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.]

On quantifying your work

The Peace Corps is an independent agency within the executive branch of the United States government. Our funding is determined by Congress each year through the typical appropriations process and amounts to only 1% of the foreign operations budget (last year it was about $379 million).

As such, Peace Corps Volunteers are asked to write several reports each year to document their projects and justify the use of the funds to the American taxpayers (hi guys!).  Here in Peace Corps Morocco we write this report, called the Volunteer Reporting Form (VRF), every six months and our current reporting period ends next week.

The main goal of the VRF is to quantify our work. Which Peace Corps goal were you working towards? Which Cross Sector Programming Priorities (CSPP) did you focus on (Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, People with Disabilities, etc.)? How many participants were there? How old were they? How did you evaluate the effectiveness of this activity? What is the number of youth that demonstrated improved decision making, critical thinking and problem solving skills? How many peer educators were trained to conduct outreach to promote youth sexual and reproductive health? How many youth were tutored for the BAC English exam?

Completing the VRF accurately takes hours of tedious work and proper preparation beforehand while conducting the activities. Volunteers love to hate the VRF, but we all understand its importance in securing our funding and justifying our work around the globe.

But the majority of our work can’t be quantified on the VRF.

I recently started a Book Club at my Dar Chebab (We’re reading The Giver — so fun!). Here’s what my VRF will tell you about the project:

Screenshot 2015-03-22 18.44.41

  • Did this activity support Peace Corps Goal One? Yes.
  • Did you collaborate with other Volunteers on this activity? No.
  • Did this activity take place in your site? Yes.
  • Participants? 2 Males (10-17), 8 Males (18-24), 2 Females (10-17), 2 Females (18-24)
  • Number of youth who reported or demonstrated enhanced skill(s), asset(s) or interest(s): Total – 14, Achieved – 12

Here’s what the numbers on the VRF won’t tell you.

For 11 out of the 14 students in Book Club this is the first book they’ve ever read in English. For 6 of the students this is the first book they have ever read, period.

The students now carry around their copies of The Giver with pride, prompting other students at the Dar Chebab to ask me questions like, “What is The Giver?“, “Are you going to do another Book Club so that I can participate?”, and “Do you have another book that I can read?”

Starting the Book Club has motivated my director of the Dar Chebab and the delegue of the ministry to clean up and fix our tiny library. They have swept the floors, repaired the book shelves, and added new desks and computers to the room due to the increased interest in reading shown by the students.

Every day I now have a teenager pop into my classroom asking, “What does shivering mean?” or “What does glanced mean?” or “Why did the author write ‘that’s what I am’ instead of ‘that’s who I am'”?

There’s no place on the VRF to write that one of my students brought his book with him and read all three assigned chapters while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Or that I don’t have enough copies of the book so some students are reading a PDF copy while they sit at cyber cafes.

There’s no indicator on the VRF that can capture that students are learning how to lead discussions on their own, and for the first time in their lives they are equal partners in a club where the teacher doesn’t have all of the answers.

There’s so much that the VRF can’t capture.

But that’s Peace Corps. There’s no number that can truly measure our impact.

My (Our) Second Home

The Dar Chebab (youth center) is my second home.

IMG_6057

Every afternoon I pack up my backpack with lesson plans and books and whiteboard markers and begin the short walk towards the center. I drop by my favorite hanut to buy a snack (lately: Coke and Snickers) and chat about the changes in the weather (he has officially announced that l-brt mcha, the cold has left) before assuming my way once more.

My work at the center is focused on teenagers. Oh, the teenagers. A group of kids walking around in grown up bodies, trying to make sense of their lives and the world around them. I gaze around me and watch budding romances form and the sting as they fade away. I watch their hairstyles change and the chase for the ever-elusive label of “being cool.” I know which kids come to my class to learn, and which ones come to socialize.

I’m literally watching these kids grow up before my eyes.

IMG_2252

I think a lot about the Dar Chebab and what it means to me. How it has given me somewhere to belong in a place so far from home. How it has given me a group of people to care about, and who care about me.

What I’ve failed to spend enough time thinking about, however, is what the Dar Chebab means to them. What is it about the Dar Chebab that makes them come back, day after day?

Last week I decided to ask.

We were learning how to write haikus, and for their application activity I asked them to write me a haiku about why they like the Dar Chebab or what the Dar Chebab means to them.

IMG_4785

Here’s a sampling of what they wrote:

We learn some good things / It is my air that I breathe / It makes me better

I love Dar Chebab / Taught me the meaning of life / It makes me happy

Hm hm Dar Chebab / Girls and boys are beautiful / We have a good time

Oh oh Dar Chebab / I’m happy with Abbey / I like Dar Chebab

Dar Chebab is great / It is a wonderful world / I love it so much

Dar Chebab so good / Abbey makes our minds better / We love you so much

I like Dar Chebab / You’re my best place in my life / I am so happy

Dar Chebab is my place / I am so happy with you / I like it so much

In the Dar Chebab / We spend most of our good time / It makes me happy

I love Dar Chebab / Happy happy Dar Chebab / Dar Chebab wow wow

My love Dar Chebab / You make me be so happy / You’re my best teacher

I like Dar Chebab / Dar Chebab is beautiful / I love you Abir

IMG_4155

What did I learn?

The Dar Chebab isn’t a second home to only me.

Girls Leading Our World

Last week I saw the culmination of my biggest project in Peace Corps so far — my town’s very first Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camp!

glowgroup

With the assistance of four truly incredible and beautiful Moroccan female counterparts and three spunky American Peace Corps Volunteers, we put together a four day sleepover camp (sleep being more of a suggestion in the end) for 30 middle school aged Moroccan girls. And it was wonderful.

IMG_4726

GLOW Camps are part of a global Peace Corps initiative that seeks to empower young women across the world. Each camp is uniquely designed by Peace Corps Volunteers and tailored toward the specific needs of their host country. Popular GLOW Camp themes include promoting gender equality, fostering positive self-esteem, encouraging healthy lifestyles, learning about career opportunities and more. Here is a video produced by Peace Corps if you are interested in learning more about GLOW Camps worldwide.

glow1

glow2

For the past three months I have lived and breathed this project. The work leading up to the camp included writing my first grant, conducting hours of meetings with community leaders, designing sessions with my counterparts, and a lot of sleepless nights. (All on top of daily programming and classes at the Dar Chebab, my family’s visit, a workshop for parents of youth with special needs, and organizing a Spelling Bee. Yiikes I’m tired just thinking about this again.)

To me, the importance of a GLOW Camp here in my town in Morocco was paramount. I live in a place where, day in and day out, young females are not afforded the same opportunities as their male peers. I wanted to create a camp where girls could believe in the power of being a girl and their ability to change the world. I wanted them to believe that their gender doesn’t have to be the determining factor on whether or not they will achieve their dreams, that they are capable of anything and everything they set their minds to.

glow3glow4

We talked about what it means to be a girl, and why sometimes we wished we were boys. We talked about the importance of positive self-esteem and what we love about ourselves. We talked about the dreams we have for our futures and how to create a plan to achieve them. We talked about our bodies and how to keep them healthy.

We made homemade face masks and laid on our beds side-by-side with cucumbers over our eyes (and munched on the extras). We sang boom chicka boom and clapped to traditional Amazigh songs. We danced to the Macarena and the Cupid Shuffle. We played relay races and freeze tag and worked our bodies with aerobics and yoga. We performed skits that talked about gender roles in our everyday lives. We made dreamcatchers out of paper plates, string and beads to hang over our beds and remember the lofty goals we set for ourselves.

And we laughed. We laughed a lot.

glow5glow6

On the last night of the camp we all stood together in a circle and talked about our dreams. My heart overflowed with pride as each girl smiled and took her turn sharing her goal. The energy in the room was full of hope and desire for the future, a room full of Morocco’s future doctors and teachers and singers and engineers and policewomen and fashion designers and surgeons and chefs. We each illuminated a glow stick as a promise to ourselves that we will work every day towards achieving our dreams — and then we danced the night away.

glow7

At the end of camp each girl was presented with a certificate that says “[her name] is a strong and beautiful girl that is capable of changing the world.” My hope is that each girl will look back on that certificate and this camp for years to come and believe that statement. Because I do. I believe in each of them so much.

glow11

Look out world! These girls are comin’ for ya.

365 Days in Morocco: Year One By The Numbers

I have now spent 365 days in Morocco.

majorellesmall

Sometimes I walk through the streets of my town, or the dirt-laced paths that weave through the grove of date palms, and I have to pinch myself. This is my life now I think to myself, and look up at the beautiful mountains and the ever-sunny sky and smile with wonder.

But most often, when I’m fistbumping the kids that come to my youth center or greeting my favorite hanut owners when I walk down the street, I don’t need to pinch myself at all. In my head it’s all so matter-of-fact: This is my life. As if living as a foreigner in a small desert town in the middle of nowhere was something that people do all the time.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, over the past 365 days the word “normal” to me has completely reinvented itself. The wide-eyed girl who stepped off the plane in Casablanca one year ago always knew she’d get to this point, but it’s still amazing to look back and marvel in all of the things that have happened.

So, in honor of this anniversary let’s take a look at this past year by the numbers:

palmeriesmall

On the place I call home — In the past year I have lived:

  • With 2 different host families for a total of 4 months
  • In my own apartment for 8 months, the first time I have ever lived alone
  • 0 days living with hot water, insulated walls, indoor heat, or air-conditioning
  • 6 hour bus ride away from the closest major city, grocery store, real restaurant, etc.

IMG_6178

On how I spend money 

  • The amount of my monthly stipend: $350 USD (which I rarely spend all of)
  • The cost of a loaf of bread: 15 cents US
  • Pieces of new, unused clothing that I have purchased: 0
  • Number of times I have accessed my US bank account: 0

IMG_4241

On learning new language(s) —

  • 220 hours of formal instruction in Darija (Moroccan Arabic)
  • 60 hours of formal instruction in Tashelheet (a dialect spoken by the Amazigh people in my region)
  • Days that there has been at least one conversation that I didn’t fully understand: 365

doodlessmall

On the weather —

  • Number of months at site where the temperature rose over 100 degrees F: 7
  • Average temperature in the summer at site: 120 degrees F
  • Hottest temperature experienced at site: 140 degrees F
  • 2 major floods experienced, the worst my region has seen in more than 30 years

camelsmall

On things I do for fun —

  • Number of photographs taken: 4,768
  • Number of books read: 21
  • Number of parasites I’ve had treated: 2 (just kidding that wasn’t fun)
  • Number of visitors I’ve had in Morocco: 6
  • Number of major Moroccan cities I have traveled to: 8

IMG_4277

On my work —

  • Hours it takes me to travel to the capital: 15
  • Number of grants I have written: 1
  • Number of vacation days that I’ve taken: 9
  • Number of youth that cried in the Haunted House7
  • Number of Peace Corps committees I am a part of: 1 committee, 1 volunteer-run group
  • Number of students who regularly cram into my classes at the Dar Chebab50

teachsmall

Number of days that I’ve regretted joining the Peace Corps: 0

Building Our Community’s First Accessible Playground

I don’t think I’ve told this to y’all before — but I have the most incredible sitemate here in Peace Corps Morocco.

Laura lives here in the same southern Moroccan town as me, right upstairs from me to be exact. We both work at the same Dar Chebab in town and collaborate on a lot of our Peace Corps projects. She is one of the most hardworking and selfless Peace Corps Volunteers that I know.

IMG_4106

Over the course of her service Laura has partnered with a local special needs association to serve youth with special needs in our community. On a large scale, youth with special needs in rural Morocco are hindered by an extreme lack of extracurricular and educational opportunities, and Laura has worked to fill this void by providing art and English classes to those in need in our community. This spring, Laura will take her hard work even further by building our community’s first accessible playground!

In April, we will be implementing a service learning “Ability Camp” for 30 at-risk youth with and without special needs in partnership with several associations in our community. Each morning, the campers will participate in a variety of activities that explore themes of inclusion and respect such as art, sports, and theatre. Then in the afternoon, the youth will work together to build their community’s first accessible playground.

The playground will be accessible, safe, and engaging for all youth.  It will feature a variety of activities to incorporate play for children of all abilities, including: a music wall for sensory and creative play; a play kitchen and house for imaginative play, to serve as a quiet space for children who can feel overwhelmed or anxious from sensory overload; a basketball hoop and accessible seesaw for active play; discovery panels and games for sensory and academic play; a small walkway with handle bars for strength and balance training; as well as murals promoting inclusion, education, and diversity!

IMG_2273

We have three main goals for the Ability Camp:

  1. Providing youth with special needs an opportunity to present themselves as contributors to their community, as opposed to mere recipients of care;
  2. Allowing campers to apply the lessons they learned during their morning activities to real life;
  3. Providing a safe, low-maintenance space where everyone, regardless of ability, is welcome to play, make friends, and continue to build a community of inclusion.

In order to make this Ability Camp a possibility we need YOUR help!

Our community has committed to providing for the camp food, staff, transportation, and lodging — which amounts to more than 55% of our budget. However, we still need help raising money to cover the costs of the playground equipment and the morning activities of the camp.

Please consider making a donation to this amazing cause by going to Laura’s Peace Corps fundraising page. Your donation will directly empower youth with special needs, as well as break down the attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder them from achieving their fullest potential.

Thank you for taking the time to read about our project! Please check back in the upcoming months for photos and stories about the progress of our community’s first accessible playground!

——————————————————————————

UPDATE: As of December 23, 2014 the project has been FULLY FUNDED! Thank you to everyone who generously contributed to this project!

Celebrating Halloween in Morocco

Happy (belated) Halloween! One of my assignments as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to share parts of American culture with my friends and students in Morocco. Therefore, in the spirit of one of America’s silliest and spookiest holidays, we threw an epic Halloween party for the youth of my Dar Chebab last month!

20141101_173231

With the assistance of four other incredible Volunteers, my site-mate and I were able to organize our town’s first Halloween extravaganza (all while dressed in costume, of course). For the first two hours of the event, the youth were invited to partake in a rotation of activities set up in a large theatre room at the Dar Chebab. These activities included face painting, decorating masks, “pin the heart on the skeleton,” fishing for candy, “guess the amount of candies in the jar,” and a Frankenstein and Witch “face-in-hole” photo station.

20141101_183503

IMG_6327

20141101_183559

20141101_184829

Following these activities, we had the youth partake in their very first “donut dangle” competition! We don’t necessarily have “donuts” here in Morocco, but a scrumptious Moroccan delicacy called sfinj made the perfect substitute.

IMG_6330

IMG_6342

For the grand finale of the Halloween party we created our very own spooky Haunted House! In order to create a scary path for the youth to walk through, we set up a maze of tables through a classroom in the Dar Chebab that connects to the stage in the theater room via a small staircase. On top of each table we stacked two chairs on top of each other and draped an assortment of sheets and blankets over them to create “walls.”

IMG_3779

To add a bit of lighting to the dark pathways we cut spooky faces out of old boxes and cardboard and put glowsticks or flashlights inside. We also created a tunnel out of tables that the kids then had to crawl through, which turned out to be one of the scariest parts of the Haunted House for most of them!

IMG_3778

Once everything was ready to go, I led groups of 4 kids at a time through the Haunted House. We had creepy music playing and everything was dark. The kids had absolutely no idea what to expect and walked very slowly through the paths, most often holding hands (with their friends or with me). Peace Corps Volunteers were strategically placed at various points throughout the path and proceeded to jump out and scream at the passersby. I had to talk more than a few youths through completing the Haunted House because it was so scary (“Don’t be scared! It’s okay! I promise they won’t scare you anymore if you don’t want! Don’t be scared! It’s almost over!”) and some made me take them out early. There were more than a few tears and some minor damage to the shirt I was wearing as children (both young and teenagers) clutched my arm a little too tightly, but all in all everyone had a fantastic time and begged us to let them go through the Haunted House again!!

IMG_6350

IMG_3784

10814311_326994257492130_108417899_n

We had nearly 100 youth from my town participate in our Halloween party and I’m already getting questions about when we’re going to do it again — so I’d call that a HUGE success! Thanks to the Peace Corps Volunteers and Moroccan teenagers who helped with this spooktacular event!

(And special thanks to Peace Corps for letting me have the coolest job out there.)