Throughout Morocco and North Africa there are many local organizations doing work to support vulnerable communities and plug the gaps often left by inadequate state support. A shining example is Amis des Écoles, an NGO that seeks, in its own words: “to promote dignity, equality, and respect for all, especially for school children and women in remote rural Morocco.”
Amis des Écoles focuses primarily on providing fully equipped schools to remote communities. Their work is divided between two main regions: Haouz (around Marrakech) and southern Morocco, where they are based in Tata. Amis des Écoles’ President Amal Zniber, who founded the NGO with her husband Abdelmajid Dahbi Skali in 2006, spoke to Inside Arabia about their mission.
“We work in the regions where no one wants to go,” explained Amal, who first conceived of the project in 2004 when she and her husband were teachers in Casablanca. Amal spoke of how they visited a region named Ait Bouguemez as part of a program named “Explore Morocco,” which provided school children and teachers from urban areas with the opportunity to visit remote parts of the country. What Amal saw opened her eyes to the level of regional and social inequality in Morocco, which she could see stemmed primarily from unequal access to education. She described seeing woefully ill-equipped schools, often without basic necessities such as proper roofing, insulation, and drainage.
It is because of this that Amis des Écoles goes so far beyond simply supplying and refurbishing school buildings. Many of the regions in which they work have a poverty rate of up to 80 percent and they meet this challenge with a holistic approach, giving communities a varied range of tools to provide children with the best possible opportunities. Since 2006, Amis des Écoles has renovated 380 classrooms, built 152 water fountains, installed 420 toilets, distributed 26,000 books, stocked 30 libraries, and planted 8,736 trees.
Amis des Écoles has renovated 380 classrooms, built 152 water fountains, installed 420 toilets, distributed 26,000 books, stocked 30 libraries, and planted 8,736 trees.
Amis des Écoles centers its efforts around five focus points: school renovations, empowered mothers, supportive communities, sustainable environments, and educational tools, while placing the welfare of children at the center of all of them.
The project’s focus is altered and adapted on a case-by-case basis, according to what local communities themselves say is most needed. For instance, they recently sent 800 mattresses to a community they support in Sidi Ifni, south of Agadir. Amal Zniber explained that they could have afforded to send more mattresses of a lower quality but opted instead for 800 mattresses that will last longer. “When it comes to our work, we do it properly or we don’t do it at all,” she told Inside Arabia.
Amis des Écoles’ recent renovations of school buildings are impressive. Amal spoke of the restorations the project did in the mountain regions of Midelt, Oussertek, and Tata, providing full insulation to nine classrooms and one women’s training center. Many of the regions in which Amis des Écoles works have scorching summers and freezing winters with heavy snowfall, meaning that good insulation in school buildings is critical to providing quality education.
Amis des Écoles takes donations from individuals but has also partnered with major organizations such as the German development cooperation GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) and the US human rights organization Breakthrough. GIZ has been instrumental in the insulation projects, such as in Midelt and Tata. The organization is staffed almost exclusively by volunteers. Indeed, the project only has one paid employee, M’Hamed Alhilali. Aside from Alhilali’s salary, all money donated to Amis des Écoles goes directly to schools and teachers.
Alhilali lives in Tata and is an invaluable presence on the ground for Amis des Écoles. He is in charge of all of the organization’s work in southern Morocco, where the schools with which they work send him lists of what they need. Alhilali ranks the requests in order of importance, prioritizing water fountains and toilets. “Mr. Alhilali represents this vital connection between us and local communities in the region,” said Amal, who repeatedly stressed the importance of involving regional partners in their work. “Our local partners know what is best for their region,” she explained simply.
Amal believes that the early mistakes Amis des Écoles made resulted primarily from a failure to connect sufficiently with local communities. “Unfortunately, Ait Bouguemez, our original location, was one such negative experience,” she lamented. “I feel we were somewhat taken advantage of there, given the money we were investing, and this problem stemmed largely from the fact that we did not have trusted local partners on the ground.”
In November 2019, Amis des Écoles opened its first Women’s Training Center in the Oussertek Valley.
In November 2019, Amis des Écoles opened its first Women’s Training Center in the Oussertek Valley, as part of its Empowered Mothers focus. The center provides the training and resources for women to learn valuable skills, from embroidery to cooking and food preservation. The center is also an idyllic stop-off point for tourists and hikers, who can fund the project by enjoying a tea on the terrace, taking in spectacular mountain views. This is also an opportunity for the women to cook for guests and sell their products.
The Empowered Mothers initiative also provides village laundromats, which afford women invaluable time to learn new trades. The laundromats also allow for young girls to stay in school longer. According to the Amis des Écoles website: “Typically, girls as young as ten years old are taken out of school to help their mothers with household chores like washing, which traditionally is done in the river.” Thus, something as seemingly unremarkable as a laundromat could make all the difference in whether a young girl gets an education or not.
Another important aspect of Amis des Écoles’ work is sustainability. At each school they support, Amis des Écoles plants a green space, which is then taken care of by the children. The motivation for this policy is multifaceted: “Our experience has shown that school gardens and natural landscaping helps the students learn patience, cooperation, teamwork, and social skills,” explains the Amis des Écoles website. “Students become more fit and healthy as they spend more time active outdoors. Graffiti and vandalism also decrease because the students feel a sense of ownership over the space.” Mindful of protecting the environment and helping local communities, the project has also planted thousands of fruit trees in collaboration with other local initiatives.
Amis des Écoles provides a plethora of educational tools, including libraries and multimedia centers – where local people can access technology and receive training in how to use it. The project also offers essentials such as reading glasses alongside traditional school supplies. Their “reading caravan,” set up in partnership with the publishing company Yanbow Al Kitab, provides classes and workshops alongside storytelling and game sessions for children. The caravan brings books to rural areas, where people can then read together in sessions. “We try to show the importance of reading in all our activities,” Amal told Inside Arabia. Amis des Écoles also provides family libraries boxes of 24 books. These books come with manuals for teachers and students on how best to use them.
Along with pursuing invaluable learning-centered initiatives, the NGO has collaborated with local authorities to develop community programs on topics important to childcare outside of formal education. These include internet safety, drug and alcohol prevention, and environmental protection. In addition, they sponsor local sports teams and other recreational activities and provide emergency medical aid to rural communities where needed.
In these strange and difficult times, in which socioeconomic disparities have become all the more stark, Amis des Écoles has stuck to its mission of reducing these inequalities and has refused to give up on the rural communities of Morocco.