Here in Morocco, unsung heroes are everywhere. Those who make it their life-long mission to give back to those less fortunate. In honor of Thanksgiving happening this week in the US, our team at Mushmina would like to tell the story of ‘Association Hadaf’, in the capital city of Rabat during this month of giving and gratitude. This unique organization has a touching, personal story and a massive heart.
20 years ago, Mrs. Amina Msefer, opened the Association Hadaf, which translates to ‘goal’ or ‘objective’ in Arabic, after years of unsuccessfully seeking a feasible post-school option for her daughter, Loubna. Loubna was born with disabilities. Amina, like so many other parents of disabled young adults, found herself in a heart-wrenching position: there was no place for her daughter to go as an adult.
Even before adulthood, Moroccan law requires schools to accept handicapped children but in reality, schools in the kingdom cannot realistically adapt to the needs of these children. The cost is too much. There is also a social stigma that is slow to change. And most certainly an unknowing; perhaps even an ignorance of what it means to be disabled.
If a disabled child in Morocco is lucky enough to have a family who has the financial means to send him or her to school, there is still the enormous looming question mark of what to do after that education has finished. At the time of Loubna’s youth, there was nothing for families like Amina’s with a disabled young adult.
When Amina was pregnant with Loubna, she was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis; an infection that is extremely dangerous for a fetus. Amina’s daughter was born with several physical and mental disabilities as a result; the most severe being epilepsy. Specialists told the mother of three children that her infant daughter would not walk, talk and that she would be blind by adolescence. Her life expectancy was dire. But Amina did not give up on hope for Loubna. Instead, she persisted. And Loubna’s family rallied around her. At that moment, the young mother had a genius revelation. She decided that she would counter Loubna’s degenerative disability and already weak vision by teaching her to focus on her other senses, as her eyes were quickly growing useless.
By the time Loubna reached 20 years, she was legally blind. But thanks to her mother’s wise groundwork, Loubna was prepared. She reads braille. She has an incredible sense of touch. In fact, she is now trained in massage and has clients with whom she works at the center. Her family considers this a victory, not a failure. In Amina’s words, “Our family feels that we have won. Louba is thriving. She beat all of the medical odds. She has the least strength of all of us physically and medically, but in the end, she has proven to be the most powerful.” Loubna speaks French and Arabic and some Spanish, she has a prodigy’s memory in mental calculation, she plays the piano and is talented in IT skills. Loubna is also very social; she is the heart and soul of the center, and she is a “real sweetheart”, as her mother puts it.
Ironically, Amina feels that Loubna gives her the strength and inspiration to fight for her daughter and other families in their position.
Amina has also found comfort in many other parents and families in the same situation; those with disabled children. These people have become her allies, her support, her colleagues, her friends. Eventually, they would collaborate to open an innovative learning and development center for young adults with disabilities; with Amina at the realm. Each family is inspired by their unique child. And each child just wants validation and acceptance into society.
After many years of thought, preparation, research and hard work, Amina and her team of parent volunteers opened the Association Hadaf on October 3, 1997 in accordance with the Moroccan League for the Protection of Children. Her work-space was about the size of a large closet-about 12 square meters. But she persevered. The center was tiny. Amina had a dream and a passion and a fire within her. She wanted other young adults; not just Loubna, to have a place where they could learn and thrive after leaving school. A place where they were safe; a setting where they were affirmed and cherished. An environment where they could learn and feel respected.
In 2005, the center moved to a much larger building in the neighborhood of Hay Nahda, Rabat. It is so much more than just a learning institution. The center is a shining light of empathy and tolerance. It is a place where grins are infectious and the validation of learning a trade is taken very seriously.
Association Hadaf runs on donations. It is a well-oiled machine, thanks to the dedication of Amina and her board of trustees. She is the foundation, so to speak, of the structure, but humbly, she would tell you that the students are the ones who make it function. It’s true. And the staff, specially-trained and certified, aren’t just employees. They care for but they care about these young people. This is clear as soon as you walk through the doors. There is a vibrance and cheer to the air; it is obvious that everyone wants to be there. It is a mission for everyone.
The students, who come from home between 8 am and 5 pm, are admitted to the center from age 16.5 years until the age of 24 years old. There is a rigorous application process because places are limited. Realistically, Amina tells me that they have students who are even 40 years old. Because where else would they go? Once they come to the center, they aren’t going to leave. And the association certainly would never kick them out. Maybe a handful can go out and get a job with their training in a bakery or a garden (with supervision), but most of them, 95 total, will stay. They are home.
The center teaches them formal training of cooking, gardening, sewing + embroidery, baking, woodworking, jewelry-making, and other trades. There is even a flourishing garden where students tend to fresh herbs and vegetables for the restaurant kitchen. And these kids are focused. When I observed their workshops, there wasn’t a peep in the room. Dedicated teachers meticulously train their students step-by-step, minute-by-minute, for hours on end. The results are impressive. Association Hadaf has a fully-functional, high-end restaurant where one can go for a lovely lunch. The setting is quaint and the food is delicious. The center also has a boutique where the student’s wares are sold. Fundraising exhibitions are also occasionally held, as the center constantly needs financial support.
Amina pauses when I ask her what her biggest challenges are. She is thoughtful. “Respect outside of the center,” she says. She goes on to explain, “These young people yearn for acceptance in normal everyday life. Walking outside, going to the store, being with others. They want to be just like you. That’s our biggest hurdle. Showing the rest of the world that they deserve the same rights, just as everyone does.”
In the broad smiles of these students, you will find happiness. It radiates from them. Their beaming expressions are infectious. And those who visit the center find that in leaving, they too, want the right of respect and compassion for these young individuals. Ideally, the hope of Thanksgiving is alive and well here in Morocco. Appearances and judgments are left behind and tolerance and compassion are what remains. And gorgeous smiles from ear to ear.
This is why is Thanksgiving is so close to our hearts. There is no religion on Thanksgiving Day. There is no class or economic status. There is no rank or importance or hierarchy. Every American celebrates Thanksgiving. Any global citizen can enjoy Thanksgiving as well. It’s a moment for people to take a step back and to be grateful for everything; even the little things. It’s also a time for sharing kindness and humanity with those who need it most.
By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger
Tara Fraiture, a dual British-American, had great intentions of being a professional Belgian fries taste tester in her young adulthood. When these dreams were tragically dashed (an unfortunate mayonnaise injury), she resorted to her second talent and passion of freelance writing. A former French and Spanish teacher, Tara keeps herself busy by talking to herself and dancing around the house (awesomely, I might add), when she isn’t writing or chasing kids. She recently considered opening a Mexican take-out food truck, but she kept eating all of the guacamole + chips. Business would have been a bust. Tara recently moved to beautiful Rabat, Morocco, with her three daughters, husband, and orange cat. Caramel, aka Mr. Fuzz, doesn’t care for his resemblance to our 45th president. He is considering changing his hair color. As you might have guessed, humor is part of Tara’s mantra; in life and in her writing. As she puts it, “Writing is cheaper than therapy.” A wee bit of laughter and a touch of poignancy. The Fraiture’s have lived all over the world and liken themselves to global nomads-calling Egypt, Senegal, El Salvador and Qatar their home. Tara enjoys writing most about stories with heart, people who change the world, and women who implement change. She can’t wait to begin her Moroccan adventure with Mushmina.