We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
It is now nearing the end of my first week and I have to say it has been a challenge. The most obvious one is working and living in a Muslim society as a born and raised Catholic from the States. Another challenge is the language barrier since the main languages spoken in Morocco are primarily Arabic and French. Looking back, there were times after I took French classes in high school when I wished I had taken Spanish instead due to having worked with or associated with many native Spanish speakers domestically and internationally. However, this is a time when I wish I had taken more French classes than just the required amount to graduate high school.
There are five volunteers here presently including myself. From the group, two are from China who volunteer with me at the hospital. The other two are teaching English elsewhere in Rabat and are from the United States. Most of our days start the same: breakfast starts at 7 am, however I sleep in and catch breakfast after 8 am, relax for a bit, and then gather supplies for my work site. Most of us leave the volunteer house at 9 am, save for one volunteer who leaves a bit earlier. After our mornings at our respective placement’s we return for lunch and have some type of activity like a language lesson or city tour.
I volunteer at a children’s hospital here in Rabat. Even with the challenges and heartache, which I will get into later, I love coming here. Most of the children here are between the ages of one and seven, a bit older than the ones I previously worked with a past volunteer program with Cross Cultural Solutions. Upon our first arrival, we grabbed the key to the play area from the nurse’s station and opened the door. The children were a bit hesitant to approach us. From my understanding, there had not been any child care volunteers there for a few weeks, and usually when there aren’t any volunteers, the room remains locked because most staff members are too busy to oversee the children in the play room. This is sad, but understandable. However, in recent days upon arriving at the hospital, the children will see us walking to the room and walk with us or run up to us and shake our hands and then zip into the play room the minute the door is opened.
Not uncommonly, the children’s mothers will stay with their children at the hospital. Our jobs as volunteers revolve around assisting the children in playing games and motivating them to do activities such as arts & crafts or physical activities. This in turn benefits the mothers as we give them a break when we look after their children for a bit. Sometimes the mothers who are supposed to be relaxing will decide to come into the play area which interrupts our time and work with the children. This creates limitations for us, and we can only do so much. C’est la vie.
On our first day, the placement manager, Abdellah, came with us to show us the ropes. After setting things up I noticed some children on the second floor waving at us. I waved back at them gesturing them to come to us yet they looked at me and the other volunteers gesturing instead for us to come to them. I didn’t quite understand why they didn’t come to us, but I assumed it was because they were shy. It was on the second day when I found out why they didn’t come down to us. It was because they were not allowed.
In an effort to lessen any sort of cross contamination, the children upstairs were separated from the ones downstairs. Some had physical injuries while others had some other ailments. I made a note to myself to be sure to spend a little bit of time in the main room, but also more time in the children’s play area on the second floor. It’s usually only five or six children who come in to this room, but I am sure that there are more on the second floor than just this handful. Their activities are the same as the ones downstairs, however minus the toys.
I have only been with the children for a few days and I already care for them a great deal. They have even given me a new name, Monsieur Brian, which is French for Mister Brian. Each day when we open up the main room and I look around, I am privileged to have a bunch of smiling faces looking at me and arms waving and gesturing for me to come up while shouting “Monsieur Brian! Monsieur Brian!” I can’t help but smile because the children and I have connected, because they are happy to see me, and because I am able to go up there with them and give them an escape for a little while. If I did not go up to the second floor with them, then no one else would and they would be stuck staring at the other children playing.
That feeling alone, the feeling of knowing I did something good for these children, particularly the ones who are not allowed to come downstairs and play, was worth the three flight delays, bad customer service, and all around rough travel from Washington, D.C. to Rabat, Morocco. But I’ll close with this: no matter what grief I went through getting here, these children have it much worse even when I see them playing and acting like they have no injuries or ailments at all. They simply amaze me.