In honor of May Day, ‘International Workers Day’ Mushmina is pleased to share with you the story of an amazing training center dedicated to the employment and empowerment of women. Read on for Tara’s interview with the American born founder who created a beacon of hope for disadvantaged women in Marrakech.
Sister Center- Soul of Marrakech
My oldest daughter, Mia and I pull up in our battered, sputtering taxi to the The Amal Women’s Training Center and I feel an immediate calm come over me-the Center is a tiny oasis of peace and sisterhood in the heart of the charming pandemonium of Marrakech.
I had heard of Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen and the Amal Center and I was immediately drawn to its story of training underprivileged women to cook and find work in the restaurant industry. The center is truly an institution of change and inspiration.
What better way to reach people’s hearts than with delicious Moroccan-European fusion food? From heavenly tagines to tempting tartes aux fruits, everything is home-made daily with the freshest of ingredients and lovingly prepared with heart.
Nora tells her profound story to us over the most divine fresh juice smoothies. Perfect on a hot spring day in southern Morocco.
Her parents moved to Morocco from California in the 70’s and Nora grew up in a mix of Moroccan and American cultures. Her roots are now permanently in Morocco.
Moving back to Morocco and down to Marrakech after her studies in the States with her husband and two small children, Nora started to wonder about the street women who begged on the roads daily, many with babies and small children-who were they? What were their stories? And how did they get to this place of such despair? As she went on to explain to us, ‘Beggars have become such a part of our landscape. They are sadly normalized and we have become indifferent to their suffering. I see it, though, as the opened wounds of society.’
Nora then met a young woman, Amina * who was 28 years old, the exact same age as she was at the time. A young street mother of two. It was at that moment that Nora had an epiphany. ‘I decided that I needed to know her story. There is such a cynicism and mistrust towards beggars in our world.’
Nora went to see where the young woman slept with her children and was stunned. As she speaks to me, her voice cracks with emotion, ‘We have created a world where we can buy a juice for 30 dh (about $3) and we don’t even drink it all and we leave the rest. Yet there are people out there who sleep on cardboard boxes, who don’t have shoes, whose children go to sleep hungry for lack of that 30 dh. This can’t be.’
However, after living a life on the streets, it is often a challenge to adapt to a different lifestyle. And change was just not possible for Amina without motivation from Amina herself, as well as proper training. As Nora puts it, ‘I’m not a social worker. I was not equipped to help at this level. I hadn’t really made a sustainable difference in Amina’s life. I had used compassion, but I really needed to use my intellect in a smarter way.’
Nora realized that she wanted to help women who displayed a continued, authentic desire to better their lives and she needed to find a trade that would allow them to enter the work force and find success. She explains, ‘Very quickly, it became clear that these women were agents of their own lives and the leaders of their empowerment journey.’
She began with a tiny, yet genius pilot project. Baking American-style sweets at the school where her husband taught. She then chose two women who demonstrated both a will to better their situation and genuine need. Nora then taught them basic recipes such as cheesecake, cupcakes and brownies. Nora explains, ‘Keep in mind that these women were illiterate. But they took the recipes, tried them one time, and they were so, so good. It was like they were born to bake and be entrepreneurs. It was magical.’
The project was an instant hit and soon the women were earning 1,200 dh/month each, which is about $130. Nothing for some but an absolute fortune for these women.
This was the tiny seed that eventually flourished into the Amal Women’s Training Center, which opened in April of 2013. Amal, meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic, is a place of promise for hundreds of women who would not normally have a chance. These women represent the force of going against the grain of an embedded stereotype.
The center targets women with two essential traits: self-motivation and vulnerability. Widows, divorcées, single mothers, orphans, and women below the poverty level, ages 18-35 years.
The goal of the center is for its graduates to enter into the formal economy with an official work contract. To provide stability and sustainability. The Amal team has created a large network of employers in the restaurant business in Marrakech. It is a win-win for everyone involved.
Nora had hoped she could help a few women when she first created her vision. Little did she know that today, the center has graduated over 170 trained chefs and utilizes 25 full-time employees in the restaurant and catering service. Now that’s sisterhood.
There is so much joy here; the center is bursting with the thriving force of this strong tribe of women. Nora finds herself truly humbled by the women’s strength and determination, and hopes that the Center will continue to open doors through the love and comfort of scrumptious food.
* Amina’s name has been changed to protect her privacy
By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger
The Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant in Marrakech is open from 12-4 pm daily for lunch, dinner with a reservation, and also offers cooking and baking classes. yum!
Rue Allal Ben Ahmed et Rue Ibn Sina
Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco