I was sitting at a table amongst women whose eyes were locked on their sewing projects. Since the program was new, I had limited instructions on what exactly I was supposed to do, and how to do it. I had brought writing booklets and pens in case teaching some French, their second language, would be part of the class. However, I soon realized that none of them spoke a word of French, nor English. In fact, they barely spoke at all. They were quietly intrigued by my blank sheets and pens but even my gentle smile would them shy away and back straight to their projects.
Many women in Morocco suffer from poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. The program was conceived to “empower women” by improving literacy levels, assisting with professional development and providing support to females suffering from domestic violence. The idea was to help them with languages, give them the tools to enter the work environment and build their confidence.
Jemilah was in charge of the sewing activity in the afternoon. She had a contagious smile, her beautiful face delicately wrapped in her pink hijab. Her job was to hold a free class of a few hours each day where any women could feel comfortable to come in and sit amongst other females. There wasn’t any formal teaching, but rather a gathering of women sharing the same learning activity while having the support of others. At 28 years old, Jemilah was an educator at the Dar Attilaba, loving wife and caring mother. She always carried a portfolio of different sewing projects, most of them leading to the creation of a djellaba.
We spent afternoons with Jemilah and her students, sitting at the table learning the art of Moroccan sewing and being taught the basics of Arabics. At this point, I was confused and felt powerless. I received more that what I actually gave. My pens and blank booklets stayed on the table, however I decided not to touch them. I realized that at this point, I couldn’t teach any language. Perhaps the idea was simply to genuily be there. So I showed my honest interest in getting to know them, what they were doing, and how they felt about it. My goal became doing the best I could each day to have their eyes lift from their sewing project, even just for a second and give a smile back. Some days would be more silent, other days we would laugh at how incredibly awkward it was to understand each other. And that became the reward. In a month, we barely exchanged any words, but communicated with expressions, signs, smiles and laughs.
It took a while before adjusting to this very new situation, but after a few weeks, these wonderful, beautiful women really felt like family.