By Anh Vu Sawyer
I am leaving Rabat, Morocco, in a couple of hours, but will leave some of my heart here. What a beautiful country! And what wonderful people. I am honored to have learned so much from the Morocco Fellows and the U.S. Fellows. Both have humbled me greatly with their wisdom, experience and passion for their non-profit work serving the marginalized people of Morocco and the US.
Having myself worked in economic development with ethnic minorities in the highlands of North Vietnam, and, since 2012, serving immigrants and refugees as the Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Massachusetts, I see many shared similarities between the women in Morocco and the women I’ve worked with elsewhere. All are very hard working and are eager to support their families. Many of them have excellent skills, such as sewing, embroidering, weaving, cooking, baking, etc., but don’t have the opportunity to start a small business with their skills. This is where the roles of the Moroccan Fellows and their associations become critical, in empowering the women, especially those who are widows, to become self-supporting and equipped to provide for their families.
During this trip I learned that 40% of Moroccans are illiterate. Once a married woman becomes a widow, and is without an education or outside job experience (many have 4-5 children and need to stay home to take care of them), it’s almost impossible for them to support their children without the help of these associations. Gleaning from my own experience, I was able to share about SEACMA’s work in promoting and supporting entrepreneurship among English Language Learner immigrants and refugees, especially women and elders, by leveraging their existing skills. In addition, associations also will need to help them access other forms of support such as mental health, personal coaching, business acumen, financial literacy, healthy living and eating habits, and other support for their children, etc. Most importantly, I believe that support for these widows will also help to restore their respect and dignity, which is very important in helping them rebuild their lives holistically. Using the 4 H’s from MIT Professor Bill Aulet: Heart (passion), Head (strategies), Hand (keep doing what we do well) and Home/Community (partnership, collaboration with others), to point out the 4 important elements that help entrepreneurs to succeed, I believe effective Economic Development strategies can eventually help many marginalized people to become contributors to the greater society and even change the world for the better.
Looking back over the last 10 days, I realized the wide impact the US team was able to make in Morocco – from the grassroots community organizations, youth, adults, widows, families, people of all genders, ages, and education levels, to Parliament policy makers and Regional leadership. But most important of all, the relationships we built as we took our time to visit families in their homes, connecting with others over meals, sharing our challenges and victories over barriers, and championing each other, we’ve found life-long friends who will always be there to root for each other’s vision. We are inspired to work towards making the world a better place for all through our work with the environment, child protection, support for widows, and promoting civic engagement across all people, youth and elders.
Our days in Morocco were very full, and quite enjoyable. Moroccans are among the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. Many, such as Naoaur, Najoua, Zida, Hamit, and Abdul, opened their homes, hearts and lives to receive me and the other US Fellows as if we are members of their family. It’s so great to see so many young people eager to be engaged in social issues and actually doing something about it. All of the associations we visited have members who are volunteers while holding down their full-time jobs. Their collective effort has helped to rebuild the lives of many widows, and hundreds of low-income and at-risk children and youth.
What a rich experience and much-cherished journey I was allowed to have with the Moroccan Fellows as they strive to build vibrant communities for their beautiful country and people. A heart-felt thanks to the Department of State and ITD for selecting me as a US Professional Fellow. I hope my small and humble part during this time will have a wide ripple effect in building lasting relationships between the people of Morocco and the people of the United States, and beyond.