Beyond Borders-Bringing American Youth To Morocco: Breaking Stereotypes, Creating Bonds and Bountiful Couscous
Here at Mushmina, Mindful Fashion, we feel that it is essential to support other small business owners, particularly strong female entrepreneurs. Women who share our vision of female empowerment, cultural exchange, compassion and sustainability.
For director and founder of ImprintEd Abroad, Melissa Topacio Long, her passion for Morocco was love at first sight. She visited Morocco for the first time in 2011 and she was so taken with her experience, she pushed back her return ticket to the United States. And then she delayed it again. In the end, she never left. And it all started, according to Melissa, around the table.
As Melissa explains earnestly, ‘Morocco became part of my heart almost instantly; it was the immediate warmth and hospitality of its people that attracted me to the country. Moroccans show their love through food and for me, this was an instant connection. Sharing a meal and spending time with family and friends offer an easy entry into the culture, creating an incredible sense of community.
It was then that Melissa knew she had something special. She carefully developed a program, with her expertise and background in international education. Her dream would turn into a unique exchange possibility for taking young Americans -high school and college students all over Morocco on short-term stays.
Young adults who already have a vested interest in international affairs, language exchange, community development, compassion, and global empathy. The goal being to offer access to this sense of community and connection to the eager, enthusiastic youth of America and other countries.
ImprintEd builds relationships and breaks down stereotypes by allowing students to experience real Moroccan life outside of the tourist attractions and busy, popular sites. Foreign students learn a great deal about their own cultures as they compare and contrast their own with Moroccan culture. Moroccan program leaders have reported a similar increased awareness and pride over Moroccan culture thanks to the opportunity to view their own culture through the eyes of others.
How are these goals of intercultural exchange achieved? Melissa proudly ensures that her Moroccan staff regularly interface with students, sharing their own experiences and often. One key goals of ImprintEd’s unique mission is to build empathy between Americans and Moroccans and to do so in a reciprocal way. By creating new friendships, building relationships and bridging cultures, the program naturally fosters authenticity. And there is no better way to get to know a culture more genuinely than by going into someone’s home, both in rural Morocco and in its bustling cities.
This bold program, strives to achieve connection and community with Moroccans, young and old.
Students stay in local homestays, visit schools, institutions, cultural centers and historical structures to learn more about Morocco and its incredible people. Cross-cultural exchange is essential; Melissa and her team pride themselves on students sharing their own cultures and traditions with their new Moroccan friends. And the result is fascinating; both the American students and local Moroccan youth end up learning something new about themselves as well as each other.
Melissa tells us, ‘I’m currently traveling with a group of eight young women and two teachers from Portland, Oregon and we are now in Moulay Idriss, rugged north-central Morocco. The other night, we went to a girls boarding house (which allows girls from more remote areas to pursue their middle school and high school education) in a nearby village and we shared a meal with the 95 local students there. Our students came away with an understanding of how hard rural Moroccan women must work in order to get an education. It was especially powerful because one of our Moroccan program leaders comes from a rural village and was the first in her family to get an education. She has since started an association for the girls and women in her natal village. She addressed the Moroccan girls to share her story and to encourage them to continue pushing themselves to achieve more.’
In the end, Melissa wants to share something incredibly simple but quintessentially unique with her students that she learned from her Moroccan friends, colleagues, and local Moroccans long ago. She tells me, ‘I want to share my favorite thing about Moroccans, which is their generosity with time.’ This tiny anecdote can transcend to everything in today’s world. It is rare that people take a moment to share their lives with others, unless it is a necessity. Here in Morocco, time slows down when friends and families gather. It is where one realizes what is really important in life.
And the table is where, once again, the magic happens. Coming together, talking, sharing, and feeling the spirit of commonality and the bond of humanity.
So on that note, what is Melissa’s favorite Moroccan dish? So many, she says with a laugh, but in the end, it’s Moroccan couscous that she holds closest to her heart. As Melissa explains, ‘So much love and time is put into preparing couscous. I am constantly overwhelmed by the generosity that so many Moroccan women have extended to me in welcoming me into their homes, hearts and families to share this meal and to make me a part of their lives.’
By Tara Fraiture, Director of Social Engagement, Mushmina, Mindful Fashion.
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