A Semester in Morocco
From January to May 2015, I lived in Rabat, Morocco's capital city, studying Arabic and journalism at the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning.
As the world draws its attention to the hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Europe, thousands of migrants – mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa – have poured into Morocco, escaping poverty and wars in their home countries. In a bold move by the Moroccan government, women and child migrants automatically received residency cards – a move which has left families divided: all mothers and children received residency, many fathers did not.
“I’m okay with [giving residency cards to] all women, including my wife,” said Serge Guemou, a 44-year-old refugee from Cameron. “But on the other hand, I feel like it’s kind of discrimination not to [provide residency to] husbands of the women.”
The new immigration policy came in response to a speech the king of Morocco delivered in September 2013, calling for a “humanitarian approach” to legalizing immigrants. His speech followed a report released by the National Commission for Human Rights in June 2013, titled, “Foreigners and Human Rights in Morocco: For a Radically New Asylum and Immigration Policy.”
Four months after the king’s speech, in January 2014, the government announced a year-long procedure to provide undocumented migrants with residency cards. The policy resulted from the country’s effort to implement a new immigration policy that offered migrants a path to legalization — the first immigration policy in North Africa.
The process to legalize migrants ended Dec. 31, 2014, according to Drais Cherki, a member of the Interior Ministry, at a press conference Feb. 11. The procedure was considered a success by the Moroccan government, he said, despite the fact that 9,000 migrants were rejected in the first round of applications. Rejected applicants may appeal the decision, but the committee for reviewing appeals has yet to begin.
Guemou arrived to Morocco in 2006 as a student in search of job opportunities that would offer financial support to his parents and family in his home country of Cameron, he said. Now, with a wife and son of his own to care for, he is constantly in search of work to provide for the family he has here – an already difficult task made harder for those without legal paperwork. Hoping that a residency card would lead to better job opportunities, he applied for residency in 2014 with almost 27,000 other migrants. His application was rejected.
Why? He repeated. Good question, he said, shaking his head.
His wife and son, however, were among the nearly 18,000 migrants who applied for and received residency cards from the Moroccan government on Feb. 10, 2015.
For Guemou, not having residency papers means living in Rabat, where he has a better chance of finding work, he said. A 45-minute bus ride separates him from the apartment in Tamesna where his wife, Chantal Kunan, is raising their 1-year-old son.Residency cards provide migrants access to things like education, healthcare and work, said Bilal Jouhari, a spokesperson for the Antiracist Support Group for Foreigners and Migrants, a non-governmental organization known by its French acronym, GADEM.
As part of the new immigration policy, priority went to women and children because they were considered “a vulnerable case,” he said.
“[Getting residency] is a more urgent case for women,” Jouhari explained. “There are many women who are pregnant, victims of harassment, prostitution – [women are] considered a vulnerable category.”
Kunan, who arrived to Morocco at the beginning of 2013 to escape war in the Ivory Coast, said she is grateful to the Moroccan government for ensuring that all women and children received residency. Sitting on the floor of her apartment with her legs outstretched and her son balanced on one leg, she referred to it as “a royal pardon.”
“[Without any paperwork] I couldn’t go out. I stayed in my house or the house that I worked in as a maid. I had just two destinations,” she said. “I was scared of Moroccan police.”
Although her residency card has brought her a sense of security and safety, the fact that her husband does not have one poses a challenge for the family. It puts a pause on her life here, she said. There are many things he can’t do without a card.
Between odd jobs here and there, Guemou said he fills much of his time as an activist for migrant rights.
“The solution is activism,” he said. “I’m taking part in several activities and demonstrations… defending the rights of migrants. We don’t have other things to do but… to make them feel us and take care of our situation and find a solution for us.”
Amadou Sadio Balde, president of the Council for Sub Saharan Migrants, said that the strict criteria on the application for residency are what caused there to be cases of divided families. He, like other migrant activists, advocated for there to be no criteria. In the 2014 procedure, there were six criteria and migrants had to meet at least one of them – a difficult task for many migrants to meet when official proof of residency, marriage or labor isn’t easily accessible.
“This is what we strongly criticized,” Balde said. “If there were no criteria, we could avoid such problems that can give certain separation and split of families.”
According to the International Organization of Migration in 2014, family migration is one of the largest categories of migrants in most countries, accounting for about 50 percent of international immigration flows. Family migration includes family reunification and migrating as a family from one place to the next.
The NCHR approached the Council for Sub Saharan Migrants for advice on how to carry out the residency request procedure, according to Balde.
“We wanted this ‘first’ to be like a ‘royal pardon’ for all immigrants,” Balde said. “We wanted for all immigrants who had the will and the courage of applying for the regularization to get residency cards without any criteria.”
But to live in a country is not a right, said Aminata Pagni, in charge of migrants at the NCHR.
“All countries are free to receive who they want on their land, so in this [operation to grant residency], the authorities can make the criteria they want…. However, I agree that what happened with the families and children can be a problem and a violation of the right to live in a family.”
All Guemou can do is wait until his application and 9,000 others are given a second look by the appeals committee. Until then, he will do his best to support his family – even if it must be from a distance.
“I would like to live with my family in the same area,” Guemou said. “But since I don’t have the residency card, I can’t find a good job there… I decided to live in Rabat, far from them, where I can find opportunities to make a few dirhams.”
Oualid Bakkas, a Moroccan journalism student from the Institut Superieur de l’Information et de la Communication in Rabat, contributed to the reporting
Originally published in The Chicago Monitor, Oct. 2015
I still remember my Irish dancing teacher’s last words to me before I left for Morocco last January.
“Of all the people I know, I’d have never thought it’d be you to go all the way to Africa,” she said, grinning wide. “If you told me you were going as far as Revere [MA], I’d have been just as surprised.”
For 16 years, I feared Rita O’Shea about as much as I admired her. From a young age, I knew that dance class time wasn’t the time to fool around... she made that pretty clear to me the day she kicked me out of class for misbehaving on the dance floor. I was only 4 years old and probably hyped up on sugar, but I was wasting her time and she wasn't afraid to tell me. During the years I danced under her name, Rita’s propensity to speak her mind is what scared me most. To be fair, it still scares me. She has never been, and probably never will be, one to sugar coat things.
I’m reluctant to write this post because it feels like a formal admittance that my time in Morocco has come to an end. And it came fast.
Last Sunday evening, we moved out of our apartment in Bab el-Had and into Hotel Darna, the same place where our semester began four months ago – making it all the more official that our study abroad experience had come full circle. The difference between then and now, however, is that in January, I moved into Darna anxious and uncertain – terrified that I’d never find myself at home here in Rabat and uneasy about everything from the homestay experience, to the independent study that would come at the end. All of those worries were coupled with the fact that I knew I’d be hit with culture shock, and that I’d be hit hard. Well, I was hit with a decent dose of shock – I was right about that much. I distinctly remember the first few sleepless nights, the awkward hallway conversations in the dark, depressing hallways of Darna, and the breakfasts of bread, bread and other kinds of bread. I didn’t realize at the time that it was all of these things that would bring us together – the culture shock, the fears, and all the unanswered questions. But this week had an entirely different feel to it; instead of the awkward hellos, I worried about the uncomfortable goodbyes. I also realized this week that the worry was for nothing. Yes, studying abroad in Morocco was a challenge and some days were harder than others, but it wasn’t a challenge that I couldn't handle. I was ready for it, whether I realized it or not on that snowy January day in Boston, waiting for my plane that would take me to Paris first, and then to Rabat.
I know by now that most things aren't going to work out the way I expect them to. But in case I forgot, this semester has been a reminder of that -- an excellent reminder of that, actually. Morocco has been a lesson in going with the flow.
Classes at the CCCL finished up entirely about two weeks ago. As the end approached, they became fewer and farther between. Arabic classes ended with our exam on St. Patrick's day and our last journalism-related lecture was little more than a goodbye before parting ways; several students in the program -- myself included -- are staying in Rabat for their independent study, but a few others are making their way down south or up north for their research. For the most part, the last week or so of classes was used to sort out our living arrangements for our last month in Morocco, finalize our story pitches and arrange our first few interviews for the independent study period.
These events happened independent of one another. That should probably be clarified from the beginning. My tooth cracked last week during our village homestay... St. Patrick's day wasn't until nearly a week later. The catch is, the tooth incident happened in the middle of a dinner where the main dish was flava beans. Soft and mushy - nothing that even needed to be chewed.
In retrospect, I probably should have realized that the tiny, bone-like piece in my mouth wasn't some ingredient from the tagine in front of me. It didn't make sense, but I was more focused on what was going on around me that with what I was eating. So yes, thinking that this was nothing out of the ordinary, I swallowed a small piece of my tooth. If it counts for anything, I didn't know that's what it was at the time. I didn't even notice it was missing until after I finished eating and my tongue caught itself on the relatively sharp edge of the tooth that remained at the back of my mouth.
What better way to really immerse yourself in a place than to check out the dentistry scene?
The week and a half leading up to our second excursion was a change of pace, both at the homestay and at school. In other words, just as things began to pick up at the CCCL – Arabic exams and oral presentations, story pitches and assignments – everything quieted down at home. Literally. A week after I arrived home from the southern excursion, everyone except my brother left for Marrakech to visit their grandmother, my host mother’s mother, in the hospital. I was under the impression they’d be back the following afternoon, but they arrived home the following Friday — a week later. From what I’ve been told by my host brother, their grandmother has been sick and after the death of her brother (my host mother’s uncle), my family wanted to see and spend some time with her. With my home now only occupied by myself and my brother (at least as far as immediate family goes), the house was much quieter. I never thought I’d miss the noise and constant distraction of the girls after school, or the sound of my host mom calling up to me when dinner is ready, as much as I did. Everyday after school was a bit of a guessing game... would I walk into an empty house, or would it be another day of just my host brother and I?
From Fez down to Merzouga, through the High Atlas Mountains and back to the coastal city of Essaouira, we had an exhausting week of bus rides, sight seeing, shopping and lectures, but the trip into the Sahara - although touristy in itself - offered a bit of a respite from all of that. Dance parties broke up long bus rides, with Badrdine at the front playing songs from his top 10 -- everything from Call Me Maybe to Hot in Here made the list. I'm fairly sure I'll never get the sound out of my head of Badrdine singing certain lyrics into the microphone, or stop wondering if he really knew exactly what he was singing to a bus full of 20-somethings. Was it a case of lost-in-translation, or was he fully embodying the role of embarrassing dad/crazy uncle? Either way, what's a road trip without some good, old fashioned sing-alongs? Even if it is to LMFAO's Sexy and I Know It ("Girl, look at that Badr, I work out").
The truth is, it was a memorable week, in which every city had something different to offer us or an experience for us to remember it by. In Fes, it was the medina's narrow alleyways – different from the medina we’d grown so accustomed to at “home” in Rabat; it was the tannery and the weaving place, the spice store where we all took a hit of an herb that temporarily shocked our senses; it was the beautiful architecture and artwork of the ancient medrasa, the world’s oldest university. In Azrou, it was the snow covered hills that reminded a few students of their home in Colorado. In Tinghir, it was the immense gorges and in Marrakech, it was the night Marguerite, Paris, Evan and I spent dancing for a crowd with the self-proclaimed "Moroccan Michael Jackson.” In Ouerzazate, it was meeting, dancing and singing at the top of my lungs with dozens of young women pursuing an education; it was introducing myself and the SIT journalism program in Arabic to a room full of strangers. In Essaouria, it was eating shrimp for the first time and playing soccer on the beach, where Badrdine’s “mean side” shone through and my competitive nature became all too apparent. In El-Jadida, it was the pizza I didn’t even know I’d been craving.
Disclaimer: this was meant to be published a week ago. Internet issues posed a small problem, but at long last...
"You're Moroccan now."
My host brother, Oussama, has said this to me on several occasions. The first time he said it, I had just helped to clear the dinner table and wipe it down the same way I'd watched my host mother do several times - using a wet sponge to push the crumbs into a small plate at the edge of the table. More recently, he said it in the context of eating. As I scraped chicken off of the bone with a fork so that I could grab it easier it with my pieces of bread, I heard my host father say my name. I looked over to him, a little caught off guard by the sound of my name coming from his mouth. We've spoken a handful of times, always in brief, and we occasionally exchange smiles when one of my sisters does something laughable or ridiculous, but hearing him say my name is a rarity. In general, he's a quiet man that keeps to himself. I looked over at him and watched as he took the chicken wing in his hands and peeled the skin off with his fingers. He said something to me that I couldn't understand, but the family chuckled around me and Oussama stepped in to explain.
"Eat with your hands,' he said, still smiling. "You're Moroccan now."
I immediately obeyed , too embarrassed not to.
Simply put, a hammam is a steam room and communal bathing area where Moroccans go to bathe once a week, sometimes more.
"You want to go to the hammam with my mum today?"
It was a simple question with an obvious answer. Because what I heard was, 'would you like to take a shower in a room larger than a walk-in closet that doesn't involve a small bucket and a hole in the wall?'
So I said yes. After a week of trying to figure out how to efficiently use a Turkish bath at home in a way that doesn't create a sopping mess of the bathroom floor (which I still haven't quite figured out), nothing sounded more appealing than a trip to the hammam.