which was different from what we had seen.

In the Media we went to Craft Draft (http://www.craftdraft.org/ ) where Hamza greeted us with a warm welcome to his bookbinding workshop. A place where he was trained by his father a Master bookbinder. The space filled with tools and seats organized from years of use. We took our place and Hamza started to explain that we were going to make a book using original techniques and traditional tools that have been used for decades. After several hours we gained a rich experience that passed on the craft of bookbinding. Hamza (maybe in his 30’s) is married, participated in a in the U.S. State Department Program, will continue teaching bookbinding the traditional way to be a Master like his father and live in the Medina. His focus is to teach and share the tradition taking advantage of traveling to the U.S. to participate teaching his craft to pass on the tradition. Another example of how a young person has chosen to blend the old tradition in contemporary days.

Monday, March 25, 2019
I was fortunate to have an informal conversation about Moroccan art history with Khaoula Erraoui who explained how the original Moroccan art is made up of abstract images that began with tattoos. The large art that we saw in Casa and in Rabat is part of an intentional public art project with an open call to artists from around the world. These large murals stay up for a year at a time impacting the community with images. Creative activities are everywhere in Morocco. Another example of public art can be seen from Khaoula’s project using words to create change and building collaborations that shows another dimension of creativity impacting civic engagement.

My experience was shaped from many informal discussions to understand the creativity, visual images and traditional crafts and how young people see their future. I can see how these young professional Moroccans are creating NGO’s that focus on young people to deepen civic engagement, are connected to community, and passionate to build a new way to sustain the country and make positive impacts.

People to people diplomacy at its best

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.

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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.

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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 with Ismail (6)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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Morocco by Emily Slotnick

We are six Americans who have been honored with a rare opportunity to participate in a professional exchange program – having spent 6 weeks in our home towns and places of employment in the fall as hosts to some of Morocco’s brightest young minds and leaders in civic engagement – embarking on a reciprocal visit to Morocco. We are teachers, community organizers, business advisors and environmental planners who have come together for a 10-day exploration of the country and to learn about the work the Moroccan fellows are doing in their own communities. 

A few more notes on the structure of our adventure – ITD is the state-side organization administering the fellowships through a US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Professional Fellows Program. To assist with planning for the return trip, ITD collaborated with a local (Moroccan) team from Sim Sim, a Rabat-based organization whose mission is to promote greater understanding of parliament by citizens, increase governmental transparency, and facilitate civic engagement in the political process.  

Our charge as a group of U.S. Fellows is to dialogue, document, and discover. We arrived Picture1in the Casablanca airport Tuesday afternoon, weary from travel but wide-eyed with excitement. Lucky to have landed midday, our “discovery” began at the medina. No, not the traditional commercial nucleus of an ancient city. We began our exploration at “the Medina,” a traditional Moroccan food restaurant a few blocks from our hotel in the modern metropolis. We shared a mosaic of salads, tagines, pastilles, lattes, teas, and cookies, dining alfresco and appreciating the warm welcome we had been offered into this land of kind faces and phenomenal food!

Some of us began our dialogues on the flight over, but the real exchange began once we arrived at our hotel and were greeted by Ismael and Marouan, from Sim Sim. They would serve as our local hosts and organizers, but quickly became trusted story tellers, Arabic coaches, and cultural advisors. We also met Saaid, a recently awarded participant for the next round of U.S.-bound fellows. Together a group of us took an evening stroll to the actual medina, winding through narrow alleys flanked by vendors of all goods imaginable. We ended the night on a central plaza nearby over cakes and mint tea, sun setting on the medina just as the full moon rose above the crackled facades of old Casablanca.

Picture2Monday morning we visited Technopark – a start-up incubator on the outskirts of the city where one of the former ITD fellows, Rachid, has grown a successful business over just a few years – and were then welcomed by past fellow Sana at her workplace, a post-graduate program for teachers in training. 

Tea and cookies with the school’s leadership preceded a full presentation from the English Language Teacher trainees. Moroccan students in public school begin learning English in grade middle school, so these trainees will soon be leading classrooms of up to 45 pre-teens and young adults. I was overwhelmed not only by the trainees’ admiration and respect for their teachers, including past PFP fellow Sana, but also by each student’s drive to be a positive influence in the lives of the next generation of Moroccans. 

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The trainees abide by a new educational paradigm, one in which the teacher is no longer the lecturer, but rather a facilitator, leader, quality controller, and the student takes a more active role. The visit culminated with an interactive exercise led by U.S. fellow Caroline Gear introducing a pronunciation technique for trainees to add to their toolbox for their future careers. 

Later that afternoon we saw a different side of the city – a non-secular yet publicly funded architectural masterpiece. Described by our hosts both as the largest mosque in the tallest minaret in all of Africa, the grandeur of the building and grounds perfectly framed by the brightest blue sky and spray of an eager Atlantic breaking over the seawall. 

It has been less than 24 hours, and already my gratitude for this opportunity is Picture6overwhelming. Just as the day began with warm greetings shared between new friends, it wrapped up by breaking bread with Sana and her family in their beautiful home. This is the stuff that memories are made of – the sights and smells, laughter and embraces that get seared into your soul for a lifetime. 

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