‘Any morning when I get to talk to my daughters as they’re getting ready for school is a day I celebrate girls.’ Melinda Gates~
The simple things we sometimes overlook. A girl. A school. A book. But even we can forget. As mothers of daughters who live in a country where access to education isn’t a given for girls, we can still take the gift of them going to school for granted.
Today, we think of girls and young women around the globe whose voices have been muted and whose advocacy is deemed more a privilege than a right. These girls whose education is halted, refused, or impossible due to location or finance or family situation.
On this International Day Of The Girl, we are grateful. Grateful for bold, brave young women and hopeful for a future in which girls can grow up with a powerful, echoing, united voice.
Mushmina highlights an innovative grass-roots non-profit called Project Soar, based outside of Marrakech, on this global day of optimism for girls. Read on and believe.
Flying High, Project Soar
The scorching sun relentlessly pummels down on the dusty road. This is where rural girls can potentially fall through the cracks, their voices muted by strict cultural barriers and traditions that often do not allow independent spirit and expression.
Deep in the depths of these rural hamlets, however, girls are thriving. They are growing, learning, and speaking. Their voices are strong and vibrant; illuminating and reverberating. And echoing across Morocco.
The phenomenon of Project Soar began in 2013 as an unprecedented idea for neighbors and particularly girls in rural communities, to become involved. This small gesture soon blossomed into something much larger and with a tremendous amount of heart.
As COO Michelle Hirschfeld explains, ‘This vision evolved from a place where local girls could have a simple bright moment in a program that really tailors to their needs, as told by the girls individually.’
She goes on earnestly, ‘Our mission is simple. We support girls to be advocates for themselves. We aren’t able to tell the girls what is important to them or what their needs are. They are the ones discovering this. We don’t tell people about their own advocacy. The girls become passionate champions for activism through their own discovery. They begin to understand that it’s all right to ask questions.’
Project Soar is the brainchild of the innovative and bold Maryam Montague. Maryam created this groundbreaking program for young girls in her own community of Douar Laadam, a tiny village on the sandy, barren road south of Marrakech, which she has called home for over 10 years.
With boldness and gutsiness, there often comes criticism, particularly when the figure is a strong female leader. Maryam, Egyptian-born to an Iranian mother and an American father, has been actively working in humanitarian aid for 25 years. This is clearly a labor of love for Maryam and her crew.
The ingenious platform began in rural ‘dar shebabs’, or youth community centers; often just a rustic open meeting space with little else where neighboring girls could go as a safe, quiet place for academic support and physical activities. Often, these places would be the only spot where a young girl could run, play, laugh, and share freely. In male-centric Morocco, boys are encouraged to play ‘football’ (soccer) outside, but girls inevitably stay in the privacy of their homes. For many of these girls who are a part of Project Soar, this is the first time for them to be a part of a unique community in which they can contribute and be heard.
Quickly, the blueprint for the project began to evolve into a much larger entity.
True to their authentic mission, the Soar Team has recently shifted to working more with local Moroccan non-government organizations. ‘Ultimately, our goal is sustainability. We want to work with organizations whose teams are permanently based and invested in Morocco. We have found great success in this approach.’
And what is their method? Based on the UN Declaration of Girls Rights, Project Soar’s technique for reaching girls in the most genuine of ways includes ever-evolving workshops, simulations, games and interactive projects designed carefully to create conversations, discussions and communication that reflect these girl’s daily lives. The vibrant curriculum encourages working together to create solutions and overcome challenges for girls ages 13-18. There are now 32 active programs across rural communities in Morocco.
I was curious to hear how these skills translate back into the local community, once a girl leaves the center and goes home to her likely-traditional village and family. Wafaa Afkir, the spirited Field Manager for Project Soar reflectively tells me, ‘It creates an interesting domino effect where conversations are triggered and questions are asked.’ She eagerly describes one of the girls who had transitioned from being extremely shy and reserved to being an assured leader of the girl’s club, an important slice of Project Soar. ‘This girl sat with her father, drinking mint tea, and she convinced him to let her be a part of the program further, whereas he was ready to stop her.’
Michelle brings up a fascinating point to me to ponder as I question how local Moroccan boys and men would react to such a brave and unafraid initiative. And for that matter, I was also curious to hear the response from Moroccans all over the country. Michelle paused and then brought up an interesting aspect, ‘I feel that the very definition of the word “feminist” is not a pre-conceived idea.’ She explains further, ‘If you look up the term, it is someone who believes that men and women are equal. I myself know several men who are on a personal journey with this word,’ she chuckles. ‘We encourage girls to find their voice, to use newly found tools within themselves that encourage essential discussions in their communities. These conversations begin to break down the barriers of discrimination.’
The Project Soar team is a delightful mishmash of talented, experienced people with a passion for giving back; several of whom are local Moroccan women and many as well who also started as neighborhood volunteers. Michelle tells me graciously, ‘It’s important to note that Project Soar is a team effort. It’s many different people working side by side towards a goal of empowerment and self-worth for local girls.’
The future has endless possibilities for Project Soar, just as the High Atlas Mountains loom beautifully over the horizon of Douar Laadam. The sky is the limit for these girls. The Project Soar Team hopes to bring this gutsy curriculum into public schools, with the potential to reach over 8,000 girls in three years. This ingenious agenda where trainers have everything they need to run a successful program (inside an imaginative and inventive bag) is trailblazing and unique, yet perfectly tailored for the girls and again, with the girls voicing their needs.
The echoes of the girl’s voices begin as a soft murmur and peak at a confident hum in the rural communities where Project Soar is making an extraordinary impact. These girls are ready to take on the world and tell their stories with their united voice. And the Moroccan sun shines upon them and down the long and dusty road to Douar Laadam.
By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina director of social engagement.
Photos by Federico Iwakawa.