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 Joelle Peikes after her first few weeks volunteering with the group Youth Without Boarders in Morocco.
How can it be that my six weeks in Morocco are already halfway through?
In the many webinars and phone interviews, we were told on countless occasions that as AUA volunteers we would have to hit the ground running. Well, we certainly did. From the airport in Casablanca, to settling in to Ifrane and work placements, we have not stopped running. There have been some stumbles along the way, of course, only serving to authenticate and enrich the experience.
The first couple of days were a blur, including the weekend hike, where some very literal stumbling happened. However, being thrust into Morocco and its culture those first few days, I must say I became enchanted. The landscapes we explored looked like scenes out of the National Geographic Magazine, certainly not a place that was accessible in real life! That night, only our third night in Morocco, we were invited to a Berber wedding where we sat in a tent surrounded by women dressed in vibrant sequined fabrics and danced to the traditional music with traditionally dressed Berber men, singing and playing the drums. I have never felt so welcomed by an entirely strange group of people, especially at such an intimate kind of gathering! Though, I learned, to my surprise, that these weddings are not intimate at all. In fact, many people who are invited and attend have no relation to the bride or groom whatsoever! It was an amazing introduction into the hospitality that I have since come to recognize as a refreshingly inherent aspect of Moroccan culture. That weekend, having shared so many new experiences in such a short amount of time, our group established a bond that has only grown tighter since those initial adventures. I could not ask for a more enthusiastic, empathetic or motivated group of girls to spend these six weeks with.
The first week of work was overwhelming to say the least. In the first few days I met with several members of the association Youth Without Borders to set out my work plan, which was to help produce the annual Azrou Arts Festival, contribute marketing materials in English, and organize English language acts to participate in the festival. In addition, I met the local theater group, Theatre D’Or for whom I have planned to improve their presence online and in English. My work with them has definitely been the most rewarding. They are a young group in their 20s, most with backgrounds in theater, art and music. Many play instruments and draw or paint in addition to their acting. None of the members speak English so I have a girl that used to be a member of the group that sometimes comes to translate for me. She’s extremely outgoing and her English is impeccable, especially given the fact that she is only in high school. When she is not there however, I am forced to recall my high school French, which has been both fun and frustrating at times. The group members love to chat and ask me questions about my life. Usually they first consider these questions amongst themselves in Arabic, before choosing the bravest among them to speak up. As we’ve gotten to know each other better, conversation has flowed more freely, despite my broken French. What is difficult is addressing logistical issues regarding the piece they are rehearsing or plans for the festival, as neither my French vocabulary nor comprehension tend to extend that far. We have definitely encountered communication and scheduling issues, especially in the past week. I’ve had similar problems communicating with the other members of the association as well, in getting enough information for the English website I’ve been working on and getting clear approval for the projects I’ve been working on.
One such project has been to teach English songs to students at the nearby Azrou community center to perform in the festival. One of the other volunteers, Amber, teaches English classes every day and I have been coming in at the end of class to teach the students songs like “Do-re-mi” from Sound of Music, “Son of Man” from Tarzan, and by popular demand One Direction’s “What Makes you Beautiful.” This has also been extremely rewarding because the students really seem receptive to learning the songs and genuinely excited to perform in the festival. I’m excited about it and hope it goes well because I think this could be a great element to include in the festival for years to come. I think it will foster the sense of community that I believe the producers of the festival are striving to achieve.
Due to some of the difficulties I’ve experienced at the association, I’ve shifted my work focus slightly to the work I’ve been doing with the students at the Azrou Center. In addition to working with a group of students on songs for the festival I’ve started helping Amber with lesson planning and conducting classes, especially with the first intermediate class which is large and can be very rowdy. This work is immediately rewarding and I know that my presence makes a difference. I am continuing to work on the website in English for the festival, and I will of course contribute the act that I’ve been working on with the students. As for Theatre D’Or, I am continuing to help improve their presence online through their Facebook group. I have posted pictures of rehearsals advertising their upcoming performance, and I intend to document their dress rehearsals and performances in the next week, as well.
Through diversifying my work, I actually feel as though I’m finding a place in the town of Azrou and making a difference in as many ways as I can. Seeing the enthusiasm of the students that I’ve worked with, and even in the members of Theatre D’Or seeing their photos online, makes me wish I had more time to contribute to the town and its members. Though I regret that this is not possible, I am eagerly looking forward to the next few weeks and the resulting excitement that the remainder of my work here will bring.