With its progressive Family Code and embrace of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Morocco is often hailed as the poster child for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite these advances, Morocco still lags behind in the economic and social empowerment of girls. With over 55% of all women being illiterate – 90% in rural areas – and a low rate of female employment, Moroccan women continue to face many challenges. For the most disadvantaged groups, single women and widows, the obstacles can be even higher. The Amal Center, a restaurant and training center, hopes to change that reality by giving support and training to disadvantaged Moroccan women. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to founder Nora Fitzgerald about how Amal (which means “hope” in Arabic) is inspiring local Moroccan women and making a difference.
You’re American, so the obvious question is… how did you end up in Morocco?
My parents moved to Morocco in the 1970s, and I was born and raised here. I went to the United States for four years for university, and then I moved back and I got married and started a family. It wasn’t my motivation at the time, but in retrospect, I think there’s a lot to do—a lot that can be accomplished in Morocco. Things will only improve if people who go abroad to get high quality skills come back to contribute rather than stay abroad.
We hear a lot about brain drain in Sub-Saharan Africa, but is it also an issue in Morocco?
Big time. It’s hard to blame the young people because they go abroad and study in places where they feel valued and allowed to utilize their creative energy.
How did you start the Amal Center?
One day, I encountered a poor woman begging on the street. She was a single mom of two kids. There’s a lot of skepticism and cynicism about people in that position, so I wanted to know her story. I got to know her, and in going to her house and learning more about her life, I realized how tough it is for some women in Moroccan society. After ten hours of begging, sometimes she’d only come away with $2—I couldn’t reconcile that with the world I know where $2 is a cup of coffee or orange juice that you don’t even finish. At that moment, it was truly heartbreaking for me to see her children and know that they’re hungry.
I’ve lived in Morocco my whole life and I’ve always seen beggars on the street, but when I saw that vulnerable woman and her children, when I had children the same age, begging on the street, something shifted in me. From that moment, I couldn’t just look away from the problem. At first, it started with fundraising and trying to help the woman. For five years or so, my friends and I combed our networks and found people to donate money, food, and clothing. Then it expanded to some other women I met because I was moved by the conditions they lived in and how much they loved their children.
After about five or six years, I was dissatisfied with that model because it wasn’t sustainable. We were helping them survive, but we weren’t impacting them in a lasting way. That’s when my thinking started to change and I started to think more about what they needed most—jobs. That’s how the idea for the restaurant came. At first, I only worked with two women on simple baking projects that I helped manage. It worked so well because they were so motivated and excited about it.
In 2012, things really shifted when I decided I wanted a bigger place and wanted structure. I went from someone who was mildly implicated in my spare time to taking on so much responsibility in turning Amal into a full-fledged NGO. It wasn’t too difficult to convince people to contribute because they knew how I had worked with the women beforehand and saw the potential for a lasting impact on people’s lives.
The center is registered as a nonprofit. Why did you make that choice rather than make it a for-profit venture?
You could say that I’m really good at doing things I don’t get paid for! [Laughs.] I’m not ambitious in that way—I have a job outside of my work with Amal and my husband works, so I wasn’t forced to make it a for-profit to survive. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure what it would look like. Originally, I tried to register it as a cooperative, but the paperwork for that was quite complicated. Someone in the Chamber of Handicrafts that we’ve affiliated with advised me to set up a nonprofit because that process is more streamlined.
Have you faced any challenges in the nonprofit model?
It’s interesting to balance something that is a type of business – we have a restaurant that serves 100 to 200 people for lunch daily – with a social mission. We want our food to be professional and top quality and also make enough money for the organization to survive. Both of those things require energy.
How do you identify and hire the women you work with?
There’s a huge pool of applicants. Many women qualify because we look at financial and social need. We focus on women who are at a disadvantage in Moroccan society: those who haven’t gotten the chance to finish their education, worked from a very early age, single mothers, etc.
Our program is rigorous and not everyone is cut out for working in the restaurant business, so we do a series of interviews to learn about the women and ascertain whether they’re motivated and have the capacity to see it through.
Who trains the women?
As our organization has gotten more structured, we’ve hired a chef who’s worked in the restaurant industry. He oversees the kitchen.
In parallel, we have an older Moroccan woman who is the matriarch of the kitchen and instructs the women in traditional techniques that reflect how our mothers and grandmothers cooked.
You’ve mentioned that some of the women are at a disadvantage in Moroccan society and have faced a lot of hardship in their lives. What would you say are the major challenges facing Moroccan women?
We have a high rate of illiteracy among men and women, but it’s substantially higher in women. Over 50% of Moroccans are illiterate, especially in rural areas. In the cities, you might see many women who are educated, but when you look at Morocco as a whole, the state of literacy is quite bleak. Most of Morocco is rural and these women, by and large, have not had access to education.
Women are very motivated to work and do well for themselves and take care of their families, but there’s a very big informal economy that is dominated by women. So while many women might be working, they’re often not even making minimum wage or guaranteed any benefits or job security.
As a single woman is it easy to find work in Morocco?
A lot of employers prefer to employ single women because they don’t have to deal with the competing obligations of family life, but for single mothers, it is quite difficult both socially and economically. That’s why we try to focus many of our opportunities on those women. Society here is very traditional and marriage-based, so those women are often on their own and shunned by their families. Many single mothers in Morocco have struggled economically even prior to having children. For example, many of them are former domestic workers.
How many women have you worked with since you started?
The women train for six months before they graduate. Our fifth class is about to graduate. We started out with nine students in the first one, but now we’ve trained over sixty women.
Where do these women end up post-graduation?
We do a lot of job prospection, so we’ve built up a really good network in Marrakesh. A lot of people trust us and will come to us looking for workers. Because the tourism industry is so big, there are many restaurants and hotels, including riads, which are like small homes that have been converted into bed-and-breakfasts. There’s a big demand for qualified people, so the job placement rate has been very good: around 80% of the graduates have solid jobs.
What are some of your most urgent needs at the Amal Center?
We have a staff of about fifteen people including a managing director, a social worker, etc., but we really value volunteers—especially people who can commit to a period of time. We offer two kinds of volunteer positions: some people come for a month or more or people who are local and can volunteer on a regular basis. Volunteers have been key to how we function.
Do you have any plans to expand Amal in the near future?
There’s a large demand for our program. Our sixth class begins in March and we have ninety applicants—and that’s without us going out to search for people. And we only have twenty positions. We want to create more opportunities for these women. I’d love to reach a stage where we could accept 100 people. We’re hoping to have another branch by September 2016. We’re not looking to reproduce the restaurant, but we’re thinking we might open a catering service for school lunches in Marrakesh. We’re in the design and feasibility stage, but if that’s successful, we can rapidly expand training opportunities. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.