Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant

Doesn’t that sound good!!???  I’m so very excited and happy to announce that this dream is finally coming into reality.  I’m in excitement overdrive right now about the whole thing so bear with me.  

Last time I wrote about how we had decided to establish this project as a non-profit.  We had a general assembly, elected a board of 7 members from among the women.  Naturally, it made sense for me to be the president or director of the non-profit, Lalla Khadija is the treasurer, and a lovely woman named Meriem is the secretary.   After we did all this, we had to iron out our statutes.  We stated as our basic goals:

To establish a training center in Moroccan cooking and pastries for at-risk women to rescue them from poverty.

To establish a simple restaurant to sell the products of the training center.

Then we put together a dossier that contains the statutes, the list of board members, the minutes from the general assembly, and photocopies of each of the members’ ID cards.  All of this of course in seven copies, each page notarized, as is the custom here in Morocco.  A person’s signature here is worthless unless it is notarized.

But we still needed one crucial document to establish this non-profit, and that was a rental contract.  That’s right, to register any kind of business or non-profit in Morocco one first needs to have a rental contract.  If a person is a homeowner then they can use their home address temporarily.  But none of us are, so the final step of renting a place was crucial for us.

I’ve been looking for spaces to rent since about May/June.  I’ve hired samsars (kinda fly-by-night agent that helps locate rentals), knocked on doors, found places that I got excited about but that weren’t meant to be, and spent probably 100s of hours day-dreaming and obsessing about “our space” (and the project in general, I even had very realistic dreams that we rented such-and-such a space).  I made a lot prayers, especially the prayer of asking for God’s direction in making a decision salat al istikhara.  It goes something like this:

Allah, if you know that this matter: renting this house for the women’s center, is best for me in my spiritual and worldly affairs, in this life and the next, in the immediate and the long-term, then will it for me, make it easy, and then put blessing in it for me.  And if You know that this matter: renting this house for the women’s center, is bad for me in my spiritual and worldly affairs, in this life and the next, in the immediate and the long-term, then drive it away from me and drive me away from it, and will goodness for me wherever that may lie.

A beautifully simple and liberating prayer.

Everyone I met and told about this project also would make prayers of ease and blessing.  Allahumma yassir, Allahumma barik.  We work and strive in this world of cause and effect, but ultimately where things are truly determined is in a realm far beyond us.  I never know who’s prayer is being answered or if it is a confluence of collective prayer…

Finally, the right space for our project materialized.  It’s the downstairs of a villa in the Gueliz area.  It has a wealth of light and all out good vibes.  The street is lined with trees, the house is south facing so receives good light all day, there is a nice garden for outside dining and an herb garden, and plenty of space inside to create a great training kitchen, dining area, and display area for the pastries (I’ll try to post some pics soon).  Thanks to private donations, we were able to pay the first year of rent in advance!

We are overjoyed with the space.  The villa is old and needs some work, but the general feeling there is that it’s a safe and beautiful place for these women to learn and grow.  Honestly it feels like a haven.  The next phase is to make the necessary alterations and aesthetic improvements.  An architect friend is kindly donating his time to draw up a plan of the space and make suggestions on how to proceed.  Then next week we will bring in a builder to start tearing down some walls, putting a few doorways and windows in, etc.  By the end of December, inshallah, we’ll be ready for equipment and furniture.  Then the actual work and training can begin, yeah!

At this point, like I said, we’ve received some very generous support for the rent and repairs.  We are now looking to raise the funds needed for the equipment and furniture.  I’m appealing to you, dear readers and blogging community, for this support.  I’d like to invite you to be part of this project with any donation that is possible to you.

I’m planning on asking some of the major equipment companies in the Food Service industry if they’ll sponsor our training center via some kind of donation of equipment and/or discount.  I’m talking about Promark, Arcade Equipment and Foyelec.  We don’t need a lot, but there are minimal pieces of professional equipment that we need like a big refrigerator, good range top and oven (I could go into great detail about what we need, I’ll save that though for a future post).  Maybe one of my readers is somehow connected to one of these companies.

Here is the bank info for the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant:

Bank name: Attijariwafa Bank
Account number (R.I.B) 007450000806500030059496

Here’s our name and address:

Association Amal pour la Cuisine et les Gateaux Marocains
Villa Simone
Angle Rue Allah ben Ahmed et Ibn Sina
Quartier l’Hopital
Gueliz, Marrakesh, 40 000 MAROC
Phone number: +212 613 10 84 60
email: amalnonprofit (at) gmail (dot) com 
(website coming soon!)
Facebook: AmalNonProfit 

Please support these needy and at-risk women with whatever donation is within your means.  Peace and blessings to you all.


Baking their way to success

She chooses to walk for 45 minutes rather than spend 4 dirhams on a taxi.

She lives in a triangular sliver of a room.  No beds, just blankets.  A TV to keep the girls company while she is at work.  A bamboo roof that leaks in winter.

She knows the prices of food; she knows that a bowl of white flour costs a dirham and a quarter, precisely.  She knows because she needs to.

It is the details of poverty that make it real to me.  The contrast between what she eats, and what I can choose to eat.  The gulf between our earning capacities.  It is the details that I want to know, so I pry, I am nosy, I persistently inquire.  Really, you made how much?  50 dirhams a day?  And you worked 12 hours a day?  50 dirhams is a little under 6 dollars, it’s 4.5 euros.  For this she stood for 12 hours in the cafe, over a hot griddle, patting out the greasy dough for fried breads, one after the other, one hundred per day.

When I do hear the details, I have to let each one sink in, with all the emotions that come with it.  I am awed, I have so much respect for this woman, she is tough as nails, she has endurance.   I honor her for this.  Then I am sad, pained at this, at hearing how little her labor earns, and at the part I play in this imbalanced picture.  But most of all I am humbled by her wonderful smile, her gratitude for life’s smallest blessings, her constant mention of God, in praise and thanks, her celebrating of her children.  I think she knows that life transcends what we merely see, touch, eat and surround ourselves with.  Even as she lives with so little, she floats above it with grace and a smiling face.

I let the details drip, drip, drip into my consciousness.  I let each of them change me, just a little, propel me towards something.  What is the solution.  Do I give 1 dirham, do I give 10?  Do I solicit more on her behalf?  All this I can do, and have done.  I cannot bear to think that her girls could go to bed hungry, or not get the proper nutrition, or have the cold seep up from the floor through the blankets at night.  I know that in some countries poor people get fat because the cheap food is the fattiest.  But here they can’t even afford enough of the cheap food to make them fat.  Potatoes, white flour, sugar and oil are still precious commodities, often purchased a dirham at a time, enough for a meal.

Finally things have coalesced into a new picture, a new phase.  Fatiha and Naima, 2 of the ladies who I love dearly and have blogged about here, have started up a small baking enterprise.   They are baking to supply the small cafe at our workplace, the Center for Language & Culture.

It’s been an exciting and creative process for them, and very rewarding for me to watch unfold.  Both women have spent extensive time baking mesemman (Moroccan fried flat-bread, a staple in most cafes).  However, neither of them had baked, or even tasted, much else.  So we set about learning how to bake a few things.  They had already learned fruit tarts last year in cooking classes.  I showed them how to make chocolate chip cookies, and finally after tweaking the recipe over the course of a couple of weeks, they now have a great, easy go-to method for delicious, beautiful cookies.  In Morocco we don’t have brown sugar, which makes the cookies moist and chewy, so we’ve had to approximate the taste and texture.  I’m getting into the details here, the bakers out there can stick with me, the rest of you just scroll down if you wish.  Our dear friend and wonderful cook Khadija gave the ladies her recipe for awesome chocolate cake, and we figured out that it works really well as a cupcake.  The chocolate cupcake is one of the best-sellers, the ladies make a batch of 30, or a double batch of 60, every day.  Then a dear friend of mine, who is French, showed us an easy recipe for crepes.  Those too are a daily must (20 a day).  We stumbled on a recipe for easy chocolate pudding to fill the crepes with (ok, I’ll admit, it has cornstarch, the dreaded “thickener” that we are meant to avoid in search of “real” ingredients.  Let me tell you, the stuff tastes great, and we do not have such discerning palates around here).

Next we wanted something savory to balance out the sweet stuff, so we tried small quiches.  Those too were a big hit, but we have a problem with the crust.  We are baking them in the same pans we use for the fruit tarts, which are the kind with the pop-up bottom.  When we pour the egg/milk mixture into the crusts and bake them, the egg mixture seeps out through the crust onto the oven pan.  I think it might be our crust.  Any suggestions?

The ladies have also learned how to make a pretty tasty pizza from scratch.  Before this project, it’s safe to say that neither of them had tasted the majority of these foods.  Now they have this amazing new skill, and the confidence that goes with it.  The first week or so I was in the kitchen with them a lot.  But now that they have their core recipes down, they run their own show.  They are doing an excellent job of planning, working together, communicating, decision-making, and most of all baking from morning til night.  The baked goods are then available to the students and teachers at the center, mostly during their break times.

What’s new for me here is working without a blueprint.  Seeing potential in a situation that is not all spelled out.  I have to say I was very nervous to even start the whole thing.  What if I just got their hopes up, and then it didn’t work?  What if we lost money and got demoralized by it?  What if we couldn’t master the recipes?  What if we couldn’t actually make enough money for them to live off of?  And honestly, some of the people I shared my idea with had the same doubts.  I lost some sleep just being nervous, or I’d drive somewhere and forget where I was driving, cause my mind was busy sifting through all the details.

I’m glad I didn’t listen to the doubts.  It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already the project looks very promising.  First of all, the food is great.  In fact I want a strawberry tart right now.  Secondly, sales are going well, there is rarely anything that is not sold.  Some of the items are tricky because they need to sell the same day (crepes, tarts, quiches).  Even so things rarely go to waste.  We are starting to have regular customers.  Even though I told the ladies to view this first month as just a training period and not worry about the money just yet, it already looks like the project is financially viable, alhamdulillah.   And thirdly the ladies are totally enjoying being their own boss, for the first time ever.  One of them mentioned to me something like “Now the color has come back to our cheeks”, in reference to the fact that they feel FREE in their work.  It’s nice too because they are together, they keep each other good company, they can bring in their children if necessary.  When one of them brings her baby in, they take turns carrying him on their backs (the original Attachment Parenting, fo’ real).   And it’s all getting easier and more relaxed.  We already have plans for expansion, but I’ll leave that for another post.

These customers look happy:

Hope is alive in Morocco

She’d be sitting there every Friday, appealing to the generosity of the people headed for mid-day prayers.

Almost every mosque-goer would press a dirham into her palm.  Even in a country where beggars are so ever-present that you become numb to them, she stood out.

Maybe it was her two little girls, Shayma, a polite and spunky 3 year old, and Khadija, a 4 month old baby permanently strapped to her mother’s back.

I think it was something more though, a shiny aura about her, a calm serenity on her face that made you trust her and moved you to help.

I’d pass her with my own daughter, also a 3 year old, on our way to her private school.  Hard to keep tears at bay, like so many other places, faces, stories of hardship.

I’d gather up all my daughter’s clothes.  The cute dress someone sent her from the states, from land’s end, too small now.  The clothes my daughter refused to wear, too tight, too formal, too scratchy, etc.  When i’d hand over the bag, it became treasure in their hands.

We’d talk.  Our kids playing together on the sidewalk, as people continued to drop coins on the cloth she’d laid out.

“I thought he’d marry me, but when I got pregnant, he told me to leave.  I didn’t have any sense.”

She may not have had any sense…she certainly did not have an education…she did not have what we westerners would call “self esteem”…or she would have demanded so much more…a marriage contract to protect her and her kids, for one.

But women make poor choices every day, and pay the consequences.  Single moms raising babies all over the world, God bless them all.

What she does have is patience, and strength, more of these virtues than I can even fathom.

I wanted to help.  She said she was managing, surviving.  How about school?  I asked.  That would be nice, she said.  So we made an agreement, she would find a school for Shayma, I would pay for it (technically, my hubby would pay, since he’s the one with the job around here, but you know, what’s mine is yours, and all that).

Shayma was ecstatic about her new school (which cost 100 dhs, or about 15 dollars a month).  She treasured her pens and notebooks.  She learned her alphabet, in Arabic and French.  I didn’t see much of her anymore, she no longer accompanied her mom and baby sister on all day begging rounds.  Her mom was happy, she did not want Shayma to grow up learning to beg.  She wanted more for her girls.

Eventually, Shayma started 1st grade in public school.  It was free so I no longer paid the monthly school fees.

One day, Shayma’s mom and her little sister came by.  Shayma’s mom (ok, I honestly don’t know her name, since she always refers to herself as Shayma’s mom, and we don’t exactly have much need to call each other by our first names), so, Shayma’s mom was dressed “normally” in a nice jellaba.  Her outward appearance was strikingly different, in fact the whole way she carried herself was different.  She was not hunched and diminutive, trying to disappear.  She stood up straight, with a beaming smile on her face.

“What happened?”  I asked.

“I got a job,” she said,  “at a cafe, I make msemen”.  (msemen is a type of fried bread served in many cafes)

“Bessehha!” I gushed.  Then I pressed her for details, how many hours did she work, how much did she make, and how did the girls manage.

She obliged me with replies to all my nosy queries.  She worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and she made 50 dirhams a day (about 6 dollars a day).  She left her youngest daughter, now about 4 years old, with a babysitter, whom she paid 300 dirhams a month (36 dollars), out of which the babysitter paid for a school, and would take her and bring her back, and basically keep her until her mom came home.

She was so happy and proud of herself.  I was so surprised and excited.  And I do believe her girls will fair better through EDUCATION.  It’s such a life-changer.  Oh it’s such a key to understanding the world.  I believe in it so strongly.  I am all for empowering girls and women with an education.  Knowing how to read and write, knowing enough about their bodies to make good choices, these things we take for granted can have such a profound and empowering impact on their lives. Yes, hope is alive in Morocco, and it’s called education.

Before we parted I snapped this photo of her and Khadija: