Zohra sleeps propped upright in her seat; the steady rumble of the bus soothes her every time.
The Moroccan desert passes through the window until, all at once, Morocco’s Atlas Mountains appear in the distance. This is the part Zohra likes to wake up for, as she’s reminded how small her village is in the scale of the enormous, incredible world.
The 16-year-old walks into her family’s home and the air is familiar with her mother’s cooking. She drops her bags, but the scene is different: her family is waiting together for her – all together – in one room. They’ve been waiting all week for this moment, her regular weekend return from school, so they can ask for her opinion on an important family matter. It’s a community matter really, because the whole village feels like family. She glows with pride, thinking of everything it took to get to this point.
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Her name Zohra means ‘flower blossom,’ a perfect choice at a time when girls in her village were expected to be delicate, demure, and something more ornamental than functional in the home. When she was born, only a few women in the area could read; even fewer finished their education. But when Education For All (EFA) selected her for a place in the boarding house, Zohra knew her life had changed course for the better.
At age 11, Zohra heard about a place where some girls from the village went during the week so they could continue to learn. Getting to school now took her over an hour. That is when she could go; Zohra’s parents made her stay home to help her mother more often as she got older. She dreamed of this place, where girls had stacks of books and computers, ate three warm meals a day, and never had to skip class for chores. It was not long before Education For All had an open spot for Zohra, and she took that first bus ride, the Atlas Mountains shrinking in the window behind her.
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Education For All’s boarding houses allow girls in rural Morocco to live in a safe, supportive place as they continue their education. Each one is managed by a local Berber woman – called a ‘house mother’ – who looks after the girls’ wellbeing during the week. On the weekends, the girls have transportation back home to be sure they stay connected with their families. Sonia Omar, who manages fundraising and communications for EFA, makes it clear that they don’t want to interfere with the girls’ cultures. “We just want to give them access to things they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
That access opens them up to opportunities, personal and professional, otherwise unimaginable in their home villages. When Khadija started with EFA, the once far-fetched dream of completing her studies finally appeared on the horizon. A standout student, humble as she is, and incredibly curious about the world, it was clear she would graduate. But when she accepted an internship at Intrepid Group’s PEAK DMC office in Marrakech, the realm of possibilities became bigger than ever.
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The work was overwhelming at first, she admits. “But everyone kept telling me ‘You can do this. You just need the time to learn, then you can do anything we’re doing.’” Before she knew it, Khadija was leading a cooking class for travellers keen to perfect a Moroccan tajine. And in just a short while, she’ll be teaching biology to students of her own.
All of EFA’s girls hail from the High Atlas region, where the Amazigh – more commonly known as Berber – culture and language is well-preserved. Berbers are the indigenous people of Morocco, and their dialects and traditions survived the conquests that brought Arabic to much of the region. Today, school curriculums are taught in Arabic, adding an additional barrier to education for children with Berber as their first language.
But they’re able to find a piece of home – and powerful role models – at the boarding houses.
The Intrepid Foundation supported EFA’s programs with a donation of AU $154,000 in 2018, allowing them provide an entire year of education for over 90 girls in three boarding houses. Each house is managed and staffed entirely by local Berber women: one house mother, one chef, and one housecleaner.
And as much as the women do for the girls, sometimes they are students in their own right.
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When Education For All recruited Latifa as the first-ever house mother, she accepted hesitantly. Latifa received her university education in Marrakech, but feared her timid, softly-spoken nature would make looking after a group of ten difficult. Today, she is the head house mother for over 200 girls: managing staff, coordinating operations, and – most recently – flawlessly hosting Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their visit to Morocco. Although every girl in the house looks up to Latifa, she looks to them to teach her about other cultures, people, and different worldviews.
Just a few years ago, Khaoula was one of those girls looking up to Latifa. Now, as EFA’s newest house mother, it’s her turn to be a role model for the next cohort of students. Rather than telling the girls they can be leaders, she wants to show them.
“We’re preparing the next generation of women of Morocco,” says Sonia. “Empowering women from a disenfranchised group like the Berbers, for them to have positions of influence, it can bring some great changes to society.”
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And that transformation is already showing. When Education For All began in 2007, staff were all but pleading parents to let their daughters finish their education. But now, demand is so high that girls must attend an annual ‘Selection Day’ to vie for a coveted spot in the boarding houses. “It’s a hard thing to do,” Sonia explains, “but we can see how much we’ve shifted ideas about the role of women in the community.” Whether it’s allowing young girls like Khaoula to continue their schooling, or valuing their opinions like Zohra’s family did, the changes are becoming clearer each day.
This year, Education For All is opening a brand-new boarding house for sixty girls aged 16 to 18. Located near a lycée, the house will help them get ‘university ready’ by focusing on life skills and academic support for the Baccalaureate. While it will make room for new students in the other houses, the current demand is over three times the available spots. And as support for girls’ education continues to grow, so will the demand. With every new house comes opportunity not just for young Moroccan girls, but also for the local women who EFA employ, empower, and hold as role models for the next generation.
To find out more about Education for All, or to make a donation, visit The Intrepid Foundation now.
All images provided by The Intrepid Foundation.