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.
This post was written by Hallie Westlund after her first few weeks in Morocco volunteering as a camp counselor at the soccer camp run by Al-Akhawayn University.
Every morning the past two weeks, I was greeted by a cacophony of the voices of 13 little girls yelling my name, or rather a combination of my name and the name of my fellow intern, Haley. As it turns out, differentiating between the sounds of the names Hallie and Haley is rather difficult for Moroccans. Then I received a kiss on each cheek by each girl, total 26 kisses every morning to start my day. In Moroccan culture acquaintances and friends traditionally greet one another with a kiss on each cheek.
I had been working at a soccer camp run by Al Akhawayn University’s sports department. Haley and I were in charge of coaching the girls in the camp and organizing non-soccer activities for all the campers during their down time after lunch. The first few days were rather challenging and sometimes even a bit frustrating, but each day got a little easier and I was gradually able to understand why it was important that I was there. By the end of the camp, it was clear the little girls had thoroughly enjoyed the two weeks of camp and that they looked up to Haley and I as role models. Thus, I felt like I had succeeded.
Communication was by far the biggest challenge. Only one of the girls spoke English, and neither Haley nor I could speak Arabic or French well enough to explain the drills. I think it was initially frustrating for the girls to have us as coaches when we could not communicate. But we slowly figured out how to communicate using gestures, pantomime, smiles and a few words of darija, and our communication with the girls slowly improved.
The most important experience through the last two weeks of soccer camp for me was being a role model for these girls through sports. In Morocco, like much of the Muslim world, girls and women are not encouraged to participate in sports as much as boys and men. Growing up, I attended a similar soccer camp as a child run by the university where I live. The biggest difference between these two camps is that mine was entirely for girls while only 13 of the 63 kids at Al Akhawayn’s Soccer camp are girls. My camp had accomplished female soccer players as coaches whereas here all the other coaches were men.
What started out as frustration due to my inability to communicate, turned into one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Not only did I fall in love with all thirteen girls, but the girls also became much more motivated and eager to play. The scrimmages we had every afternoon symbolize this transition; in the beginning scrimmage meant crying, yelling, taunting and very little playing. By the end the girls worked with their teams to pass and score and actually played soccer. On the last day, I could see confidence on their faces and in their new set of skills and I realized that they had learned much from soccer camp and from having women as counselors.
My hope is that the skills they learned will be used not only in their future sports participation but that they will also become models of athletic participation for girls in their community.
The thirteen girls were not the only ones to benefit from this camp. I also benefited from my experience. Not only did I have to work through failure and frustration, but I had to confront the challenge of a language barrier. My answer to that was both improving my darija and getting better at communicating with sign language. Lastly, as I was one of only two women working as soccer coaches, I felt like I had to work harder to be seen as an authority figure and coach with both the kids and the camp staff.
The last day of camp was very sentimental for me. I was proud of my accomplishments and my connection with the girls, especially in front of their parents at the closing ceremony. However sadness filled me because these girls to whom I felt so connected, who yelled my name and kissed my cheeks every morning, live across the ocean from me and the knowledge that I would never see them again was very difficult. But I am motivated by this experience and all my wonderful experiences and friends in Morocco to hopefully come back someday, and maybe run soccer camp again and be a role model for even more young Moroccan girls. Before we leave Morocco, Haley and I have been invited to visit the neighborhood where the girls reside in order to watch them play soccer, so I will get one more chance to hear them yell my name and greet me with a kiss, and one more bittersweet goodbye.