Gender Equality Empowerment

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.

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Although Jemilah’s French was limited to only a few words, I managed to have a bit of understanding with her. Since we needed to bring our own material, she took us on a walk on our second day to get what we needed to participate in the class. We followed her through the mazed alleys of the medina in search of threads and fabric.
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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.

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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.