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I will forever remember the smiles

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Kelsey Abrahamsen
Sophomore, Bowling

After more than 25 hours of traveling to Morocco, we were greeted warmly upon our arrival by our local partner from the High Atlas Foundation, Rachid. We spent the night in Casablanca before beginnng our (roughly) five-hour drive to Marrakech the following day. Once in Marrakech, we checked into our beautiful Riad (hotel), went out to tour the Old City, have lunch Moroccan-style and finish up the day with a quick shopping trip in the souks (a HUGE marketplace with vendors of all kinds).

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The next day, we had the opportunity to meet the president of the High Atlas Foundation, Dr. Yosef Ben-Meir, before picking up the shoes for our first and second distributions! As we made our way along the bumpy roads of the High Atlas Mountains, the sights were absolutely breathtaking and second-to-none. Pulling into both of the villages, all members of the community were gathered around with smiles from cheek-to-cheek. We quickly got to work setting up and sorting the shoes by sex and size, sizing each child's feet, washing and drying their feet (a touching and heartwarming part of the process), and finally sliding on perfect pairs of brand new shoes! At this point, if a child was shy or hesitant, even with the language barrier that we faced, we found that the saying "smiles are a universal language" could not be more true.

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We continued to have wonderful experiences at the next village during both the shoe distribution, as well as our time spent painting a new mural in the outside playing area at our third distribution site. Our fourth and final distribution site was at a local Women's Co-Op which I found to be the most empowering. The women and children we served were members of a largely ostracized community since they had been either divorced or widowed. Rachida, the woman who ran the Co-Op, along with all the other women who were there, welcomed and thanked us individually with a handshake and a customary kiss on each cheek. During the distribution, many smiles, rough attempts to speak the other's language, and high-fives were exchanged, creating an indescribable, as well as overwhelming, amount of positive energy in the room. As a thank you, a couple of the women did henna for us, leaving many of us stained with beautiful designs on our hands for the weeks to come. After a quick but delicious lunch cooked by the women in the Co-Op with the help of other Vanderbilt student-athletes, we were on our way back to Marrakech.
 
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Personally, as someone who struggles with social anxiety, traveling to another continent with a group of 20 strangers was a big step just by itself. Yet as the trip progressed, getting to know the other student-athletes left me feeling closer and more connected to the Vanderbilt community than I ever thought possible. While on the trip, our motto was "learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable," which is actually something my coach says constantly, and it was great to have another place to practice that mindset.

While this trip to Morocco was meant to help change the day-to-day lives of folks who are less fortunate than others, I left feeling as if I had gained so much more than I was given. I will forever remember the smiles on every child's face as we put a brand new pair of shoes on their feet, the memories made on long bus rides with other student-athletes, the hope we saw in the eyes of each elder in the villages, I could not be more grateful for this opportunity offered by Vanderbilt Athletics and the High Atlas Foundation, and it makes me excited to continue doing service work both locally and internationally in the future.

 

Souls4Soles in Rural Morocco

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by Julie Blaze
Senior, Lacrosse

Day 3
Today was our second full day in Morocco, but our first day of service. We first met with the CEO of High Atlas Foundation, the foundation we are partnering with here in Morocco. HAF works to help communities participate in the development of their own village's infrastructure through planting trees, enhancing schools - as mandated by the Moroccan government. The CEO, Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir, spoke to us in a charismatic manner that not only showed how much he cared for the foundation, but how he cared for us as volunteers.

Dr. Yossef urged us to remember two things. The first is to not bring doubts with us when the future is unknown. Don't be doubtful of the uncertain, but rather find hope that the work you are doing is bringing a positive impact beyond your knowledge. Dr. Yossef related this to our athletic experience; don't have doubts about your next play, because it involves factors you cannot foresee. The second piece of knowledge was that implementation of law (or in any case of cultural attitude) comes not from strategies and ideas being told, but from the participation of those whom it will be affecting. This is why HAF insists on working with communities to plant trees and relay their communities' other needs to government officials. It is how Souls4Soles works with local foundations to ensure that the implementation of donations of shoes is not brought with false promises, but rather brought with hope for the future of one's community.

 

We saw Dr. Yossef's words come to fruition during our first day of service in Morocco. After taking a short drive into the High Atlas Mountains, we visited two villages whose inhabitants greeted us with smiles on their faces and Moroccan tea in their hands. Once we had the shoes set up for sizes and placement, each child had their feet washed and they received a pair of shoes based on their size. The first village was a little tricky for me. I could see the hesitation on each child's face when a shoe may have been too small at first, the uncertainty they had. However, once we found the right shoe for each child, their smiles grew exponentially. The spirit with which we greeted the villages, and with which they reciprocated, showed the unifying capability of the human soul. The language barrier was difficult, but singing and dancing do not have to be understood to be felt.

Leaving the villages was a challenge, but I was not sad while saying goodbye. I knew that Dr. Yossef was right, in seeing Rachid with his friends and coworkers of the villages, that HAF is helping in the implementation of change for each village. Souls4Soles is also a vehicle of that change, helping each child one shoe at a time.

 

With the joy and excitement of our first service day fresh on our minds, it was safe to say we were all looking forward to our second day of distribution. Our group spent the day at another small village outside of Marrakech, where we distributed more than 200 pairs of shoes. Along with our distribution we also spent time painting and decorating a wall at the local school. It was clear that the kid at heart came out in all of us when we began to draw and paint pictures on the walls.
 

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FRÉ and The Imagine Empowerment Workshop

by Tal Carmel
 

In January 2018, FRÉ’s founders and a couple ambassadors had the opportunity to plant Argan trees in Morocco. During the trip, they visited with the women who harvest the Argan seeds at the Izourane co-op in Tidzi, Essaouira. It was from this visit that FRÉ’s founders decided they wanted to do more for these women than simply help them keep the Argan forest alive through their replanting efforts. They decided to partner with the High Atlas Foundation to help fund an empowerment workshop for the women. The Imagine Empowerment workshop took place this past June 2018.

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Through FRÉ’s funding efforts, they raised enough money to help 30(!) women attend the workshop. The mission of the workshop was to to give the Izourane women a voice to discover their social and economic goals through self-reflection and inquiry. This was done through training sessions on the seven critical areas of a women’s life: emotions, relationships, sexuality, body, money, work, and spirituality. I was afforded the opportunity to ask a few questions of Fatima-Zahra, the woman who organized the workshop, and this is what she had to say:

 

What were your hopes for the women attending the workshop? And how did your results compare?

We were hoping the workshop from Izourane Ourgane would help these women find meaning and purpose in their lives, as well as to help them build liberated lives and have the ability to contribute to their community. We accomplished this by identifying individual goals and aspirations as well as helping the women to overcome hurt and pain. Most importantly, we helped these women to dig deep into their subconscious and build the techniques necessary to create the lives that they desire.

The result was that the women came together in the cooperative and talked about their inspirations and goals. They started focusing on possibilities and solutions, instead of putting their focus on their problems like: marketing, sales, earning money, and other personal problems, all of which created even more problems and drained their energies.

 

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What is the most shocking thing you've discovered from the Moroccan women you've helped?

The most shocking thing I discovered was how sexuality issues are deeply rooted in Moroccan culture.

 

What is something you think could truly help to change the world and women's lives?

I think the thing that could truly help change the world and women's lives is education. If women have the chance to study, their family dynamics will change. When families change, communities and the nation also change. Empowerment first begins with education and literacy. Educating women will give them the agency to shape their own lives and futures.Thus, it will set them on a path to ultimately change the status quo.

 

If you had one dream for women worldwide, what would it be?

I dream that women around the world will have the freedom and the ability to make change and pursue their dreams.

 

Marketing for Cooperatives: From Lifesavers to Pike’s Place

By Katherine O’Neil
Claremont McKenna College (USA), HAF Intern
 

On Friday, July 13, I visited the Tifaouine Women’s Cooperative in Amizmiz, Morocco with High Atlas Foundation (HAF) Coordinator Errachid Montassir and Land O’Lakes expert volunteer Lynda Drennan Swenson. The purpose of this visit was to provide a brief training seminar on marketing and financial management led by Ms. Drennan Swenson.

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Mr. Montassir, the President of the cooperative, and Ms. Drennan Swenson, from left to right.

 

The Tifaouine Women’s Cooperative was independently launched 4 years ago and has partnered with HAF to receive training and capacity-building workshops. Though there are 20 official members of the cooperative, only 12 are currently and consistently active.

Ms. Drennan Swenson’s visit was part of a joint program between USAID, Land O’Lakes, Farmer-to-Farmer, and HAF. This program was started over a year ago when Land O’Lakes received USAID funding to send Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers to Morocco. HAF has been fortunate enough to host a number of these expert volunteers, who have assisted us in aiding our many cooperative partners.

When we arrived at the cooperative, the President greeted us warmly and served us traditional Moroccan mint tea. We exchanged introductions and Ms. Drennan Swenson gave the President some Lifesavers, a traditional American candy. Lifesavers are small, circular hard candies with a hole in the middle; for the purpose of this meeting they served both as a pleasantry gift and as a lesson. Ms. Drennan Swenson illustrated the importance of customer-centered product design by telling the story of why Lifesavers have a hole in the middle. Originally, they were solid candies, marketed towards young children. However, young children often choke on small, solid objects such as these candies. The Lifesaver company realized that by punching a hole in the middle of their product, which would allow children to breathe in case of choking, they could advertise their candy as a safer alternative to other similar products. This simple story essentially summarizes the point Ms. Drennan Swenson wanted to make through her training session: the cooperative needs to find a way to make their product stand out from other cooperatives’ products, and they need to do so in a way that emphasizes the customer’s experience.

Ms. Drennan Swenson, using Mr. Montassir as a translator, asked the President a series of questions about the cooperative’s expenses, sales, profits, and system of record-keeping. She found that the cooperative was keeping adequate financial records and was making a profit, albeit a small one.

She then asked the President what she thought they could do to increase the cooperative’s profit. The President replied that other than decreasing their rent costs, which is not currently a viable option, she was not sure. Ms. Drennan Swenson stated that the women need to increase the price they are charging for their products, which are primarily couscous, biscuits, and bread. She explained that in order to successfully increase these prices and continue selling at the same level, the cooperative would need to redesign some of its marketing and selling strategies.

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Women of the Tifaouine Cooperative and Mr. Montassir.

 

This is where the training part of the session began. Six other women from the cooperative gathered to watch Ms. Drennan Swenson’s presentation, which included a video about Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, USA. In Pike’s Place Market, there are dozens of stands lined up next to each other selling the exact same fish; however, some stands are able to charge higher prices than others. The stands that charge higher prices are able to do so because they focus on the customer’s experience by entertaining them. The situation in Pike’s Place Market is highly similar to that of the cooperatives in Amizmiz: they are all selling couscous, biscuits, and bread just feet away from each other. To conclude her training, Ms. Drennan Swenson gave the women four principles to improve the customer experience: Play, Make their day, Be there, and Choose your attitude. The Tifaouine Women’s Cooperative can now confidently charge higher prices for their product and, as a result, will increase their profit margin.

Give to building women’s cooperatives.

 

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HAF in Morocco

High Atlas Foundation
4 Rue Qadi AyaadAl Manar 4A - 3rd floor - Appt. 12 El Harti, Guéliz, MARRAKESH 40.000 - Morocco

Tel: +212 (0)5 24 42 08 21
Fax+212 (0)5 24 43 00 02 

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Directions to HAF Marrakech Office

HAF in US

High Atlas Foundation
High Atlas Foundation 511 Sixth Avenue, #K110, NEW YORK, NY 10011
USA

Phone: +1 (646) 688-2946
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