By Nina Schmitz
After more than three years of study I felt the desperate need to get out of the environment and way of thinking that became normalized to me. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to Morocco and volunteer with the High Atlas Foundation for ten weeks. I desired to learn about a new country, a new culture and maybe also about myself.
I left Germany on April 13th to start my three-month adventure. The Kingdom of Morocco is a whole different world! I visited this beautiful country two years ago and I always imagined that I would come back to explore it more. The High Atlas Foundation gave me the chance to not just explore it, as any tourist might, but an opportunity to learn more about the culture, the life and the work in Morocco. Inspired by what I knew before, and keen to learn so much more, I headed to Marrakesh, a large, vibrant city. During my first days I tried to orientate myself, but to be honest, with all the small and unlabeled trails it was just not possible. However, I knew that it is just part of the experience to get lost in the Medina. After being here for quite a while, I can now recognize almost all of the places, and whenever I get lost it doesn’t take me long to get back on track. I never felt insecure either, because there are always people out on the street and nothing goes unseen. For the first time in my life, I was the stranger and everyone could see that. But it didn’t make a difference, because I was accepted. Sure, I have had more marriage proposals here in Morocco than I have had in ten years in Germany – but I never felt threatened by those guys.
In the last three months, I fell in love with this beautiful country and I guess a lot of my affection is due to the warm and welcoming culture that I experienced at the High Atlas Foundation. My internship was mainly for GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and I created some overview maps about HAF’s project sites as well as more detailed maps for specific projects and campaigns. By creating those maps, I got to know a huge amount about what kind of projects the High Atlas Foundation is working on and where they are located. It also made me more aware about the geography of Morocco and which cities I might visit! The following example shows a map displaying information about the 2016 planting campaign.
Apart from GIS, I was happy to help with anything else that has been needed. I was always informed about the recent activities of HAF and gained new technical skills while working on social media and the website.
I had the chance to work closely together with the President Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir. I supported him in writing letters, campaigns and papers as well as accompanied him traveling to different events. At the Sister Park signing ceremony between the Great Basin National Park (USA) and the Toubkal National Park (Morocco), I learned a lot about environmental preservation in Morocco and experienced the beauty of the Toubkal National Park. I also had the honor to meet the High Commissioner of Water and Forests and the U.S. Ambassador to Morocco! Furthermore, I was able to accompany Dr. Ben-Meir to a Prioritizing Project at the SUPMTI University in Beni Mellal. Besides an interesting three-hour car drive – which made me get to know Yossef on a more personal level – I learned a lot about the way the High Atlas Foundation encourages young Moroccans to serve their society. Since I was not familiar with the prioritizing techniques taught in this project, it was a worthy experience for me.
The High Atlas Foundation also gave me the opportunity to see parts of Morocco which I would not have seen otherwise. Together with the Program Director Amina Elhajjami, I got to experience different parts of the Ourika Valley, where the High Atlas Foundation has tree nurseries. I learned a lot about the participatory approach and how organic certification can lead to sustainable development, while witnessing the gracefulness of Morocco’s landscape.
Looking back, in addition to the professional experiences I gained, the culture and the sincere involvement of all the staff made me appreciate volunteering for the High Atlas Foundation. From the first day I was not only included in the work that had to be done, but also in the team itself. Even though I do not speak Darija and not a lot of French, and even though there were times I did not understand anything, HAF staff and the other volunteers made me feel welcome and at home. Every day, except for Ramadan, we had tea breaks and shared our lunch in the comfortable environment of the office. At this point I want to show great thanks to Atika, who made me realize the amazing variety of meals you can have in Morocco! Shokran Atika! If I needed anything, or did not understand something – work related or not – Fatima-Zahra, Yossef and Amina would always be there to help me out. But not only the staff members, also all the amazing volunteers would be there for me. I was not only working with internationals but also lots of Moroccan interns who guided me through the city, showed me nice cafés and tried to teach me some Darija!
They showed me their culture by inviting me to their homes, travelling with me, preparing a Ftour meal together during Ramadan, teaching me their language and by telling me about their lives. Something I will always remember is a weekend we spent in Kalat M’Gouna, for the Rose Festival, and our visit to two other volunteer’s hometowns and houses. Thank you for inviting all of us, Said and Jamal, and a great thanks to your families for warmly welcoming us in their homes.
I would never have experienced Morocco and its culture the way I did without the amazing people I met at our office. Inshallah, I will come back to this wonderful country many times in the future and meet all those beautiful minds again. It was a pleasure to work with you all!
My name is Nina Schmitz, I am 22 years old and from Aachen, Germany. This past March I just finished my Bachelor’s degree in Applied Geography, and I am enrolled in a Bachelor’s program in Environmental Engineering, both at RWTH Aachen University. In the last few years I had the chance to travel and learn about many different cultures and countries. After graduating in March, I wanted to combine both – professional experience and exploring a new country. My internship at the High Atlas Foundation gave me this opportunity that I was looking for. In October my Master’s Program in Applied Geography will start, and who knows what the future holds? Maybe I will come back to Morocco and the High Atlas Foundation to do research for my thesis.