It’s been a week since our arrival in Morocco, and the transition has been rough. The wheel on my suitcase broke two minutes before I was expected to roll it to my homestay, deep within the twisted alleys of the old Fez medina (walled city). The language is foreign and difficult, deep and throaty, with sounds I’m not used to making and a grammar structure I can’t wrap my head around. My original homestay lacked privacy or a hygienic kitchen (a chicken lived under the sink) and included a father who smoked questionable substances in the living room. I had to deal with a move, down more dark alleys, hopelessly lost, echoes of a screaming Moroccan host mother behind me, and then I had to adjust to another new house, with a stout old babushka of a host mother who didn’t speak a lick of English. Teenage boys call after me on the street, their broken English coming across as creepy and invasive, and one even tried to follow us home. More than a few tears have been shed.
And yet, being in Morocco has already put my “suffering” into perspective. ALIF (the Arabic Language Institute of Fez, where we take our classes) has been spectacular about getting us involved in the school’s extra-curricular activities, including a well-developed community service club. On Saturday, many of us TIME kiddos, along with ALIF students (both foreigners like us with no knowledge of Arabic and native Moroccans working on their English), headed to a girls’ center in the medina. The center works with girls under the age of eighteen, many plucked right off the streets of Fez. Many are orphans. Some are thieves, stealing bread for food or jewelry for money. Most are beggars who were just looking for a means to survive before they were plucked from their huddled corners and placed here by the city police force. Each story is more tragic than the previous. There is a girl blind in one eye, abandoned. Another is a deaf-mute, a defense developed from an abusive childhood. One girl cradles a newborn son, while another, age fourteen, simply cradles a swollen belly, easily eight months pregnant; both are victims of rape from men they had, at one point, considered friends and neighbors.
Artwork by some of the center's residents and residents of Fez's women's shelter.
The center itself is also suffering. Despite legal movement for increased care for women and children (the Moroccan family code, the Mudawana, was re-written in 2004 with increased attention to women’s rights), government funds are not readily available for charity centers. As we enter the home, we are told that our presence is the only consistency many of these have (the community service club visits the girls each week). The center has gone through numerous caretakers, cooks and teachers who leave once they realize the pay is almost non-existent. Some of the past directors have been just as cruel as the streets the girls have been removed from and have been twice as abusive (thankfully, this is currently no longer the case). While the center is set up to teach the girls real-world skills (think sewing, hairdressing, etc.), lack of teachers means that, at eighteen, many of these girls are being sent straight back onto the streets without skills or a means to survive. Often they leave straight into the open arms of a crowd of sex-hungry boys that congregate during the release of of-age girls from the center. The night before our visit, fourteen girls had actually run away from the home in desperation.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t totally overwhelmed after this briefing, totally in fear of what horror I’d witness beyond the threshold I was about to cross. Nevertheless, the doors opened and we entered the courtyard, the girls entered the courtyard, and somehow all was well. With the exception, maybe, of a pregnant belly, the girls seemed inherently normal. They shyly extended palms and cheeks for handshakes and hello kisses. They tugged on my blond hair, and giggled when someone made a face. The summer camp counselor in me kicked in, and in no time I had forgotten that these girls were an exception to the definition of “standard childhood,” and they in turn forgot that we were part of a much larger outside world.
My original host sister, Sosun.
The hours flew. We played catch and learned names. We colored and drew pictures of sheep and castles. A rousing game of “Duck, Duck, Chicken” was the highlight of the afternoon – the Arabic word for “goose” evaded even the Moroccan natives – especially with Moroccan friends tripping on the concrete and young girls utterly confused about in which direction one should run and how many laps one should complete before sitting down again in who-knows-what-seat. The end of our time together gave rise to boos and even a few tears from one disheartened girl. Together, we had crossed borders of language and socioeconomic status and had become friends, of a sort. It was jarring to realize that while I was off to a photography exhibit and cross-cultural music festival hosted by my university, they were going to go back to a meager dinner and an early bedtime, probably on some cot in some dormitory, back to the uncertainties of their daily life.
It’s utterly cliché to say my troubling issues thus far in Fez fell into perspective, but that’s exactly what happened. I had to move homestays, yes, but I have a home and warm meals to return to each night. The wheel on my suitcase busted, yes, but it meant that I had enough belongings to fill a suitcase to a breaking point. I may be called after and verbally harassed on the streets, sure, but I’ll probably never get into too serious trouble (inshallah – God willing), because I happen to always be accompanied by some component of my TIME family. I will not face hunger, I have money to buy frivolous souvenirs, and I have an education and an excellent school with excellent opportunities to push me into an excellent career someday. Most especially, I am fortunate enough to be able to travel, see and really attempt to understand the complications of the world at large, encounter different types of people, and let them shape my views in my own life.
Not having that chance…that would be true suffering.