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.
The following is a post by Hallie Westlund, just before she completed her Summer Service internship in Morocco with a summer camp for young people. Hallie completed her service by organizing a camp with fellow interns in Tarmilaat Village.
You would think that falling off a rock and landing in muddy water and potential donkey poop would not be a fond memory. But somehow what seems like the grossest experience stands out to me as one of the best days I spent during my volunteer service in Morocco.
The second half of my internship in morocco was spent in Tarmilaat, running summer camp activities for the kids with my fellow intern Haley and assisting (when possible) with the French lessons being taught by a fellow intern, Maddy. Tarmilaat is a rural village on the edge of Ifrane. The contrast between Ifrane and Tarmilaat is very stark. Ifrane is a luscious green city, often called “little Switzerland” because it looks like a Swiss mountain town. The city never stops water the grass and it is a major tourist destination. On the edge of this Swiss paradise sits Tarmilaat. Tarmilaat looks like what I would image Mars looking like, barren dusty land covered in rocks. There are no trees or any plants growing except off in the distance. The only water source is at the bottom of the hill far from where any of the families live. When you drive passed the village on the way out of Ifrane, you would never know it was there. The village is hidden behind rocky hillsides at the end of a dusty dirt road. The only sign of life from the main road are the animals grazing. The government owns the land so the people of Tarmilaat cannot build permanent structures, although some of them have been there for at least 50 years. The homes are made of rock walls and tin roves. A few years back the government built a one-room schoolhouse, which stands tall above the rocky hills of Tarmilaat. This is where I spent most of my time while in Tarmilaat.
The first time I visited Tarmilaat, I was fresh off the plane and everything about the Village seemed unreal. I had trouble fathoming how people could live in such a barren area. But I felt very welcome there, per usual in Moroccan culture. One of the head women of the village, Ito, told us that we were her daughters (she has 4 sons), and during my time there I felt it to be true. This connection and the connection I made with the children helped me to see Tarmilaat as home, despite the lack of amenities like access to a bathroom or air conditioning. The children were eager to see me right from the beginning and various women of the village would trickle through the schoolhouse through out the day to say “salam wa lecum” (hello, how are you) and give us volunteers a kiss on the check. I never imagine that the rocky hillsides would be on the top of my places to visit next time I return to Morocco.
My fellow interns Maddy, Haley, and I had created many games, crafts and outings that the kids and ourselves enjoyed throughout the two weeks. However, my favorite times were the “adventures” we would go on which were led by the kids and I usually had no idea where we were going due to the language barrier. With a kid grasped in each hand I was pulled over the rocky hillsides of Tarmilaat to see the most amazing sights. In actuality, it was not an adventure for the children of Tarmilaat since it was their backyard.
One day we meandered through a cedar forest, I was convinced we were lost, to the “piscine” (pool) that was a large flowing creek with sheep grazing around it and the kids went for a swim. Another day we climbed over a hillside and could look out over the whole village, and see all the homes nestled in among the rocks. Then we went down into a beautiful oasis where we played cards on the green grass banks of creek. The game we played was not one I have ever heard of but was extremely confusing and the rules seemed to keep changing. I never quite got the hang of it. One day we ventured along walking from natural spring to natural spring bubbling up from the earth, and then stumbled over a hill to the other side where we crunched over hundreds of old plastic bottles and pieces of glass, it was an old garbage dumb for Ifrane.
I loved these adventures, because I felt as though I got to see Tarmilaat through the children’s eyes. Not a world of dust and rocks but rather a very beautiful piece of countryside kept among those who would appreciate it most. I also got to know the kids this way, their personalities shown through especially as they led us clumsy Americans over rocks and up hills. They were so caring and kind, always making sure we were okay. At one point I had something sharp stuck into my foot, and one girl sat me down and held my hand while a little boy pulled it out.
It was after one of these great adventures, that I fell into the muck and soaked my jeans in questionable mud. We had been painting in the afternoon, and my hands were covered, I followed two little boys (both about 7 years old) who were also covered in paint down the hill, passed a cow and a few donkeys to the water to wash off. The edge of the water is very muddy from animals walking through, but there are stepping stones through the mud and across the stream. I followed the boys onto these stepping stones not expecting them to move, but wobble they did and I found myself arms flying like a cartoon as I tried to catch my balance. Unfortunately for me this flailing did not help and I landed in the muddy water. The two little boys were kind enough to keep their amusement to small grins until I started laughing. Then they helped me back on to sturdy rocks and back to shore. I rolled up my soaking wet muddy jeans while the boys each took a shoe and washed off the mud. As dirty and disgusting as I felt, I was relatively unfazed by the events and just moved on because really it had been a pretty great day,
Looking back, I hope that I gave the Village of Tarmilaat as much as they gave me. I gained a home and friendship. I also learned for real that money does not buy happiness. I got to appreciate for two weeks what it was like to lead a very different life from my own. And I understand more now what its like to live a simple life. I also learned that the best adventures happen when you have no idea where you are going or where you are.