Volunteer Abroad: Reflexions & Conclusion

News from Morocco: The warm sunrays light up the alleys of the Medina. The scents of olives, spices and cow’s feet travel the streets. I walk from my lovely homestay through the alleys towards my work place. Teaching the kids in the morning, empowering the women in the afternoon. However, I’m not sure who’s gaining more from this: them or me. I’m already learning the basics of Arabic, how to cook Moroccan dishes, how to make a djellaba… The prayer chanting at 5:30 in the morning at the mosque nearby inspire my dreams. I am so fortunate  to be here. Insha’Allah! (Facebook post from 9/01/2013)

The day has come. Too fast, too soon. I was getting comfortable with my volunteering work, my host family, the smell in the alleys, the call to prayer at 5 in the morning, then I had to leave.

Farewells to the Women

The language barrier, altered culture, different traditions and religion made the journey challenging, but interesting and enlightening. To see the progress that in only a few weeks we made was significantly noteworthy. It surely wasn’t much, oh no, but you can’t change the world in a few days. We didn’t manage to teach languages, however, the progress came from the exchanges and interactions amongst all of us, women. We connected with them by showing truthful enthusiasm in their lives and environment, and the interest was mutual. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what colour of skin we had, what language we spoke, what country we came from, what religion we believed in. It was the sympathetic feelings of solidarity, recognition, and togetherness that brought us all together. I realized that unitedly we made it all possible. We empowered each other. There is still a long way to go, but with the help and support of following volunteers, these beautiful women will grow into flourishing human beings.

After exchanging email addresses, clicking some photographs, and drying some tears, we said goodbyes. I left the blank booklets and pens on the table, with hopes to inspire them to learn furthermore. I accepted the kiss on the cheek but also reached for a hug, and I held them all with all my love.

Farewells to the Children

The class prematurely finished that day and the kids were brought to the courtyard. The teachers put on music and, while holding hands in a circle, we sang, swung, jumped, skipped and spun on the dance floor. It was a full hour of festivities, filled with laughs, giggles and beaming smiles. The children were too young to understand the reality of the event: they had no idea we were leaving. All they wanted was to be part of an image clicked by my camera, their toothless smiles and bright shiny eyes ready to be photographed.

The teachers brought us to the back room. There was a table with empty glasses and a box. “Tea?” I asked. They shook their heads. They opened the box which was filled with baked goods. They poured thick milk in the glasses. “This is for you. To thank you.”

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I was overwhelmed by all this devotion and appreciation. I felt like the worst teacher and didn’t believe I deserved such a celebration.

“Of course you do. You were one of our best volunteers. It’s not about the techniques or the rules that are followed from a book. It’s about you, your heart to heart presence with the children and your genuine connection with each one of them. You influenced and inspired them. They looked up to you. Believe us, we know our children.”

Indeed. I’ve never realized any of that. I felt like those teachers, and those women and even those kids taught me way more than I taught any of them.

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Picture taken on my last day at work with the children, the Dar Attilaba teachers and IVHQ coordinator.

The teachers also made me promise to come back and stay with them, and teach their kids. It was hard to hold the tears and I could see theirs reaching the edges of their almond shaped eyes.

I hugged the children goodbye, without being able to explain that this would be the last. Those kids that once were so challenging to teach. Although at the end, I saw them as my students. The ones that looked up to me eager to learn. The ones that get so excited when I reached papers out of my bag for them to colour. The ones whose eyes sparkle as they see PlayDoh for the first time. The ones that held my hand while a story was read. The ones that ran into my arms and gave me the most sincere kiss on the forehead.

Conclusion

This first volunteering work in Morocco was indeed one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of my life. Not only did I gain a better cultural understanding of a country, being exposed to a new language, religion and environment, but I also built strong ties with inspiring and remarkable individuals. Volunteering abroad has met my expectations in many ways: I did get confused, disoriented and uncomfortable. I did think: “what have I gotten myself into.” And I’m glad I did. You can only grow and learn when you take risks and accept challenges. And once you start thinking outside the box and work past your comfort zone, you get a true sense of accomplishment and identity. This mind-opening experience not only gave me the chance to change others, but it mostly changed me. As well as having a positive and meaningful impact on the community, this volunteering work experience gave me a new perspective on life and gave me a sense of purpose. It also motivated me to engage myself furthermore into developing communities and continue to help others in need: To volunteer, to give back and to receive, and to be involved as a global citizen.

Rabat, Morocco, 2013: Where I have left a piece of my heart, along with a footprint behind.

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Teaching Children

When reading the description of tasks, it wasn’t clear to me what ‘helping with children’ exactly implied. Besides my experience teaching swimming lessons (which I actually really enjoyed), I didn’t have much of a teaching background. And working with kids? I mean, kids are fine, although I find at times awkward to deal with their impulsivity, loudness, hyperactivity, whining or disobedience. Plus, besides my two adorable nephews that I see once a year, children are not part of my environment. This experience was going to be an amazing opportunity not only to learn more about these little people, but also to develop my communication and personal skills, as well as testing my initiative and discipline.

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When I stood up in front of the class on my first day, I had no idea at the near second what I was going to say. All eyes were on me, impatient to learn and eager to hear me speak. French? English? I noticed the alphabet letters displayed on the wall. I took a chalk and wrote on the black board and, with probably the biggest interrogation point in my face, spelt in French:“A?” Immediately, the 14 students repeated after me, loud and clear: “A!” “Ok,” I thought to myself, “that’s a good start.” I then invited Lisa to take over for the English part. We did the same with numbers, and days of the week, and colours. We were teaching.

We taught children every morning, and soon enough got a grip of it. As young as they were, and as limited with the languages they would know, we managed to introduce activities to make the learning interactive, fun and creative.

A week earlier back home, people were curious to know why I was bringing Play Doh on my trip. Actually, I always bring this modeling compound while travelling abroad to give to children I meet and interact with. When I was challenged to teach kids and bring something new to both the class and their teachers, I managed to incorporate the colourful dough in the activities. With that new and fun tool, we taught kids numbers, small mathematics and how to sculpt letters of the alphabet. Plus, we all had a blast!

The weeks went by and I started to get a feeling of attachment. When teachers switched the class to Arabic and read stories, the girls would hold my hands, play with my jewelry and give me occasional kisses on the cheeks. When playtime arrived at the end of each class, kids that once were independently roaming around the yard, soon took our hands and dragged us with them. In the open-air courtyard we sang, danced and played in harmony.

I soon realized it didn’t matter if we had teaching experience or not. The concept was to give through the donation of time with the willingness to contribute and help, with positive energy, and compassion. Once you overcome the challenging feelings of discomfort and disorientation, you realize that you are capable of achieving. And to see those little faces staring at you with a big smile, holding your hands tight without wanting to let it go, that is a pure joy and the greatest reward.

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Soon, those children filled with happiness and love became the reasons to wake up eagerly each morning.

 

Orientation

Departure

I woke up to an appetizing warm meal with cheese and bread waiting on my table tray in front of me. “Rouge ou blanc?” asked the flight attendant from Air France. “Juste de l’eau, merci,” I answered. “Madame, il vous faut du vin avec votre repas,” he insisted. “Rouge alors, merci.” I was on my third and last connecting flight towards Morocco, spoiled with a nice meal and wine and a beautiful pink sunset over a sea of fluffy clouds.

Arrival

“Bienvenue au Maroc!” saluted the immigration officer. When I got off the plane in Rabat, Salah, an employee of ICLS, partner of IVHQ waited for me at the arrival gate with a welcome sign. Along with an other volunteer, he explained us that he was going to be our in-land coordinator and then chauffeured us to our designated host families.

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Orientation

The first day was reserved for the orientation. Hyat, our host ‘mother’, cabbed us to the ILCS placement in the district of Sale. ILCS works in partnership with IVHQ to offer the volunteer services in Rabat.We met our coordinators and fellow volunteers of different placements. The day was spent to discuss about the importance of volunteering, to share our expectations and to talk about the benefits of the volunteer work. They also educated us on the norms and customs of the country, as well as a crash course on religion and traditions.

After a very informative and educative orientation, Salah took the group for a tour of the city. He pointed at the location and use of banks, transportation systems, cellphone services. We also had lunch at a traditional Moroccan restaurant where we all experienced for the first time their famous tagine.

En Route to Our Work Placement

Our work placement happened to be centrally located in the same medina as our homestay. We followed our host ‘mother’ for a short walk through the tight alleys, passing merchants setting up their stalls for business and cats enjoying the morning quietness.

Dar Attaliba

When Lisa and I arrived at Dar Attaliba, we entered the walls of the medina through a small wooden door and walked into a bright courtyard. Dar Attaliba  is a female student house that offers academic support for local women and young girls affected by poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and/or violence. We noticed 2 levels around the courtyard. There was three rooms at the lowest floor: one with toddlers, one with preschoolers, and one with women. A curved staircase stairs led upstairs to a room reserved for teaching and another one for sewing and brodering activities.

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Meeting the Women

There was a small group of women sitting around a table. We could easily differentiate the participants from the educators, the latter wearing long white coats. I shook hands with each one of them, and received a timid kiss on both cheeks, as tradition it seemed.  The women were very timid and reserved and their eyes were locked on their project with only a shy smile once in a while to acknowledge our presence. I soon realized that none of the women could speak French or English. And unfortunately my Arabic was embarrassingly nonexistent. The language barrier put us into an immediate discomfort and awkwardness state. I knew right then that this experience was going to be one of the most challenging, hence the most worth it.

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Meeting the Children

We were sitting at a low table and on tiny chairs between children aged from 2 to 8. Eyes were all on us and once again, we were confused at exactly what role to play. The ‘occasional childcare’ listed in the description of tasks didn’t seem to be sufficient for our understanding. Were we supposed to assist the teachers? Were we supposed to bring teaching material? Were we supposed to stand up and actually teach? I never taught before, only swimming lessons while in my teens, but in a class? And what language do they speak? What do they know? How to teach a class that has such a large age difference? And why is the whole class staring at us impatiently waiting for instructions? My discomfort got interrupted while I glimpsed at Lisa whose ‘get me outta here’ look in her eyes couldn’t hide any longer behind her uncertain smile. Her tall body was cramped on her miniature chair and she had a ‘please save me’ sign on her forehead. I started giggling and soon enough decompressed. That scene gave me the chance to breathe. Let’s do this!

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I saw a black board on the wall. I stood up and took a piece of chalk. I had absolutely no idea on what to say or do next, but I accepted the challenge!

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Rabat: Exploring the Neighbourhood

I’ve been in Rabat for already 2 weeks and I haven’t been further than the ramparts of the medina. So Lisa (my volunteering partner) and I decided to stay in the capital this weekend and explore the surroundings.

I can’t believe I haven’t left the medina. All this time I had the ocean right nearby! We followed the seawall towards the Tour Hassan. It was a nice change to be out of the everyday chaos and finally have quietness and open space ahead of us.

Tour Hassan

Started in 1195, the Tour Hassan was intended to be the largest minaret in the world as well as the mosque beside it. It was stopped when its builder died in 1199. This incomplete tower made of red sandstone reaches 44m, about half of the intended 86m height. 200 columns are still erected between the minaret and mosque, making great shade breaks for visitors.

Waterfront

The temptation of stopping for a homemade ice cream couldn’t be resisted as we passed a French café on the way back. Lisa splurged on a caramel, vanilla and  nougatine trio. I also opted for nougatine, then added strawberry sorbet and ferrero rocher. These frozen scoops melted their way in a happy-me. This Europpean delicacy was comforting and very much appreciated.

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We glimpsed at kids pushing each other in the cold water. The brave ones attempted back flips and big stunts, at a hope to get an applause from the audience. I admired the couples walking slowly on the pathway, holding hands, contemplating the orange colours of the setting sun reflecting on the pink Kasbah.

 Kasbah of the Udayas

Just at the end of the seawall, at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river is located the Kasbah of the Udayas. An old kasbah build during the reign of the Almohads. It has been deserted since AH 595/AD1199.

A night in the waterfront

We met up with two of Lisa’s friends who’ve been travelling around and volunteering in South Africa. They came to meet up with her while passing through Morocco. We placed a rendez-vous at Le Dhow, a beautiful traditional sailboat that is now used as a lounge-restaurant. Mariah, a girl from our volunteer program also tagged along. It was refreshing to engage conversations with common subjects and interest with people from similar places. It was always a nice break for them to finally express themselves in a most common language. So there we were, vagabonds of the earth, meeting and sharing travel stories on an old wooden sailboat under the shimmering stars. As the full moon raised up in the dark sky, we cheered our taboo cocktails. An other beautiful African night.

We coulnd’t go back without jumping in the go carts. Each aboard a small car, we raced towards each other, bumping in one, crashing in the other.

If you have the munchies, there are a few independent stands selling a variety of snacks. Almonds, dates and cashews are inevitable to find. If you have a sweet tooth, follow the smell of cotton candy getting rolled and find the man with a stand on his bicycle also selling sticky apples on sticks.

Rabat Beach

The next day we walked along Rabat Beach. A numerous amount of amateur surfers tempted the white washes. The beach was busy with kids playing football, family gatherings, couple romancing. The mark of the tide came obvious with all the garbage washed ashore from the Atlantic.

At night, we ventured into a dark, smoky and dodgy bar near the train station. Lisa and I immediately stuck out as being the only females to appear in such a masculine environment. However, a couple of ladies were found upstairs, their bright red lips sucking on a cigarette, with the other hand holding a cocktail.

Meeting Dan and Chris was an inspiring encounter. Their project is amazing and I wish them the best. You can follow their work and journey by clicking on these links: