that doesn’t mean i have to like it

[Trigger warning: this blog post talks about physical punishment and describes instances of abuse.]

Three years ago I was in a northern city of Morocco. I was a Peace Corps Trainee, still living with a host family and trying to string words in Moroccan Arabic into sentences. I had just gone through another long day of language and cultural training and was sitting with my host family eating kaskrot (snack and tea time) as the sun went down. My young host cousin was sitting across from me at the table and dutifully completing his homework.

My host sister looked over his shoulder, picked up a book from the table with both hands and proceeded to smack him across the back of his head. She ripped the paper out of his notebook and told him to begin his homework again.

I gasped, horrified. My host sister looked at me and tried to justify her actions. She explained that my cousin’s handwriting wasn’t neat enough. I froze up and didn’t know what to do. My silence seemed to make her nervous, and she kept talking. “Wach fhemti Abir? Wach fhemti 3lach?” Do you understand Abir? Do you understand why?

And that’s the thing – I didn’t understand.

I was taught that hitting is never allowed. On a familial level, my parents exclusively forbade it. I was never hit as a child and neither were my siblings. I never even hit my siblings when we got into fights. We barely even wrestled for fun. On an educational level, I understood and believed in the proven negative effects corporal punishment has on children — such as increased aggressive behaviors, depression, and anxiety. These are beliefs that I have carried throughout my life and now were being directly confronted in Morocco.

So, in that moment, I mustered up all of my courage and all of the Moroccan Arabic I had learned and tried to have a conversation with my host sister. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all of the hospitality her family had shown me or be culturally insensitive, but at the same time I didn’t want to lie to her and say that I thought her behavior was acceptable.

This is your home, I told her. This is your home, and your country, so you can do whatever you want. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it or agree with it.

img_1616

In the many months since then, I’ve witnessed dozens more situations just like this.

When I visit families with young children, parents will regularly beg their child to behave by threatening “Abir ghatdrebk.” Abir is going to hit you.

Last year a father brought his son to my classroom at the Dar Chebab (youth center) and asked if his son had attended my English class the previous day. I responded that he hadn’t. The father then slapped his son across the face in front of me. The son, with tears in his eyes, apologized to me as he walked away.

Last month I was sitting in the living room of a family’s house and playing with the girls. Their father came in yelling that we were being too loud. He grabbed his youngest daughter and slapped her twice across the face, leaving a handprint on her cheek. He hit her so hard that her face was swollen and bruised for over a week.

Each situation ends the same way. I am wide eyed and stunned. What do I do?

img_4094

If I were to consult officials at the Peace Corps, they’d advise me to stay out of it. It’s none of your business. It’s not your culture. Don’t get involved, they’d say.

In Morocco today the debate rages on about the use of physical abuse as a punishment as well as domestic violence. According to Human Rights Watch, the Moroccan government has failed to put in place proper laws that deter domestic violence, prosecute those convicted, and provide protection for victims. The state TV channel 2M was under worldwide pressure a few months ago when they aired a segment teaching women how to disguise their bruises with makeup so that they could “carry on with [their] daily life.” Additionally, there are no explicit laws forbidding teachers from using physical punishment on students in schools — even for students with special needs.

In my experience over the past three years, physical abuse and punishment is commonplace in Morocco.

Every time I watch a student-led theater performance, there is always a scene in which the mother is hit by her husband, or a father beats his child, or a boyfriend smacks his girlfriend. And this isn’t to make commentary – this is the punchline. The crowd laughs.

I asked one of my friends why people laughed, and she said that people needed to make light of the bad things that happened in their lives. It was their way to cope.

One of the officials that works for the Ministry of Youth and Sports in my town regularly comes into my classes and “jokes” with students by pretending to hit them, either with his hands or with a lanyard. Students cringe and try to laugh it off.

I teach a girls empowerment class each week where we often discuss the problems in our community and what we can do to help solve them. The girls identify domestic violence and physical abuse as an important issue every session.

So how do I not get involved? I think of these children as my sisters, my brothers, my neighbors, my precious students. And they identify the issue as a problem.

IMG_1614

As an outsider, I struggle with this question a lot. At what point do I intervene when I see something happening that I believe is wrong? It’s not my culture and it’s not my community — so does that mean it isn’t my place to say something?

Where is the line? How do I decide when the line has been crossed?

In the end I decided that I have to stand up for what I believe in — especially when I believe physical harm is being done.

When parents threaten their children that I will hit them, I firmly state that I will not. When the ministry official pretends to hit children in my classroom, I ask him to stop and say that we do not hit in my classroom. When I witness a child being hit, I wait until the situation is over. Then I go to them and comfort them and try to have a conversation. I tell them that I love them.

These are the only things I can do. And it never feels like enough. I know that I am powerless to change this issue. But I also know that I am a role model for these children and that what I choose to say and do matters. I hope that they will see that. I hope it will give them pause next time they are in a situation where they may be the aggressor.

Change comes from within. And I hope that my actions are helping spur that change.

..

[Writer’s note: I feel compelled to mention that I love my Moroccan community very dearly and do not wish to bring harm to anyone with this post. I also understand that corporal punishment towards children happens all over the world, including the United States. But I also believe that I must critique those people and things that I love the most in order to make our world a better place.]

put yourself out of the job

During our service with the Peace Corps, each volunteer becomes “known” for something in our sites. Whether it’s something about the way you dress, the place where you teach, a funny interaction that you had at a hanut (small store)– something is going to stick. As for me in my site, more often than not, I’m known as the one who teaches aerobics classes to women.

There have literally been instances when a woman will stop me in the street and says, “Are you the one who teaches aerobics classes?” Men will approach me too, asking for the class times because they want their wives to attend. Even my young students at the Dar Chebab (youth center) know and encourage their mothers to work out with me.

My aerobics class is held in the 9aa moghatat three times a week – it’s basically a glorified indoor basketball court. If you were to join me for a class, we would open the doors to find the women had showed up long before we did, taking advantage of the women’s hours and gossiping as they ran laps around the court. Once the class begins, we each use a puzzle-piece shaped mat to stand on for the exercises. A group of more than 50 women form a circle with their mats around me. The women range from young women fresh out of university to old Hajjas of 70 years old. Some women live a stone’s throw away from the gym while others walk 2 kilometers from their duwar (village) to join us. It’s an amazing sight to see and I feel such a great sense of purpose and pride when I walk into the gym for each class.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Building this aerobics class has been many years in the making. My former sitemate Laura first began the class four years ago in a cramped old classroom at the Nadi Neswi (women’s center). As the class size began to grow, they eventually migrated to the 9aa moghatat. We have since worked together to organize long walks with the women to show them safe places to walk on the weekends. We also introduced regular fitness tests to demonstrate their progress and began training Moroccan counterparts to teach classes.

For my third year of service, I was eager to build upon the progress that we’d made – to train more women to lead classes, to bring the classes to the villages of Tata – I had so many plans. This was the class I was most excited to teach.

But sometimes in Morocco, just as you think you’ve gotten it all figured out, life likes to throw you a curve ball.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

It was a Saturday early last month, and I had just finished teaching the class. The sweat on my forehead was still fresh and the endorphins were buzzing through my body.

A small group walked over and huddled around me. These were my “regulars” – some of the most dedicated women in the group. Fatima began: “So Abir, starting Tuesday we have a new trainer.” I kind of cocked my head and told her I didn’t understand. She repeated the sentence, this time adding: “Do you know Loubna? From the other gym in center? She’s our trainer now.” I could feel my eyes beginning to water and it became more and more difficult for me to comprehend what they were saying.

Another woman quickly grabbed my hand and begged me to continue attending the classes with them, even though I wouldn’t be teaching. The other women chimed in: “wlfnak – we’re so accustomed to you.” They kept repeating it. “We love laughing with you,” they added. I nodded my head and walked quickly out of the gym. I didn’t want them to see my sadness. My shock. My disbelief.

I couldn’t bring myself to attend the classes the next week. This, combined with the election results… I just couldn’t get out of bed. I had worked so hard for this! Laura and I were the reasons this class existed – how could they do this to me? It was hard not to feel as if this was a direct attack, as if I wasn’t good enough so they decided to replace me.

Slowly, I worked up the courage to go to one of the classes. I gave 150% that day. I went hard on every exercise, continuing repetitions after all of the other women had tired. I wanted to prove to the women how fit I was – that they had made a mistake and wouldn’t be as strong under the leadership of the new trainer.

After the class, I began prodding my now former students. How were the classes? Did she do the same routine each time? Were they maybe paying her to teach? The women seemed satisfied, which obviously aggravated me. But I couldn’t let it go. Something just didn’t feel right.

img_0894

A few days later I was sitting down to breakfast with my Moroccan baba Omar, who coincidentally is the mudir (director) of the gym where I now used to teach. I gingerly dipped a piece of bread into the olive oil and casually said, “So…did you hear what happened with my class…?”

I wasn’t expecting what he said next: “It’s the delegue’s fault.”

“The people at the local ministry office said that you don’t have a certificate to teach aerobics and that’s why there is a new trainer.” I quickly opened my mouth to protest, but he continued – “I tried to help by saying that you do have a certificate, but they wanted proof.”

“It’s just an excuse anyway,” he said. “The Ministry of Youth and Sports wants to take credit for your class and Loubna is the wife of one of the men who works in the office.”

“The women never wanted to get rid of you,” he said kindly while sipping his tea. “They were really upset.”

Everything suddenly made sense.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned during my Peace Corps service – it’s patience. If this had happened to me two years ago, during my first year of service, I would have lashed out. I would have been aggressive. I probably would have confronted the women and asked them to their faces why they had done what they did. I would have demanded answers. I would have gone to the delegue and told him why what he did was wrong. But what good would any of that have done? What good would it have been to act before I knew the whole story? To be upset with the women who were just as upset as I was?

During my nearly three years in Morocco I’ve learned to step back, wait for events to unfold, think critically – and then choose how to act thoughtfully. It is so easy to misread a situation – with language barriers, cultural barriers, the concept of being direct or indirect in certain situations – I know two years ago I would have gotten this one wrong.

So, to the new Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers: have patience. Trust in yourself, in your work, and in the people who care about you. These things will always prevail – even if it doesn’t seem that way from your first read of the situation.

Even though I am no longer teaching these women’s aerobics classes, I believe that the work that I’ve done speaks for itself. We helped create a safe environment for women to exercise. We helped demonstrate to our community that women’s fitness is important. We helped change our town’s perception of women’s fitness – and the delegue recognized that and wanted to be part of it.

You know, as Peace Corps Volunteers, as development workers – the ultimate goal that we are seeking is to put ourselves out of a job.

And now, after stepping back and taking a second look at this situation – I believe that I have achieved that goal.

img_8057

This post was originally given as a “TED Talk” speech to the incoming group of Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers on December 8, the day before their swearing-in ceremony. The theme of the morning was success stories and overcoming challenges.

Teaching about the US Election in Morocco

Teaching about the US Election in Morocco

Last week I was asked to guest teach an English lesson to a group of 24 high school students. I was given a 2-hour time period to teach them any topic of my choice about America or American culture. Naturally, given the current political climate in the United States and the news coverage this election cycle is receiving around the world I felt compelled to teach about the 2016 American election.

If you know me personally, you know that I am a huge geek when it comes to government and politics. In high school, I volunteered during President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and worked at the polls. I was also an active member of my school’s Young Democrats club, which maxed out at around 10 members (yay Texas). Then in college I attended one of the most politically active universities in the country – American University.  One of the biggest parties I attended during undergrad was the night of the 2012 election. We even drove to the White House afterwards to celebrate.

obama08
much to the chagrin of my friends I insisted on carrying around an “OBAMA 2008” cup in high school (they hated me then for the cup and probably will hate me now for the photo)

All of this is to tell you that I knew when I was creating my lesson plan that I needed to be very careful and thoughtful about how to teach about the election in a bipartisan and fair way. I know that I am definitely not an impartial person to talk to when it comes to this subject (see this post about when people ask me about Trump for reference). I have a lot of opinions and I’m normally not afraid to share them with anyone. But when it came to this lesson, I wanted to try my hardest to present the information in the most fair and equal light that I could.

But this election cycle isn’t normal. And it was really difficult for me to find a way to teach about our presidential candidates in this “fair and equal light.” How do I fairly portray a candidate who has said derogatory comments that could be applied to the very students who sat in the classroom I was supposed to teach?

I decided the best thing I could do was to let the students make up their minds on their own. I would provide them with all of the information they needed, and they would make their choice as to who they would vote for.

After briefly explaining the “Three Branches of Government” and reinforcing the fact that the American president does not have the same powers as a king, we played an activity called “Four Corners.” Each corner of the room was labelled with a different paper: “I strongly agree,” “I agree,” “I disagree,” and “I strongly disagree.” As I read a statement aloud, the students were instructed to walk to the corner that best described their reaction to the statement.

I had selected a list of nine issues in the American election, ranging from gun control to immigration to ISIS to taxes, that I felt were the “hot topics” of the election and that the students would easily understand without too much of a backstory. I wanted to see how these Moroccan teenagers felt about our issues in America while forcing them to take a position and practice supporting that position in English.

img_0641

With the statement: “America should not let Syrian refugees in to the country,” the students looked at me incredulously and ran to the corner of the room labelled “I strongly disagree.” Every student camped out in that corner. Every. Single. One. When I explained to them that some Americans believed that some Syrian refugees may be terrorists or create crime in America, they almost laughed. “They have nowhere else to go!” the students pleaded with me. “It is so dangerous in Syria they cannot stay there,” another student added.

The students had a similar, unanimous opinion when it came to gun control or guns in schools. I told them about the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and that some people believe that if the teachers had had guns the tragedy would have been prevented. But they held their ground. They also unanimously believed that America should use its military to fight ISIS and that America must take steps to address climate change.

img_0660

The only issues that brought up some forms of debate were in regards to the death penalty and whether to increase taxes for the rich. When a student told me he believed that the rich were already paying their fair share, I jokingly told him I thought he was probably a Republican. Afterwards he looked as if my words had wounded him. I tried to reassure him that being a Republican wasn’t a bad thing, but the media coverage of Donald Trump had already effected the way he saw the Republican Party in America as a whole.

After we finished the “Four Corners” activity, the students watched campaign ads from each of the candidates. My goal was to have them watch the ads and make up their own minds about the candidates’ messages, while practicing their listening skills in English.

This was a difficult activity to prepare because Donald Trump is not running a traditional campaign. He has run very few traditional campaign ads, none of which are listed on his website. Ultimately, I had to select an ad that was basically a clip from one of his stump speeches. It ran in stark contrast to the Clinton campaign, which has a highly sophisticated network of videos on a variety of platforms, including her own YouTube channel.

During the videos, the students latched on to the idea that Hillary Clinton was kind, compassionate, and an advocate for the poor, whereas Donald Trump wanted to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States and only promised to make America “great.”

Next, I presented the students with a side-by-side look of how the candidates stand on the issues. Again, the abnormal nature of the Trump campaign made it difficult for me to write out the candidates’ platforms in an equal and unbiased way because he has taken a stance on so few issues. I tried to do research on many reputable websites, including his own campaign website, and even then was forced to draw a literal question mark (“?”) on the poster when it came to his stance on health care.

Once the students were presented with all of the information, I asked them to write about who they would vote for and why. Which issue was the most important to them?

As the students finished with their writing assignments, I began passing around a “ballot box” I had fashioned from an old crackers box, some white paper, and patriotic-colored markers. I asked the students to write their choice for the next American president on a piece of paper and slip it inside. Though it was only a mock election, the students couldn’t contain their excitement. Each student wanted their picture taken while they put their ballot in the box (don’t worry I did tell them that voting is actually private in America).

img_0662

Later I took the slips of paper out of the box one-by-one and we tallied the votes on the board. Each student had voted for Hillary Clinton.

As the students read their reasons aloud for the support of Hillary Clinton, I understood why their choice was united. They saw themselves in the people Secretary Clinton promises to help. They live in a rural, poor community. They are Muslim. Some of them would like to immigrate to the United States one day. They see global warming as their generation’s problem. And they kept repeating that Donald Trump was racist.

But what they really wanted to say is: “Donald Trump doesn’t like me.”

My job as a Peace Corps Volunteer, as a de facto ambassador of America each day that I bike and prance around my Moroccan community has never felt more important. It has never been more critical for me to prove to Moroccans that I meet that Americans can be kindhearted, accepting, funny, considerate, and willing to learn about new cultures. Donald Trump does not represent the America that I love and that I want to share with my Moroccan community.

Now that class is over there’s no need to be “fair and equal.” And you can bet your asses I’m sending in my absentee ballot all the way from this tiny town in the desert to vote for the first female president of the United States.

When your landlord wants to tile your house

Oftentimes in Morocco a situation will happen to me and I have to take a few steps back…

Am I looking at this situation as an American? As someone who has lived in Morocco for over two and a half years? Is there a cultural component that I need to consider before I react, or are some things just universal?

It’s a tough call.

How much can I trust my first reaction when I’m still learning the nuance of the culture and traditions of a country that is not my own?

Today I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s a true story, and a recent one at that. With each rendition of its telling, the story has elicited a different reaction.

I want to know — what would your reaction have been?

Here’s the story:

It was the beginning of June. My last couscous Friday in Morocco before the start of Ramadan (and thus the start of fasting during daylight hours) and my month-long trip to America.

I spent the day with my family in the village, stuffing my face with couscous, running through the oasis with some of the kids, and getting henna done on my hands with my sisters.

At nine o’clock, as the sun finally went down, I reluctantly told my family that I needed to return to my house in order to prepare for my bus ride out of our town the next morning. I rode my bike slowly in the direction of my house, henna still sticky and caked onto my fingers, my hands perched on the handlebars like claws in order to not smudge the artwork on my palms.

As I approached my house, my Moroccan baba pulled up on his motorcycle beside me.

“I just spoke to your landlord. He says he wants to do zilleej (tiling) in your house while you’re gone. Is that okay?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Why not?” I was excited at the prospect of beautiful tiles adorning the floors of my home, which at this point were plain cement and had been painted a dusty red that always looks dirty no matter how much I mopped.

“Okay,” my baba said, “so that means you need to move all of the furniture in your house into one room. Tonight. Before you leave.”

My enthusiasm waning slightly, I said bye to my father and walked into my house to scratch the henna off of my hands. I couldn’t let it sit any longer if I need to move the furniture.

An hour or so later, with all of my belongings piled neatly in my bedroom, I ate a light dinner and imagined what type of tiles my landlord might choose to use.

IMG_9655
what zilleej dreams are made of

I didn’t think about the situation again until a few weeks later, when I was preparing to return to Morocco.

I texted one of my best friends, who is my baba’s son: “Hey can you ask your dad if/when my landlord is going to do the zilleej in my house?”

I knew it was Ramadan. And I know Morocco. I didn’t think that they would have begun the zilleej yet, but I was just looking for a timeline.

“Mom said they didn’t start it yet, sorry :(”, he responded. Later adding, “I just asked my dad and he said they will start sometime next week.”

Alright, I thought, that’s fine. Maybe I would just travel a bit in Morocco before returning back to my town, since I wouldn’t be able to live at my house while they were tiling.

I relayed these thoughts to my friend. “Ya dad said you will live in our house,” he said.

I laughed and thought about my Moroccan family, who still don’t really understand why I have a house of my own and don’t just live with them permanently. I joked that they were doing this on purpose so that I would be obligated to live with them.

The next week I caught three different flights and traveled more than fifteen hours in Morocco to arrive back in my community. I called my baba to pick me up from the bus station in town. He told me the tiling was still unfinished and so I’d be living with them.

I was looking forward to seeing my Moroccan siblings and eating some Moroccan food, both of which I missed a lot while I was traveling in America, so the thought of living with my family for three or four days was actually exciting.

The next day I asked for the key to my house so I could drop off my luggage and pack up some things for the time I’d be staying at my family’s house. When I entered my house I noticed that the tiling had not even begun. There weren’t even loose tiles in a corner somewhere, waiting to be placed. What was even stranger, was that there was a rug in the middle of my entry room, complete with a few other rugs, some shoes, and a tea set. “Maybe they just brought these things in preparation for the job,” I thought, not really thinking much else about it.

IMG_8733
everything i own piled into one room

A few days later, I asked for the key to my house again. My sisters and I were planning to swim at the pool in town, and I needed to pick up some clothes to swim in and some sunscreen.

“You don’t need the key,” my baba said. “They’re there, they’re always there.” I cocked my head slightly, pondering what exactly he meant when he said they were “always there,” but didn’t ask questions.

My sisters and I pedaled up to my house and parked our bikes out front. It felt weird to knock on my own front door, but we did anyway. As the door opened, I could not have predicted what happened next.

My landlord and his family had moved into my house.

Carpets adorned each room of the house. They had brought their own dishware and were making tea. My landlord and his wife were sitting in one room atop pillows while their daughter and one of my neighbors played in the living room.

“Abir! Kuli dllaH, chrbi atay! Marhababik 3nda bzzaf!” Abbey! Eat some watermelon, drink some tea! You are so welcome here with us!

I could feel my jaw visibly drop. Was I really being offered tea in my own home?

I politely greeted everyone and my landlord’s wife informed me, “We’re using your fridge, I hope that’s okay,” as I kissed her on each cheek. I turned down offers of tea, and walked into my bedroom to retrieve my belongings. My little sister followed me and whispered, “Abbey, why are these people living in your house?”

We left for the pool, excited at the prospect of swimming albeit very confused about the scene that had just transpired.

Another week passed and I was still living at my family’s house and the zilleej had not yet been started.

Frustration mounting, I decided I needed to get out of this hot, dusty little town and travel to cooler destinations in Morocco. My baba assured me that by the time I came home again I could actually, you know, go home.

I bopped around Morocco with one of my friends, traveling from coastal beach towns to waterfalls to the capital to attend to some Peace Corps business. And my baba was right, when I returned back I was finally able to return to my home.

But there was no zilleej in sight.

IMG_0058
still no zilleej

——

Now, a little more backstory before you make your decisions. My landlord and his family live in Laayoune, a city far south of me in the Western Sahara, and usually travel to my town in the summer. I assume that this house is usually vacant in the summer, so they’ve been able to use the house at their leisure during their travels. My landlord also told me I only had to pay half-rent in July since… you know… they were living there instead.

But how would you have reacted?

Would you have pushed back? Was commandeering my house under the guise of doing zilleej just an example of Moroccans being indirect (as they often are)? Or was that just straight up lying?

I’m intrigued to hear what you would have done in my place.

But honestly, I’m just happy to have my house back.

“Will you vote for that man?”

So it turns out, the longer I’ve been in Morocco the less inclined I’ve been to write on this blog. Maybe it’s because things are no longer exciting and new. Life in Morocco doesn’t usually thrill me anymore in the way it did in those first few months and years, the way it would make me stop and stare and gape unabashedly.

I say usually because the other day I was riding in a shared taxi with a friend when a man on the side of the road flagged us down and proceeded to transport two of his goats in the trunk of the taxi. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t my first experience travelling with animals — but as the taxi started again, and we could hear the bleats of the goats as we bumped along the road I couldn’t help but laugh. “This would never happen in America…” I thought, as I shook my head.

And so, as I begin my third year of service with the Peace Corps in Morocco I hope that I can begin sharing with you different parts of my life more frequently. The small interactions that make my day, the weird experiences that still catch me off guard, or the intricacies of working and living in a foreign country. If you have any questions or suggestions about things I should write about, please send me a message or leave a comment! I’m always eager to hear what people are curious to learn or read about!!

Here’s a post a shared on Facebook last week about how the presidential election in the United States is affecting conversations I have with community members and friends in Morocco.

As always, thanks for reading. xx

——————————————————————-

Last night I was chatting with my Moroccan baba. He had watched coverage of the Republican National Convention on TV and wanted to talk to me, his American daughter, about it.

He railed on about how Trump was a liar and recited some of Trump’s proposals from his speech that he thought were bogus as I nodded along and commented that no, even though Trump may have a lot of money he won’t be using any of that to the benefit of the American people.

At this point my 9-year-old sister Khaoula, who had been listening to our banter intently, interrupts us, wide-eyed and says:

“Abir, why does he lie?”

And I had no answer for her.

“Abir,” she continued, “if he is one of the choices for president of the United States why is he allowed to lie?”

And I had no answer for her.

“Abir, will you vote for that man?”

And I finally had an answer.

“Absolutely not,” I said firmly as I pulled her close to me and kissed the top of her head.

As an American living abroad I am forced to defend and explain things about my native country every day.

“Does it ever get cold in America?” “How many states does America have?” “Why do people hate President Obama?” “Have you seen the show ‘The Jersey Shore’?” These questions are easy to answer.

“Why do your police keep killing people?” “Why do so many people in America have guns?” “Is it safe to live in America?” Even these questions, though complicated, I can attempt to explain.

But when it comes to Donald Trump, I have NO answers. And I can’t explain.

“Why does your country accept a man like Trump?” “Why does Trump hate all Muslims?” “Why does Trump want to keep people like us out of America?” These are all real questions people have asked me.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s part of my job to serve as a goodwill ambassador for America to my community in Morocco every day. I teach my students, friends, and family, that America is a country of diversity, of acceptance, of tolerance, of freedom. A country that embraces you for who you are, no matter what.

And all of my words, my promises of peace, are negated every time Donald Trump opens his mouth and spews his racist, xenophobic, sexist, Islamaphobic, fat-shaming rhetoric and it is broadcasted into people’s homes throughout the world.

We must show the word that we are better than Donald Trump.

People the world over idealize America. Not because of what we are — because let’s be real, there is a lot of fixing we can and must do — but because of our ideals and of the promises of what we can be. A place where a woman is valued as equally as a man. Where you are free to practice (or not practice) the religion of your choice. Where you are free to love who you want to love. Where you can speak out if you don’t agree. Where the media isn’t controlled by the state. Where people of every color and creed are treated equally.

America, the world is watching. Let’s live up to these ideals we say we hold so dear. We can and we must do better than Trump.

‪#‎NeverTrump‬ ‪#‎ClintonKaine‬ ‪#‎ImWithHer‬

2 years in Morocco

I have now spent two whole years in Morocco. Where has the time gone??

In honor of my second year in the ol’ Maghrib I thought I’d take a look back.

Here are my favorite moments of 2015.

blog1.jpg
At the workshop we taught art and sports activities (such as puzzle-making) caretakers can do with their children

JANUARY – My site-mate Laura put together a 2-day workshop intended for teachers and caretakers of people with disabilities. I was able to help by leading sessions on communication methods and using yoga as a tool to develop exercise habits and calmer behavior. During the workshop, one mother came up to Laura and said to her, “We thought we were the only ones….” She had no idea that there were other families in the community experiencing the same things that her family was. It was a transformative weekend in my service. It also helped me develop relationships with local counterparts that would be instrumental throughout the remainder of the year.

glow11

FEBRUARY – I led a Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camp for 30 local girls aged 11-17. The goal of the camp was to work with the girls on leadership, female empowerment, and practicing healthy lifestyles. I couldn’t have done it without the help of 4 amazing Moroccan women who have become very close friends of mine. (Read more here.)

blog2.jpg
At the District Spelling Bee in Guelmim with Ayoub, Ali, Ayoub and Teslam

MARCH – As an English teacher at the local youth center, I get to assist my students with their English learning in a variety of ways. One of these is by preparing them to compete in a Spelling Bee! If you knew me when I was younger you probably remember that Spelling Bees are a really big deal to me (and that I won the Booth Hill Elementary School Spelling Bee in 5th grade… just saying), so sharing that excitement with my students was so cool. First, I hosted a local spelling bee at our youth center with 21 participants. Then the top three finishers of the local bee and I traveled to compete in the district spelling bee in Guelmim, more than 5 hours away! Traveling with my students was hilarious and involved a lot of selfies. It was the first time many of them had traveled without their parents and many of their first time staying at a hotel. One of my students came in 2nd place at the district bee and therefore placed to compete at the national bee in the capital the next month. Needless to say, I was beaming with pride. These kids are so intelligent and hardworking and I am so lucky to have the opportunity to help them along their paths.

blog3.jpg
Campers at Ability Camp work together to begin a mural

APRIL – Laura (my site-mate) spent the majority of her third year in Peace Corps organizing Ability Camp, a 6-day overnight camp designed to be inclusive of campers with and without special needs. I was a counselor at the camp alongside 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers and some incredible Moroccan staff. We worked with 45 youth from our town, 15 of whom have special needs, to build an accessible playground at our local special needs association. During the camp we also played sports, did art projects, went on a field trip to a nearby oasis and put on a crazy talent show (in which I regrettably participated in a robot pop-locking dance). It was a week that I will never forget – and I’m so excited to say that I am currently planning Ability Camp 2 for this year!

blog4.jpg
With my friends (and fellow PCVs) Garrett and Anooj at the Gnaoua Music Festival

MAY – I traveled to Essaouira to work at the Gnaoua Music Festival with the ALCS, a Moroccan association that helps people with AIDS. Although the infection rate of AIDS in Morocco is still relatively low, there still remains a lot of stigma and misinformation about the disease. About twenty other Peace Corps Volunteers and I worked at the festival and had conversations with festival-goers about AIDS and encouraged them to get free testing done at the ALCS booth. By the end of the festival more than 1,100 people were tested! (Oh, and we got to see amazing live music each night.)

IMG_5462[1]
My sister Khawla and me in our blanket fort
JUNE – During June I had a brief period of homelessness and decided to live with my Moroccan family for about 3 weeks. After living in homestays for my first 4 months of service, I never thought I would want to repeat the experience (personal space is my friend). But living with them was so much fun. Each day I would run around with my sisters, practice English with my brothers, shoot the shit with my baba, and try and fail to help my mama cook. Then at night we’d all snuggle up outside underneath the stars and have tickle fights before we fell asleep. Now if I am away from their house for more than two days I’m greeted with “where have you been??” before I can even walk through the door.

blog5.jpg
Laura and me on the pink street in Lisbon

JULY – Laura’s contract with the Peace Corps ended at the end of June and then we went on a trip to Portugal together! She had a huge role in why I had such an incredible and successful first year in Peace Corps and I am so thankful for the friendship and guidance she has given me. We had an amazing trip in Portugal discovering hidden beaches on the edges of cliffs, indulging in things we’d missed while in Morocco, and working on our tans. Living in our desert town without her here just doesn’t feel the same.

blog6.jpg
Three generations in Spain

AUGUST – In August I traveled to Spain where I met my mom and grandmother for ten days of travel through Madrid and Barcelona! It was a hilarious trip. If you ever thought that I have a loud laugh, then you should meet my mom and grandma. And then imagine us sitting together at a restaurant sipping sangria. It’s definitely a sight to see.

blog7.jpg
With my friends on my first night in my new house, which also happened to be the day of my 25th birthday

SEPTEMBER – After seven months of searching, I finally moved into a new house in a small village at the edge of town. I made the decision to move because I wanted to be closer to my favorite people in town and to integrate and share more in their unique Amazigh traditions. Other perks include living on the edge of the oasis (there are tons of palm trees right outside my back door), cooler temperatures, a giant private roof, and a quieter neighborhood.

blog8.jpg
In Austin with my sister Molly

OCTOBER – 2015 was a big year of travel for me. Not only did I take vacations to Portugal and Spain, but I also made my way back to America for the first time in nearly 2 years! I spent time at my parents’ house in Texas, visited my sister at the University of Texas at Austin, made my return to Washington, DC, and went to my friends’ beautiful wedding. Even though I don’t miss America very often, I do miss the people that live there a lot. It meant so much to me that I was able to see all of my favorite people.

blog9.jpg
My book club students (plus a few friends) at one of our classes

NOVEMBER – When I returned to my town in the desert from America I found out that my youth center had been shut down for construction. It was originally only supposed to take two weeks, but I wasn’t optimistic that things would finish that quickly. I relayed this information to my students, and a group of them refused to halt our classes just because the youth center was closed. For the next two months, my book club students and I met at the café at the pool each week for our classes. Their dedication and enthusiasm for learning English continues to inspire me and drive my teaching.

blog10.jpg
In Chefchaouen, the blue city, with Kara

DECEMBER – I’m really lucky because several of my closest friends from college also joined the Peace Corps. We’ve been able to bond and empathize with each other throughout our services as we go through similar journeys. In December, my friend Kara completed her service in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and then came to visit me in Morocco! It was so surreal to have her by my side and to share Morocco with her. Traveling with her also made me fall in love with Morocco all over again. At nearly every restaurant we went to we were given free pots of tea, a tile maker in Chefchaouen chiseled each of us small blue hearts as gifts, and a calligraphy artist in Assilah wrote both of our names in Arabic calligraphy for us after I complimented his work. I felt so much love for the country that is now my home and to the people who made my trip with Kara so wonderful.

blog11.jpg

More than anything, it was the people in my life that made 2015 so memorable. This next year has a lot of changes and unknowns in store for me, but I know with these folks by my side I can handle anything.

(Want to read more? Check out my 2014 Peace Corps recap.)

Thoughts on getting hit by a car

I could feel the weather finally start to cool down. It was the first week of October but nearing 1pm the temperature inched towards 90 degrees. I slid on a pair of jeans and a light cardigan and rolled my bike out the front door. I rode slowly towards the center of town, as always marveling in the beauty around me.

As I passed the Dar Chebab where I work I casually looked over my left shoulder, checking for traffic on the deserted road and wondering what Abdelwahb’s family was making for lunch. I hadn’t visited their house in months and as I turned left thought about how excited I was to see them again.

The next thing I knew I was laying on the ground, my lungs burning and gasping for air. A small SUV sat parked twenty feet away from me, the driver still in his seat, unsure if he should get out or just drive away.

Slowly I put the pieces together. I had been hit by the car.

I looked down and realized I could barely feel my left leg. I tried to crawl out from under my bike which was laying on top of me. A crowd of men had already formed and were asking me questions in rapid fire – Do I want to call an ambulance? Do I want to go to the hospital? Do I want to call the police? Do I want to file a police report? – I answered none of them, shock still ringing in my ears and my lungs desperately searching for air.

With the help of two of the men I stood up and hobbled to the side of the road. Someone else found my shoes, which had flown off and scattered in the road, and brought them over to me. I asked for my phone and called my doctor from Peace Corps. She could barely hear me over the shock in my voice and the group of bystanders which had now amassed more than 20 people. I asked her if I should go to the local hospital (which I was explicitly instructed never to do). She said it was up to me. I asked if I should talk to the police. She said it was up to me.

Confused, and crying now, I hung up. The questions from the crowd continued. I didn’t know what to do.

I called my Moroccan dad, but he didn’t answer. Arabic failing me now, I needed someone to make decisions for me. I called one of my best friends, who coincidentally was in an accident in the very same spot just six months earlier, to come help me.

Ayoub arrived on the scene a few minutes later, out of breath as I was being led slowly into an ambulance by the local firefighters. I called another friend and told him to meet me at the hospital.

The emergency room was deserted on that sunny Sunday afternoon as Ayoub led me into the examination room. I was instructed to sit on the examination table and Ayoub was asked to leave. I slowly hoisted my leg onto the table and recalled my last and only other visit to a hospital in Morocco – the Hassan II Hospital in Agadir where Ayoub had surgery on his knee last spring after the accident.

Hassan II Hospital is notoriously known as the worst public hospital in Morocco. When I went to visit him his mom and I had to walk through blocks of rooms that almost looked like large jail cells. Ayoub’s section was dark, with floors that looked like they hadn’t been mopped in weeks. He was staying in a room with five other male patients with severe leg injuries. There was no nurse in sight and if he ever needed real assistance he often had to bribe someone with money to do so. He told me stories about how he had to hide his belongings because people would come in and steal them at night while they slept. He had been transferred there from our town’s hospital more than a week previously, and would have to wait more than another week to receive the surgery that would insert metal rods to repair his fractured knee.

As I pulled my own damaged leg on to the examination table at the Tata hospital, I couldn’t help but think of my friend who sat on the other side of the door and the horrible experiences he had gone through – yet knowing selfishly that if I had seriously injured my leg, I wouldn’t have to go through that. I would be rushed to a hospital in the capital or more likely, flown back to see doctors in America. In that moment the power of my privilege – my citizenship – hurt more than the leg I was unable to move.

Just then my friend Ilyas rushed into the room, panic-stricken and out of breath, interrupting my train of thought. As soon as he saw my face he breathed a sigh of relief while I consoled him – “I’m fine, I’m fine,” a motto I would stick to in the coming weeks while my limp persisted. He stated his purpose as my translator and refused to leave the room.

The nurse walked toward me and began applying red anti-bacterial ointment to the road rash cuts still bleeding on my knuckles and tops of my feet. He never washed them with soap and water. He then began to examine my leg. It had been crushed so hard between the car and the bars of my bike that the swelling was clear from across the room. It was so swollen that I couldn’t roll up my jeans above my ankle for him to examine the injury. He never asked me to change. He moved his hands across my calf and shin, over my jeans, never feeling my foot or above the knee. He stated what I believed to be true already – it wasn’t broken. Then he stepped away from the table and the exam was over.

He never asked if I had hit my head (I did). I was never given tests to check for a concussion. I was never given tests to check for internal injuries. No x-rays were taken. He never physically saw the injury to my lower leg, nor the bruising and cuts on my upper thigh.

The doctor sat on the other side of the room and never examined me. She only asked if I was up to date on my shots, prescribed pain medication, and gave us a serious attitude.

The whole encounter lasted less than ten minutes.

I received a call from Peace Corps the following afternoon requesting that I immediately make the more than sixteen hour journey to the capital. No Peace Corps contracted drivers were available that week so I had to make the entire journey via public transportation, further aggravating the severe swelling to my lower leg.

Upon arriving to Rabat thirty-six hours after the accident I was walking on my own, albeit slowly and with a noticeable limp. I had also developed severe whip lash pain in my neck that made it difficult for me to lift my head on my own. There, in Morocco’s capital city and in the care of Peace Corps, I received all of the tests my local hospital had neglected to give me. My head was checked for a concussion (negative). My body was checked for internal injuries (negative). I had more than ten x-rays taken of my neck, left leg, and left foot (all negative).

Everything came back clear. I was going to be okay.

I’m not writing this story to garner sympathy. I am not concerned about the status of my health care. I know that in the case of an emergency I would be given the best health care Morocco has to offer. In the case of an extreme accident I would be airlifted out. I would be flown to America. I never would have to go through what Ayoub did. I would never be taken to the Hassan II Hospital in Agadir. My citizenship guarantees that.

Someone asked me while I was visiting in America a few weeks ago what the hardest part of serving in the Peace Corps is. He asked me if it was hard to see things that I know I can’t change. This situation is exactly what he was asking about.

One of the cornerstones of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is learning to live just as your community members do. Sure, I speak the local language, I shop at the local markets, I work at the local centers with local women and youth. I eat the same food, drink the same water, live in the same type of house. I don’t have hot water or modern plumbing or air conditioning or indoor heat.

But I have disproportionately better health care. If I so much as cough funny Peace Corps will pay for me to go to the capital to be checked out by our doctors. I see a dentist once a year for a check-up. I know that in the case of strife I would be one of the first people out of the country and out of harm’s way.

My community members don’t have that.

If you’ve ever heard of Peace Corps Volunteers or humanitarians or aid workers talking about the guilt they feel – this is it. The harsh reality that we never will understand everything, never will be fully integrated, never will be just the same.

Because our privilege prevents it.

Over a month after the accident, I still feel butterflies in my stomach every time a car passes me. But it’s not because I’m afraid of getting hit again. I’m afraid one of my friends or one of my students or one of my neighbors will.