The Journey of Empowerment in the Oriental Region


Ibtissam Niri
Office Manager


Today was the last day of Imagine workshops in Oujda, but the first day to think about the journey of Empowerment in the Oriental region for 58 women of different cooperatives. 

From August 10st to August 17th, 2018, the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) facilitated an eight-day women’s empowerment workshop in Isly Golf Hotel in Oujda for more than 25 cooperatives.


HAF and the Empowerment Institute ork together to enhance women’s liveshoods. Specifically, we aim to help them identify their goals and visions that will lead them to become a powerful force in society—fighting for their rights and dreams without any confusion or self-doubt.  

To start the initiative in the oriental region, the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) took action and added its value to improve women’s capacities in specific areas, such as finances. The women also explore topics such as explore self-discovery. For example, each woman learns how to identify her needs and start transforming her beliefs into a vision and then into reality; each woman becomes motivated to realize her strengths and utilize them to enhance her life, family, community, and her country.


In the two workshops I observed, I discovered the women had great interest in both the empowerment program—including the sustainable development of building capacities step by step starting from the self discovering—and the cooperative building program—including the creation of cooperatives based on the participatory approach.

Many of the women participating in the workshop had never before thought to ask themselves where they are now in life, where they would like to be—their goals—and what steps they need to take to get there. Most of them were introduced to the technical term “growing edge,” which is a concept involving constant advancement in one’s life by consistently making and working towards achieving goals.


HAF created a Moroccan model that combines many components (i.e., the Moroccan Modowana law, the Koran, and the participatory approach) to effectively build capacities of women's cooperatives through the Empowerment program. This adaptation helps women find themselves and discover their self-confidence in not just one area, but in seven: Emotions, Relationships, Sexuality, Body, Money, Work, and Spirituality. Through these workshops, most of the participants become more confident in themselves and identify clear visions. One of the participants said,

 "I’d never say ‘no’ to anyone because I might lose people if I say ‘no,’ but I suffered more and more because of this. I couldn't appreciate myself and I didn't care about it. The more important thing for me has always been to give to others, and not put me first. But, in this exercise of core beliefs I found today that I need to appreciate myself before all, and don't say ‘yes’ if this ‘yes’ will cause me pain and suffering with others. I have self-esteem and I love myself as I am.”



I appreciate the opportunity that HAF gave me to go to the Oriental region and learn from a powerful group of women that have many, many strengths and just needed the tools to discover them. I think the Imagine workshop gave them the resources to do so and to excel in their lives.

Morocco Provides Safe Spaces for Youth

Julia Payne

As a society, we have hopes and dreams for the future; for our children, our countries, and the global community. These aspirations rest on the shoulders of the youngest generation. August 12, 2018 marks the 18th celebration of the U.N.’s annual International Youth Day. This awareness day is an unique opportunity to reflect on youth’s challenges and to celebrate and support the world’s future leaders. This year’s theme, “Safe Spaces for Youth,” marks the importance of youth’s engagement, participation, and freedom of thought.

Moroccan youth serve as an interesting case study to consider for this year’s Youth Day. The difficulties they confront are fairly representative of those that youth encounter globally. The U.N. 2016 World Youth Report outlines several issues that affect youth, such as high unemployment rates: youth are three times more likely than older adults to be unemployed. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is particularly impacted by youth unemployment, rising from 29.7 to 30.5 (2012 to 2014) in North Africa.  Morocco falls slightly below this average at 19.9 percent unemployment for people aged 15-24, affecting men slightly more than women. However, the youth unemployment rate still lies far above the national average (9.3 percent). Like many countries in the MENA region, nearly half the population is under the age of 30. Problems that affect youth should be of the highest priority, otherwise countries risk suffering economically and developmentally.

Unfortunately, on a worldwide level, economic barriers are often coupled with high political disillusionment and low traditional political participation. Voter turnout is low among young people worldwide; lowest in Africa and the United States. In Morocco, in the recent 2016 parliament election, voter turnout was 43 percent, remarkably low among urban and educated youth. Much of the pessimism youth experience stems from feeling that governments do not represent them and voting would not resolve this dilemma. One Moroccan youth said he had cast a blank vote considering it a message to the government. Another girl, still in high school, said she will not vote when she is older because she feels voting is not worthwhile.

When talking with two young Moroccan students, they cited pressing issues for youth as the difficulty to find jobs and the inability to freely express themselves, loosely confirming the National Democratic Institute’s findings in Youth Perceptions in Morocco: Political Parties and Reforms which reported youth’s priorities in Morocco as reforming the education system, addressing unemployment, and curbing corruption.

Both girls interviewed expressed frustration with the education system identifying it as the single most urgent concern, explaining that schools do not prepare them well for the job market. Issues that affect youth are deeply interconnected; an education system that poorly prepares for the job market precipitates high youth unemployment. A lack of visible change and economic irritation motivates political pessimism. The challenges youth deal with compound upon themselves.

Despite these frustrations, and low traditional political participation, youth are still highly active in their communities. The U.N. report emphasizes that instead of declining, youth participation and civic engagement are evolving. An excellent example of this in Morocco is the recent boycotts on Sidi Ali water, Centrale Danone dairy, and Afriquia gas, which gained a lot of popularity through social media sites like Facebook. One high school girl interviewed said she felt most comfortable expressing herself on Facebook, but her parents objected to her publicly sharing political views and made her take her account down. Both girls said they were disappointed by the mainstream media underplaying their concerns. These observations underscore the need for youth “Safe Spaces” where youth are welcomed to share their thoughts on needs and hopes for the future.

Safe Spaces include community dialogues, local meetings, workshops, and any forum for expanding viewpoints and encouraging vocalization. These settings both stimulate civic engagement and provide feedback to authorities. For Morocco, some of these opportunities have arisen from recent reforms attempting to resolve the same issues youth identified. One such initiative is devolution, increasing regional and local authority, affording more chances for community and youth engagement.

These kinds of improvements, along with methods such as participatory development--the identification and implementation of projects that directly address community identified needs--enable youth to be empowered. Youth benefit from remaining involved, active, and vocal in their communities, and in turn, governance systems can better support youth. Local “Safe Space” meetings are just one example of where youth can impact change in their communities. Other instances in Morocco include women’s empowerment workshops, such as the High Atlas Foundation’s Imagine Workshop, which educates women on their rights, and supports them in expressing and achieving their goals. This proposed program also involves young women from universities; they not only participate in the workshop but also are then qualified to lead it.

The celebration and promulgation of Safe Spaces for youth in Morocco and beyond is crucial in supporting what the world needs to ensure flourishing future generations. Moroccan youth face many of the same problems that youth around the world do, however, there is also a strong opportunity to effect change, making Morocco an excellent example for countries around the world. Youth are important to support, their passion is tangible - one Moroccan youth concluded her interview, “Morocco is my dad, my second dad. I want to give back to it.”


Julia Payne is a student in her fourth year at the University of Virginia and she is currently interning with the High Atlas Foundation in Marrakech, Morocco.


Students in Marrakech, Morocco, planning change for their university community (photo by the High Atlas Foundation, 2018).


I will forever remember the smiles


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).


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.


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.

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


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

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Directions to HAF Marrakech Office


High Atlas Foundation
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