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Yesterday, my host mother politely asked me if it was possible that I move into the guest bedroom during my last two days in the program. She told me that an IES Rabat summer exchange student will be beginning his or her program those two days before I leave, and he or she will be moving into my bedroom. After all that my host mother had done for me, of course I said yes.  But I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting a little. For the past five months I’ve felt as if I was someone special in my homestay. Like I was a part of the family. Like I was her son.

And I still was. My host mom packed me lunches, changed my sheets, and would cook cous cous in the masses for me to share with her and her five actual sons. I was a part of the family, but in a week, I would be going. Replaced by another IES Rabat exchange student in my final days. To be completely honest, I felt slightly annoyed that I would be moving out of my bedroom to make way for my replacement. Sort of like when the youngest child realizes that another baby is on the way; I couldn’t help but feel jealous.

I went for a walk later that day, taking my usual route. I said labas to my hanout man who appropriately smiled back with an L’Hamdulillah and a free Snickers. I walked along the beaches, dabbing up Nabil who urged me to throw on a wetsuit, “The waves are green, not white today, brother.” Even Abdessamad (the youngest of my five host brothers) was out on his motorcycle, screaming khouya at me as he sped by. (Abdessamad spoke no English or French. We communicated through slap-boxing. He was immense, gigantic, capable of fits of cosmic anger, sitting at the world’s border, doing his night watchman’s job. He was an Assas).

It all hit me so quick. There’s going to be a new kid moving into my bedroom. My bedroom. Suddenly, this community that I had worked so hard to become a part of was all going to be gone within a week. Where I lived, I could lose any cop through the nooks and crannies of the medina, I could show you all the best street food spots, and I had made enough friends in the medina to build a football roster. And as of yesterday, I was being reminded that I was just another study abroad student in a homestay that moved exchange students in and out like a freshmen dorm. Yeah, it stung a little.

So, what does this all have to do with my service experience in Rabat. For starters, maybe volunteering is just masturbation. Maybe volunteering is meant for the volunteer to pat themselves on the back for the work that they’ve done, and then return back to the States to proceed with their daily lives. After all, next week I will be replaced by another study abroad student who may also be coming to Rabat with bright eyes, hoping to improve the community through various acts of service. How many exchange students were there before me who volunteered in Rabat?

Yeah, I know. I sound angry. More so like a jealous boyfriend.

Maybe Mr. Healy was right. “Never write with jealousy.” But to that I’d say, I don’t think I’m jealous, I honestly think I’m just writing with sadness. Sad that I’m going to have to leave soon. My previous blog posts speak for themselves. I taught English classes, planted trees, cleaned the beaches, took care of orphaned cats and dogs, helped the homeless, and wrote research papers. However, despite my sad, angry, and jealous state I’m about to contradict myself: those acts weren’t for the benefit of my own self-esteem. If anything, by committing myself to service in Rabat I became closer with the people in the community more than I ever could’ve believed when this program began.

Of course the people of Rabat have gotten used to American students living in their city and devoting themselves to service, but it’s not like they viewed the work that was being done as any less. I’m marginal enough in this city as it is. If anything, volunteering was a mechanism for inclusion, for friendships, and for being accepted into the family. Through the acts of service that I had done, I had demonstrated to the people of Rabat that I didn’t see their home as just another Arab/Muslim country (or “Sandbox” as a stranger had so politely put it). When I taught English or picked litter off the street, I was showing that as an American that comes from a privileged world, I see the beauty in their sandstone streets, and their thundering minarets. I see the preciousness in their religion that calls the country together, or their cous cous fridays that calls families together. The long periods of idleness, the frustrations, the wish to drink out in the open, I loved it all, and I was a part of it all!

At the end of the day, the most important act of service that I had done was showing that I loved Morocco, and that I loved Rabat, and that I loved every face hidden behind the hood of a djellaba.

I cared. And yeah it sounds corny, but if anything, it’s arrogant of me to believe that I will go down as the greatest volunteer Rabat had ever seen. It’s inevitable that I will be forgotten in time, but I’m okay with that. I know that the volunteer work that I had done had made a lasting impact on the friends that I made, because I saw the true value of Rabat. And as a result, I saw the true Rabat.

Maybe that’s the whole point of volunteering. I don’t know.

I cannot believe that I am at the tail end of my abroad program. I’ll never forget my first week of orientation and thinking to myself, “This is going to be the longest semester of my life.”

            It wasn’t.

            When your weekday is filled to the brim with classes, cultural immersion activities, work, and surfing, it is easy to lose track of the months. But here I still am, writing to you about my service experience that has been so prominent throughout my semester abroad.

            The first half of the semester I felt as if I properly committed myself to the community of Rabat through various acts of service. I worked with the poor, became a role model for children, cleaned the beaches and ocean, planted trees, and took care of homeless cats and dogs. The service that I did spanned an array of activities that all came with immediate gratification, where I saw first hand how my actions helped the community. While this was of course rewarding [in that I felt more connected with the people of Rabat] I wanted the second half of my community service journey to focus more so on the long-term affects of service. This comes in the form of research, and I’ll explain why.

            Outside of school, I intern at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis (MIPA). This job has been a blessing, and has provided me with so many opportunities. One of which was meeting consular officers from the U.S. Embassy and U.S State Department in Rabat. I was invited to have dinner with a few U.S. State Department foreign service officers, and at the dinner table we discussed the world of foreign service and the work that they did. I asked one officer named Ryan (who everyone called “The Boss”) if he could see the physical results from the work that he and his colleagues were doing.

            “Maybe there is a paper I wrote that will help the Moroccan government in the next decade,” he responded, with a smile.

            He then proceeded to explain how when you commit yourself to foreign service, specifically in the world of public policy and international affairs, you sacrifice feelings of instant gratification. However, That doesn’t mean that the work you’re doing is any less fulfilling. It just means that it takes a longer process for your work to be recognized, implemented, and then impact the community. Whether it is a paper on the importance of feminism, the hidden LGBTQ community in Morocco, the reception of western media, or the flow of innovation through trade; all research, essays, and studies done are meant to aid the Moroccan community in the long-run.

            During the second half of my program I have committed myself to long-term forms of service. Through my internship at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, I have conducted thorough research on the topic of the acceptance of Islam in the western world. I believe that I have a very unique perspective on this issue, having many Moroccan friends with pretty radical views of the United States and democracy. I draw connections between isolationism to radicalism among young Muslim men, and I also critique American and European cultures for isolating Muslim communities. My paper will be published at the end of the semester on the MIPA website, and I hope that in the long-run my work will be cited, shared, praised, debated or even rebuked. Regardless, I know that I will not see the immediate effects of my work, like my physical acts of service, but I hope that my paper will serve the community of Rabat long after my return back to the states.

We travelled four hours by van to the point where the asphalt became dirt, and the dirt became rocks. The van had been rocked side to side, like a boat fighting a storm, teasing a capsize. Lilah was huddled away in the back of the van, stomaching her throw up. Four hours in a van with closed windows and interminable traditional Moroccan music (you know, the heavy drums, flutes, and whistles) made us all a little sea sick.

            “It will be worth it in the end,” we were promised.

And it was. L’Hamdulillah.

We were heading into the Atlas Mountains in the east of Morocco. A place on the outskirts of Ifrane National Park, where the typically hot and flat Moroccan terrain became hoards of Atlas cedars casting cold shadows in the already freezing climate.  I wanted a jacket. Lilah wanted to puke.

In the heights of the Atlas Mountains was a village called Ben Smim. Our weekend excursion was a cultural immersion experience through a homestay with an Amazigh family in a true Amazigh village. The Amazigh population, also known as Berbers, are the indigenous ethnic group to Morocco, predating the Arab population that came to Morocco centuries later. They are often left out of the political system in Morocco, forgotten in the Moroccan mountains, where they reside in rural villages and towns with poor infrastructure, and less job opportunities. But that doesn’t make them unhappy. If the lack of economic benefits made them unhappy then they wouldn’t have greeted the incoming students with a traditional Amazigh concert and dance party! We were swarmed by children and hugged by mothers. We couldn’t speak their language, and they couldn’t speak ours, but never before has language been so unimportant. It’s amazing how quickly humans can bond through the words “Eat,” and “A lot.”

My roommate, Noah, and I fell asleep on our couches to the howls of dogs, and we awoke early in the morning to the cries of roosters. Animals were key to every household in Ben Smim. Almost every family owned a couple chickens, a cow, and maybe a cat or dog. Most of the food prepared came from the animals that the family had owned or from whatever the neighbors were willing to sell. And even though the economic conditions were weathered, each morning and each night Noah and I were presented with plates of the most delicious, farm-to-table meals.

It was a no-brainer when we were asked if we wanted to give back to the community. When they would provide for us, the Amazighs of Ben Smim asked for nothing in return. So when we began planting a garden in their one elementary school, we were thanked graciously. A number of us took it into our own hands to organize a soccer game with all the local children. I was shocked when an audience came about to watch the Moroccans face off against the Americans. It was a fun day filled with giving back to the Amazigh people.

However, the acts of service I wanted to do involved truly giving back to the community. I wanted to repair houses, pave the roads, and fix street lamps. It took a hearty dinner of laughs and bad Arabic for me to realize that the Amazigh people of Ben Smim didn’t need our help. They were happy just to host us. In the future, a true act of service that I know I will commit to would be to spread the history, culture, and problems of the Amazigh people. I want to share the stories of my host mom her husband and their two children. I plan on lending my voice to theirs, making their voice louder, to hopefully make them heard in Moroccan politics, and around the world. This blog post isn’t a bad start:

Labas? Labas L'Hamdulillah!

How are you? Good, Praise be to God!

It was an exchange I made with almost every Moroccan on the street. Whether it was my host dad, my professors, or my hanout guy, it wasn't uncommon to say L'Hamdulillah after almost every greeting. At first I felt like I was appropriating a culture, a culture that I was new to. I was a foreigner still, with a target on my back for all the merchants and vendors to try and scam me out of a few Dirham. But I was assured by almost everyone in Morocco that speaking Diriga (their country's dialect of Arabic) was necessary if I truly desired complete immersion and inclusivity. Everyone says l'Hamdulillah proudly because it ties together a love for country, Islam, and family. After I sneeze. l'Hamdulillah! The food was amazing. l'Hamdulillah. Barça beat Real. l'Hamdulillah!

l'Hamdullilah! l'Hamdulillah! l'Hamdulillah! I loved the phrase. Taxi drivers would chuckle to themselves and politely say it back. My hanout guy would spread his arms out wide and shout it to the skies whenever he saw me. Two Dirhams for a Snickers. "Everything in Morocco is so cheap," I would say, "l'Hamdulillah!" Everyone praised God because there was so much to be thankful for. Healthy families, good weather, and cheap foods. As a student from the States, Morocco seemed too good to be true. My first week in the country was otherworldly, l'Hamdulillah! Only, it took the novelty to wear off for me to realize that not everything was good food and colorful markets. My daily walk to the IES Center took me through the markets of the old Medina. Day in and day out I would make the thirty minute walk, breathing in salted cod and drying clay. The sights of the colored scarves in storefronts dancing in the wind, and the banners of makeshift umbrellas reflecting vibrant colors over the sandy paths made for a distracting spectacle. So distracting that I never noticed those in the shadows, tucked away behind the crowds of people hoping for a few Dirhams to be tossed their way. If everything was so cheap then why were people so hungry. If you maneuvered yourself through the hagglers, and sidestepped the future football stars of Morocco, then you would see that the beggars and the homeless were disabled, handicapped, and ill.

In my IES program I am a member of the after school Service Club. Our first meeting is next week, and we are supposed to bring in ideas on how to improve the community in Rabat. My experience so far in Morocco has shown me that there is much deeper socioeconomic issues that are facing the country. I hope to pitch my idea to help the handicapped, disabled and homeless on the streets of Rabat to my service club and hopefully rehabilitate those in poverty.

One day, on my daily walk home from school I passed by a paraplegic man, begging on the ground. Unsure of how he would react knowing that I was a foreigner, I slipped him a ten Dirham coin. "l'Hamdulillah," he smiled.

By Savita Potarazu

Marrakech, Morocco
08 October 2018

From September 28th to October 6th, I traveled to Morocco with my program for our semester excursion. We spent the first two days in the capital of Rabat where we heard from individuals working with the Ministry of Health, the International Office of Migration (IOM), and many NGOs to learn about the Moroccan health system and evident health disparities. After traveling to central Marrakech and getting lost in the maze of the Medina at Jemma El Fna, we learned about the current king’s initiatives to augment women’s empowerment and health care access to vulnerable populations like disabled children and cancer patients. On Monday, we proceeded to spend a great deal of our trip staying with homestay families in a rural village in Marrakech. There, groups of 5-6 students were assigned different homestay families and I firmly believe this experience allowed me to feel a stronger pulse of Morocco.

From our last night in Marrakech- we danced all night long!

Beautiful bowls at the Medina in Marrakech

The view from the balcony of my homestay family’s house overlooking the Atlas mountains

The homestay element of this excursion consisted of dining, dancing, playing, conversing, and adapting, and most importantly being open-minded about temporarily living a much lower standard of living compared to Switzerland and the United States. Despite this, the architecture, design, music, dance, and food radiated in vibrant colors, sounds, and flavors left me in a state of bliss multiple times throughout our week in El Maghreb. Over the course of the week I reminded myself embrace rural Moroccan culture and to make the most of such a valuable experience while being conscientious of my/our imprint on a pre-existing community.

Me (left) and my host mom Khadija (right)

Situated in the Atlas mountains, this small village of Tanahout exhibits low levels of light pollution that allowed us to stargaze and enjoy the peace and serenity that is indubitably one of the perks of rural life in this middle-income country. After reflecting a bit, I realized that my life’s travels so far have exposed me to either extremely impoverished settings in developing countries around the world or relatively very well-off national infrastructure in many European and North American regions. Learning about the urban-rural divide in this context was truly unique and has definitely broadened the scope of my studies of global health. When it came to understanding Moroccan health care, education, transportation, and many more means of upward social mobility, social disparities took on a deeper meaning. For instance, the role of tourism even in this rural village sustains so many families, including the ones we lived with for a few days. Although there is much pushback against the pitfalls of tourism in such fragile communities, many of our host families embraced inevtaible cultural compromises because it set meals on the table and paid for medical bills that are not covered by their basic health insurance.

Kids of the village being silly after school

My friends and I made connections of a lifetime with Moroccan cuisine, art, and most of all the people. Coming back to Switzerland, I see a stark contrast in the cultural spirit of each country and long to drink sweet mint tea and dance in the golden sunset over the Atlas mountains with my family in Marrakech.

Sweet, sweet mint tea

Sunset over the Atlas Mountains

By Savita Potarazu

30 September 2018
Marrakech, Morocco

At the famous Matterhorn in Zermatt || 22 September 2018

There are five courses offered through the Global Health and Development Policy Program here in Geneva, Switzerland. They are Perspectives on Global Health (PGH) , Global Health and Development (DPH), Research Methods & Ethics (RME), French, and the Independent Study Project (ISP). With a total of 16 credits, I came into the program expecting the workload to keep me busy. While this overwhelmed me initially, given the new adjustments to lifestyle, culture, new social environment, and the homestay experience, I can safely say that I experienced my first month in Switzerland with an appreciable balance of academics and personal development.

Along with the advice, mentorship and guidance of the academic directors here, this balance was achieved with an active mindset to dedicate time to other activities while not getting too distracted. Our academic directors frequently remind us that the point of the academics here is to understand and internalize, not merely to learn. I have come to appreciate that the process of understanding requires immersion at a level I have not seen before. During the first few days of the program, our directors also underscored that the Swiss way is slow but somehow also efficient. While the Swiss transit systems are, on average, annoyingly punctual, tasks throughout the day and the general mentality about home life and education are taken seriously enough to allow for both self-enrichment and self-care.

World Health Organization || 24 September 2018

Prior to my arrival in Switzerland, I was very accustomed to my comprehensive, work-intensive, heavy focus on the sciences and humanities at GW. Here, our guest lecturers work at the United Nations, World Health Organization, International Office of Migration, International Committee of the Red Cross, and many, many more premier international organizations. We are provided with the opportunities to hear from them and visit their home institutions to directly engage with their work environment. It really is one of my favorite elements of this program, especially in the global health capital of the world. And while the abundance of expertise has been so inspiring and enriching, the energy drain and stress I usually associate with school is much, much less. This has provided me many opportunities to pursue individual research and make new connections with experts simply because I want to know more about the subject.

Executive Board Room, WHO || 24 September 2018

Right now, we are on our excursion to Morocco for 8 days exploring the country’s health systems and the role of global governance. In addition to hearing from experts at a much higher level, we students have the opportunity to live with host families here for 4 days and learn about rural lifestyles, health-seeking behaviors, and community development. We have only been here 2 days and I can already feel my wealth of knowledge growing!

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me during my time abroad is not that the courses of a complex global health system were going to be enriching, but that the level of immersion built into the framework of the program has far exceeded my expectations.

Rabat, Morocco || 29 September 2018

I sit writing this entry in Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for the connection flight that will take me home! In a whirlwind of a week, I submitted and presented my research thesis, packed up the little life I had in Rabat and said goodbye to the beautiful community that I have come to love so dearly in such such a short semester.

Feeling very relieved after submitting my final research paper. 

...continue reading "Heading Home"

By nadyahhilmi1

Throughout my four months in Morocco, I have had the opportunity to travel to cities all across the country, every weekend brought another adventure. But my most memorable experience was climbing Mount Toubkhal. Located within Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, it is the highest peak in North Africa, totaling almost 14,000 feet tall. The trekking tourism website described the hike as a ‘mild walk’ – this became a running joke as me and ten of my friends’ ascended the mountain, it was anything but a ‘mild walk.’

After taking a five hour train ride from Rabat to Marrakech, and spending a night in a hostel, we were picked up by a bus early on Friday morning to drop us off near the trekking company’s shop. Here we put all of our bags on mules, laced up our hiking boots, and rented gloves, walking sticks, and other equipment. At around 9 am we started our ascent, going along the non-existent path, avoiding boulders, mud, goats, and donkey carts along the way. After nearly eight straight hours of hiking through fields, valleys, mountains, and streams, we made it to the base of the mountain. This is where we found our basecamp, where we slept for the night. It was freezing, and the altitude made many of us sick, dehydrated, and weak.

We had to be up at 4am to start hiking to the summit at 5am. After putting on even more layers, and stuffing bread and hardboiled eggs in our mouths, we started again. It took five hours to reach the summit, and since it was 5am, it was pitch black outside. Since none of us had headlights, we used the flashlights on our cellphones to scale boulders. It was even more difficult the second day, we were already sore and the altitude wasn’t getting any friendlier on our lungs. After hours of scaling rocks, avoiding boulders, and trying not to freeze to death, we finally made it to the top of the mountain.

...continue reading "Morocco: My Most Memorable Moment"

I only have 22 days left in this gorgeous country and I find myself very much not wanting to leave! I attribute this feeling to the many incredible people I have met in the last two weeks.

Currently I am in a full-time research period, and a hallmark of the abroad curriculum of the School for International Training, known as the Independent Study Period (ISP). Because SIT places such a strong emphasis on fieldwork, each student is tasked with engaging in their community on a topic of interest independently for one month. The end result of this month of research is a 25 to 40 page research paper detailing findings and a 45 minute presentation on the process and findings of the independent study.

...continue reading "Challenges and Rewards: Researching Abroad"

By callagilson

Only 15 days remain until I begin my full time independent study period! The opportunity to do a research project or internship is one of the hallmarks of the programs offered by the School for International Training, and one of the main reasons that I chose to come to Morocco. However, there is still so much to prepare so that I can use the quickly-approaching month of intentional research to its fullest potential. Organizing my research has been more frustrating than expected. The topic of religious moderation in Morocco is vast and very government-centric. The more I discover, the more complex the topic seems to grow!

I have narrowed down my focus to address those individuals whose trans-national identities are molded by their enrollment in the religious moderation training of the Moroccan government. Each year, the Moroccan government invites classes of young people from Africa and Europe to study at its International Imam Training School here in Rabat. Each country participating in the program has its own guidelines for selecting students to receive the training, but the Moroccan government pays for the schooling in full. The program started in September 2013, after Morocco reached an agreement with the Malian government to train 500 imams in the “moderate” Islam of the Moroccan King—the Commander of the Faithful, as he is named in the Moroccan Constitution. Since its inception, the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs has received requests for the program’s trainings from numerous governments in sub-Saharan Africa, including Guinea and Niger, and European countries including France and Canada.

The ultimate goal of the programming is to engage in religious diplomacy and prevent the spread of radicalism by promoting a moderate interpretation of Islam. Students are trained in Maliki Islam, a school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence which has become widely promoted by the state in Morocco. Students who graduate from the program return to their home country to train other religious leaders. As radicalism is often based on ignorance, teaching a “pragmatic” form of interpretation of the Quran and Prophetic interpretation is understood to be both progressive and preventative, as the religious leaders go forth to foster values of “openness and tolerance".

...continue reading "The Excitement and Challenges of Researching in a Foreign Country"