Of the thousands of women’s collectives, cooperatives, and associations doing inspiring work in local communities across North Africa, few are more impressive than the Amal Women’s Training Center in Marrakech. Founded in 2012, the center prepares disadvantaged women with the skills they need to obtain work in the food industry and become financially independent. Amal is the Arabic word for “hope,” and it is hope that forms the organization’s guiding principle – the hope for a future where women have the autonomy to control their own destinies.
Amal is a non-profit organization consisting of two training centers. While the association also excels in international cuisine, it is Amal’s renowned Moroccan food that has made the first center, a restaurant, astonishingly popular with locals and tourists alike. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, guests regularly had to book weeks in advance to have lunch at Amal. The second center, which opened in 2016, offers lunches for local school children, catering for large events, and cooking classes for tourists. To date, Amal has been funded through the revenue from the restaurant and the cooking classes, although the center also accepts donations.*
Amal has been funded through the revenue from the restaurant and the cooking classes, although the center also accepts donations.
The center was founded by Nora Fitzgerald, an American citizen born and raised in Morocco. Fitzgerald spoke to Inside Arabia about her inspiration for the project. “It was a personal story actually,” she recalled. “I met a woman who was in very difficult circumstances and she told me that she and her two children needed 20 dirhams [around US$2] a day to survive. That amount was so low that it caused a type of cognitive dissonance for me. I thought: ‘How can we be living in a world where 20 dirhams means nothing to me – it’s the price of a coffee – whereas, for another family, it’s the difference between eating and not eating?’”
“Although I was intellectually aware that there are many people living on that amount in the world, at that particular moment that knowledge completely permeated my being and the pain of it was heartbreaking,” Fitzgerald continued. “From that heartbreak, which lasted several days, and was an actual physical pain in my heart, I came away with the certainty that I couldn’t look away, even if I wanted to. I knew I would do something, maybe for just this one woman. . .. I was not exactly sure what it would be, but I knew it would be something. This is how the Amal Center was born.”
Everyone at the Amal Center stresses the crucial importance of women’s financial independence. Many of the women who pass through Amal have fallen on hard times due to divorce or the death of a husband or parent on whom they were previously financially dependent. The center aims to provide women with a level of financial stability that can foster true autonomy and dignity.
The center aims to provide women with a level of financial stability that can foster true autonomy and dignity.
The course, which takes in 30 trainees at a time, has proved extremely popular. According to Abla Terrab Maskri, the PR Manager at Amal, some four of five women would apply every day up until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The center stipulates that trainees must “be between 18 and 40 years of age, have little or no education, have zero or very low income, be motivated to learn and work, be ready to take advantage of the tools available at Amal to improve their skills, and be in a difficult situation, such as being divorced, a single mother, or orphaned.” Priority is given to women who are the primary breadwinner in their household.
Successful applicants are trained for six months, consisting of three months at each of the Amal Center’s two facilities in Marrakech, following which they receive a diploma. During the course, trainees learn all the aspects of work in a professional kitchen, from salad, to hot foods, to baking, to waiting tables. They are also given training in hygiene and food safety, as well as the opportunity to take communicative French and English lessons, or another activity of their choice, such as yoga or art classes.
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In the future, the center plans to extend the training from six months to one year. Once per week, psychologists visit the center to assist with any emotional issues that the trainees may be experiencing. The program is completely free and the trainees are provided with food and a living stipend.
At the end of the six months, participants complete a two-week internship at a restaurant to gain real-world experience. “We teach them as much as we can, but there are a lot of things they can only learn by getting out there,” explained Abla Terrab Maskri. The majority of those who complete the program go on to achieve financial independence, working in top-level restaurants, riads (large traditional houses or hotels built around courtyards), and private homes. As of today, over 350 women have graduated from Amal’s program. According to Nora Fitzgerald, around 80 percent of Amal graduates secure jobs immediately. In some cohorts, all trainees find work upon completion.
The importance of the Amal Center’s work hits home in speaking to the trainees themselves and hearing their stories. Fitzgerald spoke movingly about a trainee named Samira. “She was divorced after six years of a physically and mentally abusive marriage. She was quite depressed and told me that she felt like she was at a bus stop and everyone got on except for her; she was just left watching people ride away. She said that she felt that her life was over at age 30,” Fitzgerald told Inside Arabia.
“During her time with us, Samira absolutely thrived,” Fitzgerald continued. “She came out of her shell and in fact she is a natural leader and inspiration for the others in her group. When she graduated, she was snatched up as a chef at Rodamón, a hostel in the medina, earning a good salary. She was able to become financially independent and support her two children entirely on her own. When I spoke to her recently, I asked her ‘Are you on the bus now?’ and she laughed and said ‘yes.’ I asked: ‘Are you driving the bus?’ and she replied: ‘just about.’”
In speaking to the trainees, the theme that keeps coming up is that of Amal as a family. While the center’s graduates are often offered higher salaries elsewhere, many choose to return to Amal to work, such is their emotional connection to the place.
26-year-old Samira, who came to Amal following a grueling divorce, returned to the center three months after leaving to take a job in the old medina. When asked why, she replied: “Because it’s Amal! It’s where hope is. My previous job had a better salary, but I feel safe and at home here. If I was offered a better salary somewhere else now, I would not take it. . .. Whenever I see any woman in a difficult situation, I always tell them about Amal. If you are motivated to work, they can really help you.”
“I have learned a lot about cooking of course but I have also learned a lot about myself.”
Zahra, another current trainee, echoed these sentiments. “I have learned a lot about cooking of course but I have also learned a lot about myself,” she told Inside Arabia. The 25-year-old orphan, who had struggled to find a stable lifestyle, described the Amal Center as her home, a second family. “Amal has helped me to become independent; it has given me self-confidence,” Zahra added. “You come to Amal empty handed and you leave full of knowledge and opportunity.”
“The first thing I learned here was how to move on, how to let go, not to be blocked by a certain problem,” confided Ibtissam, 26. “I feel that I let go of the past and now I am more focused on my future. . . and the present moment – I am enjoying the present moment!” All of the women at Amal made it clear that the center had not only improved their professional prospects, but had revolutionized their lives as a whole, giving them a renewed sense of hope.
Like many businesses and associations in Morocco and the world over, the Amal Center was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and now risks losing much of what these remarkable women have built. However, even at this challenging time, Fitzgerald and her team were determined to turn it into something positive. When both centers were closed in March, production was switched to providing food baskets for those in need in Marrakech. The campaign, entitled “Hope for 100 Families,” raised over US$100,000, which enabled more than 21,000 food baskets to be hand-delivered to local families during the course of the lockdown. This initiative embodies why Amal is such a fundamental and cherished part of its community.
When both centers were closed in March, production was switched to providing food baskets for those in need in Marrakech.
Despite this monumental achievement, Amal is not out of the woods yet. The center has now reopened, and though their legendary Friday couscous is as popular as ever, their overall sales are only around 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels. According to Nora Fitzgerald, they plan to continue helping local families, while working hard to safeguard the organization against the challenges of the post-Covid world.
“When this all started in mid-March, we thought the pandemic would be over in two weeks,” admitted Abla Terrab Maskri with a wry laugh. “But you have to look to the positives. I really hope people learn the value of life during this – that everything can end in one second. When this is over, I hope people appreciate the small things – just being able to breathe without this mask, being close to your family and loved ones.”
This spirit of positivity, which in many ways defines the Amal Center, gives the association a fighting chance of surviving through this most arduous of periods. “Amal has given so much and now she is suffering because of this virus. So now it is our turn to save her,” said Zahra. “We always talk about Amal as a human being,” Abla interjected with a smile.
While the Amal Center has achieved so much already, it is a model that deserves to be expanded. From management to the trainees, the staff agree that the next step is to launch in other cities in Morocco and then to look beyond. “My biggest hope is to see Amal worldwide because women facing difficult situations are everywhere,” said Ibtissam. “So we should help them.”
*Editor’s note: For more information and donations, visit Amal’s official website: http://amalnonprofit.org/