Let’s win some cash for women who need it

Dear blog readers, it’s been an eon since I blogged, but the good news is, I’m still alive, I was only in cyber-hybernation.  It’s almost like there’s too much going on, I can either live, or blog, nawmean?  The Amal Center continues to blossom and grow in a beautiful way.  I was there yesterday for the tsunami wave of couscous customers. It was epic.  All 180 of them seemed to have agreed to arrive at exactly the same time, which was 12:47 (hashtag invade Amal?).   To make matters more…interesting, we were working with a newbie crew: our 5th class of 16 women just started a few days ago.  They are a very cool group of ladies, beautiful souls and smiles, lots of potential there just waiting for the right conduit.  And yes, the chef used his chef voice.  Yet, amazingly, things went smoothly, and there was much eating of couscous and merriment.  Only one customer got scary mad (she was served couscous in a white plate, not a tajine.  I totally get it, it doesn’t taste the same. Amends were made quite hastily, and she ended up relaxing and enjoying a pot of tea in the garden for a good while after her meal).

Anyway, I need your help.  See, me and Amal Center have been selected for a contest, called “Women for Change”.  It’s kind of a bummer that there has to be a competition among organizations working for good, but that’s how things work.  We need people to vote for Amal, if we get the most votes by October 15th,  then we win a prize of 25,000 Euros.  The money would go entirely towards funding small businesses for some of our graduates.  I can’t tell you how excited I’d be to see some of them run their own businesses.   The link is here (and I’ll include it again at the bottom if you just want to keep reading)  http://www.fondationorange.com/Nora-Belahcen-Fitzgerald-2744  (You’ll hear me speaking French, subtitled back into English that is, in places, syntactically French).  I’m speaking French here because the competition is run by a French company, the Orange Foundation (related to the Orange phone service provider).  We will not know who got the most votes until the actual awards ceremony on October 16th, in France.  I’d love to win this for my dear sisters, they truly deserve it.

Nearly 60 women have now graduated from the Amal cooking training course, around 80% of them are now employed in good jobs.  In each graduating class, there have been one or two who have the ambition and drive to be entrepreneurs.  In October, we’ll be running our first Entrepreneurship Incubator, a 2-week course were 15 of these women will learn about business from a number of professionals.  The idea is that they come out of the course with their own business plan.  It would be awesome to then have this prize money to actually fund some of these projects.

Someone asked me today if I think that the problem with women’s situation in Morocco is society’s mentality, and that we have to change that in order to advance women’s status.  Here’s what I say.  Women need the tools to be empowered economically.  They need training, skills and work opportunities. That’s a concrete, achievable goal.  They need to know that nebulous, abstract things like society’s mentality are mental constructs and false barriers to success.

Some of the trainees at Amal Center told me about a really powerful exercise that they did in one of their group life-coaching sessions.  The life coach gave them each a mirror, they were asked to look at themselves in the mirror and say, The way I see myself is more important that the way society sees me.  The way I see myself is what defines me.   Several of the women shared with me how powerful this type of thinking is for them, and how they realized they should stop worrying about how they are perceived, and start to work on what they actually want do with their lives, their life plan.

That’s why I’m harassing you now again to vote for me, which is really a vote for them.  Please also harass your friends and family to vote.  We have until October 15th. Here’s the link again.   http://www.fondationorange.com/Nora-Belahcen-Fitzgerald-2744

So you want to start a non-profit…

Starting the Amal Center was a difficult endeavor, I can’t explain why exactly I did it, I did not have a very clear plan on how it would all develop, I did not have answers to people’s most basic questions, like “how long will the women train there?”  I would freeze up and give vague answers like “well, we are still in the experimental stage trying to find a successful formula…”

I did not anticipate also the strain it would have on my family, of course no one could foresee that my daughter would develop a bone cyst that we discovered about 10 days after I signed the lease for the Amal Center, and that would put her on crutches for the next 5 months.  I would never wish it on anyone to undertake a major remodeling job AND have your daughter need emergency surgery and a metal plate inserted.  I felt that I had made an internal promise and engagement to help women who have had lives much more difficult than my own, but ultimately found myself often torn between the responsibility I felt to honor that promise, and the responsibility I felt to honor the more fundamental promises I have towards my husband and children.  My husband is a good and patient man, and I feel like he has been just as responsible for the manifestation of the Amal Center as I or anyone else has.  He works long hours to allow me to follow this weird and inexplicable dream to create, from scratch, a massive institution to empower women.  He supports me in this, and often provides a realistic perspective to counter my “woman’s intuition” approach.  Did I also mention that when you are the president of a non-profit, you don’t get paid.  But you get the cool perk of being the president of something, which is totally worth the blood, sweat and tears (please pick up on the sarcasm).  Just time-wise, the Amal Center needed as much as I could give it, and so did everything else important to me.  Valuable relationships and friendships suffered damage because of this.  My management and communication skills (my least developed skill set) were tested to the extreme.

However as you can see all these sentences are in the PAST tense, not because the Amal Center fell apart, au contraire.   At the most crucial time, deliverance appeared.  Help came in many forms: an experienced board of directors came together (which would have been so valuable from the beginning: don’t work alone is a big lesson learned), volunteers took over chunks of the work (delegate!), and a life-saving grant was awarded to the Amal Center by the Swiss Drosos Foundation (apply for any and all grants, sooner or later someone will believe in what you are doing and want to help!).  All of a sudden, a very skilled and experienced director was hired to run the Amal Center.  Another talented and gracious person came on board to take care of communications, which is basically telling the story of who we are and what we do to many audiences through many mediums. over and over.  Soon we will also have a social worker (!!!) to screen potential trainees and monitor their progress.

Now if you ask me all your trick questions like “how long will the women stay at the Amal Center?” or “how are the women selected?” or “what happens to them afterwards?” I no longer need to bob and weave through them, there are actual solid, well-thought out answers. The women will spend 4 months in training.  The candidates are selected either through our partnerships with other local non-profits, or based on an application and interview process to determine socio-economic need.  Priority is given to mothers who are the primary support of their families (widows, divorced, single mothers) and to women who were child maids.  The women also need to demonstrate a degree of motivation and the desire to enter the job market.  While they are at the Amal Center, the trainees will learn: Moroccan cooking, “Cuisine Internationale” (will show you photos in a bit), baking and pastry-making, waiting tables.  And they will pick one language-based course to study: either Arabic literacy, French or English.  In addition, we are going to be having workshops on what is referred to in the field as “soft skills”, such as life-planning, empowerment, non-violent communication, reproductive help, and this thanks to a working partnership with Search for Common Ground, a Rabat-based international NGO.  Simultaneously, our Amal Center team will be networking with potential employers to facilitate job placement for the women once they graduate from the Amal Center.  Insha Allah!

Right now we are in transition mode full-swing.  The entire team is getting used to the new structure and putting everything in place to ensure that when the new trainees come in, they get a really top-quality training experience.  5 of the women who started out as trainees and made it through some of the rocky transition times are now full-time staff members with work contracts and benefits.  And also we saw that it would be impossible to move forward without a clear leader in the kitchen, so we hired a very capable chef (male, I think that also makes a difference and helps balance dynamics).  On the one hand, we’ve come a long way and are now working with a very clear objective.  On the other hand, I’m impatient to actually get down to the training and job placement!  We have not even gotten to the real work.

And in the meantime, we also have a restaurant to run.  The restaurant has been a huge success (alhamdulilah).  In November (pre-grant) we served an average of 13 people a day.  In December that number went up to 29!  I think January’s going to show even more of an increase.  Friday is by far the busiest day: couscous day!  The number of customers on Friday has been gradually increasing until we broke 100 recently.  Here’s what some of them have to say on tripadvisor  Mostly people love the place/food/social concept (a few people were not feelin the love though).

Speaking of links, the Amal Center is having its (annual?) fundraiser, an effort that is spearheaded by some of our volunteers.  Anyone who wants to be a part of our humble endeavor here in Marrakesh can use this rockehub link  which will be up only until the end of January.

New garden couches:


Tea time cookies:

The ceramic teap-cups are part of a donation from a local artisan businessman.  He gave us hundreds of pieces.  Those are the kind of amazing heart connections that happen.
photo 4 (3)


It tastes like deviled eggs, and salad nicoise.


This is what I want to eat for every meal:

A “light snack” for the mothers and toddlers weekly class.



Traditional Moroccan cookies:


Wow. I don’t even know what this is:






The team that is behind all this amazing yumminess:


Kitchen looking good:
photo 2 (4)


And this!  I could also eat this…a lot.  Seafood bastila:
photo 5 (3)


Again, no idea what any of this is, sigh…
photo 3 (4)

Cooking lessons happen in a sort of informal way:
photo 1 (2)


The Amal team had a booth at a local fair, another opportunity for the women to display and sell their goods and mostly to become confident in a rather intimidating setting (a good number of the fair-goers were European).

And here is that donation link again http://www.rockethub.com/projects/35895-expansion-efforts-for-moroccan-women-s-center-working-to-employ-empower .  If you made it to the end of this post, thank you dear ones near and far for reading first draft material!


Ramadan reports, recaps and realizations

It’s been so long since I last posted that wordpress has totally changed their interface…have not even “checked my stats” in about 3 months, which if you’re a fellow blogger, you know how obsessive that can get.  I feel both flattered and kind of guilty that an average of 250 people visit my blog daily to find…nothing but a 3 month old post about the Amal center.  Well, you can all blame the Amal center for the complete lack of novelty on this blog.

Where should I even begin?  A few updates are in order.  The thing I am most thankful for in the span of the last 3 months is that, after a gruelling 5 month stint on crutches (bone cyst surgery), my daughter Karima finally got to walk unassisted, just a few weeks before her 11th birthday.  She journeyed very deeply into the world of disability, and just as she was starting to identify with that world, by God’s loving grace she came back again,  The layers are still falling off, as she adjusts to her body, which she has been afraid to harm, as she adjusts to being part bionic girl…as she receives permission from her doctor to do anything she likes.  Can I kneel in prayer?  She asks him.  Yes, by all means.  Welcome back baby girl.

And there is the Amal Center.  Such a rich theater to observe the human character.  Every day some new dynamic to learn and be aware of.  The women there, although they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have a very rich and complex culture and belief system.  It’s an intricate weaving of spiritual and cultural threads, sometimes hard to pick out one from another.  One thing is certain, their belief in God and His infinite mercy, and their complete acceptance of His decree is where everything they do emanates from.  Everything starts from that belief and returns to it.

Other times their beliefs border on superstition, for example, if someone comes to work in the kitchen, and right after that the Amal center receives a lot of customers, the ladies say that that person has “hot heels” meaning that a lot of people where hot on her heels.  The opposite is true as well, if a person comes to the kitchen and all of a sudden, there’s no sign of customers, that person has “cold heels”.  Everything is measured in terms of this increase or decrease of “baraka”, the blessing that emanates from the Divine.

And the ladies are fun to be with.  There is one lady there who would like very much to get married, and is getting to that age where no one asks your age anymore for fear of offending you.  She’s not shy about the fact that she’s getting into old maid territory, she’s boisterous and loud and jokes about it all the time.  At the beginning of Ramadan, she looks around at us and says:

“Here’s my prayer for this Ramadan, she lifts up her hands in supplication and tells us, everyone, put your hands up with me.  Oh Lord, I’m asking You, please, this Ramadan, send me someone who needs a woman to cook him harira soup every night.”

And everyone says “Amen!  Dear Lord please don’t let her down”.   So if you all out there are making any prayers this month, remember that in Marrakesh, in the Amal Center, one lady would really love to marry a good man and what’s more she will cook him some great soup.

Once we started getting customers at the Amal center, a lot of the customers turned into regulars.  It’s been really interesting to watch that community take root.  A few of the regulars would come almost every day, alone, but hoping to strike up some friendly conversation, and they would find the other regulars and sit there together for hours over a chicken tajine.  One lady we called “vegetarian briouate” because that’s what she ordered every single time.   Other people always came in small groups, so we have the “bankers”, the “call center folks”, the “university professors” and for some reason, lots and lots of doctors and medical professionals.  My husband said, “It sounds like Cheers over there”.

One day a couple of eye doctors came in, and after their meal, one of them generously offered free eye exams to any of the ladies working at the Amal center.  I said, joking, “That’s great because there’s just one blind girl after the other in that kitchen”.  And then the other eye doctor said,”May there be many, many blind people cause they are our bread and butter”.  I always suspected that that’s how doctors thought, just never heard it stated so bluntly.  Then one day a dentist starts to come to have lunch at the Amal center, and those ladies, if there’s anything worse than their eyes it’s their teeth.   They were obviously excited that the dentist might offer them some care at a reduced rate, since dentist work is not affordable to them.  When the waitress came back to the kitchen after serving him, they asked her “So?  Did you smile at him a bunch so he can see how bad your teeth are?”  and she said “I smiled til I scared the daylights out of him,  My teeth are so bad he couldn’t even look at them”.  Unfortunately they did not get any offers for dental care yet.

There was one moment that wasy very significant to me.  We needed business cards, and so I’d gone to get some made at the printers.  I tried to come up with a few words that would sum up the two “wings” if you will, of the Amal Center.  One being great home-cooked Moroccan food, and the other being the social aspect of helping women.  So I chose the words “Amal Center for Culinary Arts in benefit of Marginalized Women” (in French and Arabic).  I felt pretty pleased with myself, showing up with 1000 business cards printed up and ready to hand out to customers.  I gave some to the women…then about half an hour later, they came to me and said “Nora we have to say something but please don’t be offended.  We read the cards and we don’t like the word “marginalized”.  We feel like people will think that we are ladies coming off the streets, that we had gone astray or something.  None of us want to be referred to that way”.  I was stunned.  And embarassed.  Because for once the two worlds that I was operating in finally overlapped…on the one hand, I am working with these women every day, I know who they are very well.  On the other hand, I’ve taken it upon myself to be a spokesperson for them to a world that they don’t have access to, in languages they don’t speak.  And I realized how careful I need to be in checking with them how they want to be represented.

I’m sorry to say that in the end, because it was convenient, we used those cards anyway, then got another batch that says “women in need” instead of “marginalized women”.  That’s the wording that they all approved.  The word marginalized sparked A LOT of debate.  Customers came to us with suggestions for other wording.  One woman, upon hearing about the women’s resistance to the term, asked them :

“Did you have an education?”


“Do you have health care?”


“Do you have any social security?”


“Do you have enough money to meet your basic needs?”


“Well, let me just say that you ARE marginalized.  You are not enjoying your full rights as a citizen, and that is the point of you being here, to change that!”

The reason I am speaking about all this in the past tense is that since Ramadan started, obviously the whole lunch scene died down.  Then the Amal center will close for August.

With Ramadan coming 11 days earlier every year, this year we started fasting on July 9th.  Started out in Marrakesh with some 110 degree weather (45 C).  That means we are dealing with two things, the fast, which is physically challenging but not as challenging as people who aren’t fasting perceive it to be.  Then there is the heat, which, even without fasting, is incredibly exhausting and makes normal activity really slow and difficult.  So what do people do?  They settle in to survive the long haul.  They alter their schedules in whatever way possible to make the fast doable.  Obviously the builders across the street aren’t going to work their usual shift of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  They defer to common sense and have two possible shifts: from 4 a.m. to about 11 a.m. or they start right after the sunset meal and go until the crack of dawn.  It’s busy all night around here.  Not to mention the various calls to prayer in the early morning…one to gently awaken people, remind them to eat a little something…one to announce the first thread of light, stop eating and go to prayers…the different readings of quran reaching us from neighborhood mosques at all hours of the night.  That’s the real Marrakesh night life.

I read a few teaching stories about the benefit of fasting in the extreme heat.  One of them was about Aisha, the prophet Muhammad’s wife, who would choose to fast voluntarily on some of the hottest days.  When she was asked why, she said “When the price is cheap, there are a lot of buyers”.  I love that.  I have to admit that I have always “bought when the price is cheap”, i.e. when the days are short and cool, I will fast any days that I missed from Ramadan or any voluntary days.  But experiencing this fast in the long, hot days and knowing its worth is amazing.  There’s no breezing through this.  There is only surrender to it and the hope that this is door to God.

One realization came to me during the first few days, when I was both hungry and thirsty and kind of weak, not much energy and it was playing on my mood and making me feel kind of down…then I thought, there are people for whom this state is everyday reality, there is no feast at the end of the day.  At that point all I could do was weep.

This difficult fast, it breaks me appart from the cocoon of comfort that I surround myself with and never question.  The cocoon where every small whisper of hunger is immediately shushed, every pull and taughtness of thirst is immediately eased.  Where the illusion of MY strength, MY doing in this world remains unchallenged.  It’s such a welcome upheaval.  There’s no more wonderful thing I’d rather do in the company of a whole country and a whole portion of the world right now than partake in this collective subduing of the ego.

And I’m thrilled that this is the third or fourth year in a row that I can share of little of Ramadan on this blog.  Each year a little different, and I am blessed that this blog allows me to reflect on the flavor of each Ramadan (so to speak).

First day of cooking at Amal center





Now that the remodeling is DONE at the Amal center, we’re focusing on equipment, furniture and beautification.

I chose traditional round wood tables instead of square (more practical) ones.  In the end, beauty and soul win out over sheer practicality for me.  The idea of sitting around a table is very symbolic, as opposed to parallel and perpendicular lines.  The round table is the heart of every Moroccan family’s home, it generously allows you to fit one or two more people around it.


Here’s some detail on our Moroccan couches.  I love the 16-pointed star and it is one of the core elements of Islamic art.DSC_0292



Here’s the reception area before: this is the first thing you see when  you come in the front door of the Amal center.  You can see right into the bathroom.  Totally wrong feng shui.DSC_0076

But now…by moving the door over to the side, we maintain the flow of energy.  We scored this awesome sweets display case from Kary’s Cupcakes after they closed down.  


Remember the kitchen before?


And now!  Thursday March 28th was the first day we cooked anything here at the Amal Center!  It feels SO GOOD to see this.  My heart is full of joy and gratitude that this dream has actually manifested.  And I’ve realized that although these women have difficult stories, the Amal center is not a depressing place, it’s full of joy and REAL HOPE just like its name.  For myself, the volunteers and the trainees we are all just blown away by this experience.  The intention, the prayers, the doing of it all and now this joyous beginning.  DSC_0304



Did I mention how hard it is to make the warqa dough?  I’m in awe of our trainer Sabah.DSC_0307


Here is the fantastic professional food processor that we were able to buy from the benefits of the American International Women’s Association of Marrakesh (AIWAM) fundraiser.  DSC_0296


Here’s our side garden beforeDSC_0068

And now…it’s not scary anymore, yay!DSC_0302





Our dear children’s space coordinator Shauna has been working every day for weeks and weeks…and all sorts of volunteers have left their mark here in the kid’s corner.  The Amal center will be opening *very soon* insha Allah.

And in non-Amal center related news



We moved house 2 months ago, and I just have to say, alhamdulillah, the view from our roof is amazing.  Every day I go up there to check on the mountains.  Yesterday this is what they looked like after a fresh snow.



And for a few moments before it set the sun lit up the snowy peaks with the most striking rose color.DSC_0245


And here is our family according to Yousef.  Karima’s crutches!  Funny that he is surrounded by these boxy concrete houses and yet he draws ours with a slanted roof.  Why is that so universal.  DSC_0242

Come on Amal center, almost there!



After a good 2.5 months, work at the Amal center is finally wrapping up!  Every week, the contractor takes a look around and says “all right, I’m going to put more workers on this site and we’re going to finish this thing.  One week max, we’ll be out of here”. This is the first time that I think we might actually have a chance.  Let me show you a few of things we’ve been working on.

I’m very happy with these windows we found at Souk el Khmiss, the huge covered flea market where no tourist dares set foot. The windows are so very quintessentially Moroccan and they’ve got soul, that’s what we want for this place.




Do you see the wooden posts there?  They are the beginning of a picket fence that will be installed tomorrow, insha Allah, around the kids’ garden.  And that color of paint, it’s so Marrakesh, we had to stick with it.  It’s called Rose Mamounia.  DSC_0225


Just got aluminum windows put in the kitchen today.  It looks so bright and airy with the nice cream colored paint and tile work.  The industrial sink is also from the flea market.DSC_0227



Here is the reception area. Salam alaykum and welcome to Amal, how many are in your party?  Also it will be a display area for all the cupcakes, brownies, cheesecake and assortment of Moroccan cookies that the ladies will make…DSC_0231



Part of the indoor dining area.  Planning to put some nice Moroccan banquettes here.DSC_0230


The kids’ room!  The circles on the wall are chalkboard, so the kids can draw with chalk straight on the wall.  The chairs are also locally made, painted by our very dedicated volunteers.DSC_0232


The main dining room, all painted.  These chairs were also a flea market find. I was having such a hard time finding something wooden, comfortable, durable and inexpensive, but when we came across these chairs I was just thrilled.  They need a good sanding and oiling…volunteers….DSC_0229


And this is a view from the front door…the garden has been tiled in Moroccan brick called “bejmat”, and we actually opened up a new entrance from the street that is in line with the front door.

DSC_0235All in all, it’s turning into a beaautiful place.  And although I get overwhelmed by the weight and responsibility of it, I just have to remember to ask for help from all the people who believe in the project.  And most of all, asking for help from the One who sends forth all the we have.

In case you haven’t read my previous posts, the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant is a non-profit organization whose aim is to train and employ underprivileged women in Marrakesh, Morocco.  We plan to serve breakfast and lunch daily, and hope to open in March 2013.  For more information please email me at amalnonprofit@gmail.com