Hidden among the souks, spice markets, and carpet shops of Marrakech’s ancient Medina one can find the most modern of restaurants, riads, and boutiques. Tucked away on an unassuming street, not far from the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa, one may stumble upon Al Nour.
At first glance, Al Nour looks like any other luxury clothing boutique in Marrakech. However, as so often in the Medina, its door hides far more than it may appear from the outside. Al Nour has a unique mission: to train, support, and employ handicapped Moroccan women. Of the 40 employees, 34 are women with special needs. It is the only organization of its kind working in the country.
Al Nour, which means “The Light,” was founded in 2013 by Patricia Kahane. “Having spent quite some time in Marrakech since 1995, I saw the many disabled people in the streets,” Kahane told Inside Arabia. “The creation of Al Nour (formerly Association Al Kawtar) came from the realization that one of the most vulnerable groups in society are women with disabilities.”
“The Moroccan system does not provide adequate free health care for all,” Kahane continued. “Also, there is no public health or technical support (not even wheelchairs) for families with children with disabilities. So I decided to set up a project that combined a day care center for disabled women with the possibility to work, earn their own income, receive training, and live a life with dignity.”
Al Nour’s buildings are modern and filled with light. There is a boutique, a workshop, and a nursery where the children of employees are looked after during the work day. The women in the workshop produce hand embroidery for home textiles, clothing, and accessories. “We sell our products in our boutique in Marrakech, at pop up events in Europe, and by online orders as everything for the home can be made to measure,” explained Patricia Kahane.
The primary purpose of Al Nour is to provide financial autonomy for their employees, all of whom receive salaries above the minimum wage. Besides free childcare, Al Nour offers its employees free meals, wheelchair-equipped transportation to and from work; and psychological, medical, and technical support (including prostheses and wheelchairs). It is this holistic approach that creates such deep affection for the organization among its staff.
The primary purpose of Al Nour is to provide financial autonomy for their employees, all of whom receive salaries above the minimum wage.
“We have a very good working environment here – we all know each other well and respect each other,” Al Nour’s Administrator, Fatima Bielayachi, explained to Inside Arabia. “We have a real social and human element here, like a family, alongside our work.”
This is the central takeaway from a visit to Al Nour: that it is so much more than a place to work.
The organization provides professional training in embroidery and all the other skills that employees need to produce high-quality clothing. “After the training, the women can work for us, or go and work elsewhere,” Fatima Bielayachi said.
“At the present time, women find it a lot easier to continue working with us. It is still difficult for them to find a safe environment elsewhere.” Patricia Kahane underlined this, explaining: “Except for administrative staff, there are no former employees, all the women so far have stayed with us!”
Al Nour’s training center also provides comprehensive literacy workshops in Arabic and French, as well as English, computer, and IT skills, organizational development, and extracurricular activities. Training options are tailored to employees’ individual needs, as they come from a vast range of educational backgrounds. Some have university degrees, for example, whilst others have received no schooling. Basic literacy and numeracy training is therefore given to those who need it.
All of the women who sat down with Inside Arabia spoke movingly about the difference Al Nour has made in their lives. “Before I found Al Nour, I had no independence, whether personal or financial,” explained secretary Noura Nouam, who has been with the project since its founding in 2013. “Al Nour has given me so much. I have learned so many professional skills, but also so many language skills, and much more. So much has changed for me. Handicapped people find it very difficult to find work because, even if one has the training and the necessary diplomas, you are still handicapped. There are not that many employers who are prepared to take you on. That’s why organizations like Al Nour are so important.”
As one might expect of such a unique organization, demand is high for opportunities among Al Nour’s ranks. “As we are the only company in Morocco working the way we do, we always have a waiting list and we take on two younger women each year, as quite a few employees are nearing or above retirement age,” explained Patricia Kahane.
“There are so many women who would like to enter into organizations like ours, but can’t,” added Noura Nouam. “I hope there is a lot more support for work like ours, so that many more handicapped women can benefit. We don’t have space for them all.”
Noura grew up with her mother after her father passed away when she was young. She now owns her own apartment, which she purchased with her salary from Al Nour. “I am so free!” she exclaimed. “You can’t even compare my life before Al Nour to my life now. Personal and financial independence is the most important thing in life, especially to a handicapped person, as we are always hyper-vulnerable to things that happen around us. I have confidence, I have patience. I have comfort and the ability to express my personality.”
Shop Manager Amina Lakhiourate, spoke in equally glowing terms. Like Noura, Amina has been working for Al Nour since 2013 and previously worked for Al Kawtar. “Al Nour has been an extremely rich experience for me,” she told Inside Arabia. “It has meant being independent, courageous, strong. It has also given me the opportunity to stay active, to see people, to help others, to give people ideas. To do everything I can to help my society develop. This is the ‘light’ of ‘Al Nour,’ the light it has given me—a clarity in life. Al Nour has transformed everything. It is the light of my life.”
If the effects of the pandemic have been devastating for the general populations of developing countries, the pain has been felt the hardest by the most vulnerable, such as the handicapped. Amina spoke openly about how difficult the Covid-19 pandemic has been for her. “I suffered a lot being at home during the pandemic,” she said. “It was really hard. The ‘light’ disappeared for a moment.”
Embroiderer Hajiba Trissia agrees. “For handicapped people, things are extra hard,” she explained. “Much of Morocco is not wheelchair-accessible, for example, which means that we were even more isolated than others during this time. We are also at more risk of contracting Covid-19 as, for example, I often have to use the wall, railings, and the hands of others to support me in the street. All of this increases the risk.” Many other employees spoke of suffering from severe emotional stress as a result of being isolated at home during the lockdowns.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Al Nour’s current work is how the organization has supported its employees during the pandemic.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Al Nour’s current work is how the organization has supported its employees during the pandemic. Almost all of employees’ salaries have been paid in full throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and none have been laid off; a fact that demonstrates the compassion and communal spirit that underpins everything Al Nour is about. Al Nour tried to generate income at various pop-up events in Europe during the summer of 2020 and has also made use of online shopping, but Patricia Kahane has often had to support the project out of her own pocket.
“Of course it was very hard for Al Nour,” reflected Noura Nouam. “There were no clients, no tourists visiting, no one in the boutique; but Madame Patricia is so committed and will always make sure the project works out. I have no doubt about that.”
Despite these efforts, Al Nour’s productivity has been reduced significantly during the pandemic and employees stressed how anxious they are to start work again. “I hope Covid-19 can be over just as it arrived – very, very quickly. I desperately hope we can have clients back again soon and start to sell again,” said Amina Lakhiourate. “I don’t even want to think about Al Nour closing. I cannot bear to think about it. I cannot wait to open a new exclusive collection and to have clients back here again. I want to welcome the world to Marrakech and to Al Nour!”
It is this inspiring sense of hope for the future that is most powerful about Al Nour. Even in such difficult times, the project exudes a dignity and optimism that many of the employees said they would not have if they had not found work there.
Hajiba Trissia embodies this remarkable spirit of aspiration and independence. She spoke passionately about her plans once the pandemic is over. “I would like to travel again, just as I want visitors to come to see us at Al Nour,” she said. “I loved to travel and always traveled around Morocco. Now I would like to travel to France. I can’t wait for the vaccine so I can do all that again, inshallah [God willing]!”
Those interested in learning more can visit Al Nour’s website, here.