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.
Joe Sgroi from Ewing, NJ, is volunteering at a Summer Day Camp in Ifrane, Morocco. Not only is Joe thrilled to coach these young children in basketball, soccer and swimming lessons, but he is also excited to share the cross-cultural experiences gained in Morocco.
17 days in and I have discovered myself. My identity, my inner peace and my will to serve others have all been found within two weeks into my service internship with America’s Unofficial Ambassadors. Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane (AUI) has become my home and the children at the summer camp have also become an extension of the community that I have been so graciously welcomed.
My first assignment for my internship was at Atlas Summer Camp; the campers were mostly local kids from Ifrane all ranging from ages 5-16. With Al-Akhawayn being an American-style university, the camp structure was reminiscent of an American suburban day camp, with a Moroccan twist. What set apart the Atlas camp from your average American day camp was the Moroccan culture festivals. The festivals included: language lessons, traditional singing and dancing, cooking, and Moroccan arts and crafts.
I was one of the counselors that became a “spark plug”, meaning I was placed wherever I was needed. Therefore, our relationships with individual campers were limited due to our role at the camp. My main assignment was being a lifeguard and teaching kids how to swim, or helping to facilitate activities; counselors were always on call. Being the one to administer aid to a child’s first swimming experience without flotation devices is something that forever changes the life of both the teacher and student. While I was not assigned to a particular group, being a “sparkplug” and being able to teach dozens of children how to swim was a great experience.
What made this internship was the language factor. In addition to studying French in my free time and conversing with campers and counselors alike I was encouraged to learn more Arabic both in and out of the classroom. I have never participated or enrolled in a French or Arabic language class and was essentially thrown into the water without my “swimmies”, just like the beginner swimmers at the Atlas camp. I speak Spanish fluently and have working proficiency in Italian and Portuguese, so this experience was new for me language-wise. However, because of the language classes offered through AUA and speaking both French and Arabic at the camps, my proficiency has improved drastically as a result.
I have come to realize that this internship has enabled me to learn from the campers and the culture around me, challenging and exposing me to a new world as I hope to do the same for them. While I have learned numerous lessons about the lives and backgrounds of campers back in the United States, the
camps here are a different story. Here in Morocco, my internship at the three separate camps has enabled me to transcend ethnicity, culture, religion, and language. The New Jersey camps from my past and the Morocco camps from the present have given me a well-rounded perception of International Development from a grassroots level and relations between the US and the Muslim World.
This sentiment holds true at the Summer Soccer Camp here at AUI, which I started four days ago. AUI Soccer Coach, Adil Kamane runs very disciplined and organized summer camps for boys and girls ranging from 6 to 12. I am a co-head coach for the six and seven year-old boys group, along with a Moroccan coach named Mustafa. Mustafa and I are both experienced soccer players and earned the respect of the roughly 12 kids we dealt with for the two-week long camp. Adil Kamane had two full jerseys for each camper in addition to a white camp hat, which gives the kids some appreciation for the instruction they are receiving from us coaches. Being a tri-athlete and avid sports fan my entire life, this placement catered to my professional and personal life. The children love interacting with the counselors and playing the sport their country adores. Seeing their competiveness during the soccer matches at the end of the day, which matched their lively personalities, shone through with perfect clarity. When goals were scored, kids screamed “Wayyy” which is the Moroccan version of “Yay”. Conversely, this competiveness mixed with their youth and led to many emotional breakdowns during matches, as well as campers who would wander to play in the nearby sand or grass. I have enjoyed my group of boys at the soccer camp, and have seen drastic improvement in social skills and their proficiency in the sport from the beginning.
In addition to being a co-head coach at the soccer camp, I led a basketball activity day at the camp two days ago, which received a lot of positive feedback from the campers. We practiced lay-ups, jump shots, passing, and did dribbling relay races in a circuit format. Basketball is fairly popular in Morocco, but is no comparison to soccer. However, the campers were all interested in playing and learning the game, which was a pleasant surprise and reward for me as a previous college basketball player and youth basketball coach.
This experience has been humbling from an athletic and teaching perspective, as well as a cultural and linguistic perspective. With every interaction, different religions and languages are being thrust upon each other at this soccer camp, and is in turn translated into peace, camaraderie, and knowledge through the world’s game. My experience was very unique, given that my stay has coincided with both Ramadan and the World Cup.
I got to witness Morocco’s two holy months in one month abroad which taught me about Moroccan history, politics, sports, and religion; these opportunities have exceeded beyond my wildest expectations. In retrospect, I can revert back to my lifetime identity as an athlete and recognize and appreciate this opportunity that athletics has granted me. This beautiful game of soccer has brought me halfway across the world to where I can use my best attributes to help others to find themselves, like I have found myself here in Morocco.