Updated: Jul 18
By Ellen Lempres
Hello there! Ellen, here, HAF’s social media intern from Berkeley, California. I have spent the past five weeks with HAF, and I wanted to share my experience with you to tell you about all of the amazing projects HAF is working on and to fill you in on how you can help HAF do more in Morocco!
So, how did I, a college student from California, end up in Marrakech, Morocco for a summer of 110-degree weather and endless tagine dinners? Well, I happen to go to a school that offers funding for international summer internships, and I happened to be scrolling through nonprofits throughout Africa and was attracted to the description of an organization in Morocco called the High Atlas Foundation. Once I researched more about the organization and saw countless images of Marrakech’s red architecture, beautiful gardens, and proximate High Atlas Mountains, I think my fate was sealed. I took an internship offer with HAF to be a social media intern, in line with my interest in political communication, and set up to spend the summer overseas.
What was so special about HAF? Why was I willing to travel to Marrakech (and endure sweltering weather) for this nonprofit? HAF prides itself on its “participatory approach,” the way in which it works directly with Moroccans to facilitate enduring solutions to specific sustainability problems. Rather than serving as a towering, foreign entity that attempts to impose itsidea of what can help these Moroccans, HAF works directly with the communities it is attempting to help. Now, I read about this approach on HAF’s website before arriving in Marrakech, but I don’t think I fully comprehended its effect until serving on the ground in Marrakech. In previous internships, I barely left the office, even eating breakfast and lunch over my computer screen. This internship was entirely different. HAF spends a majority of its time working directly with Moroccan communities, so, as an intern, I was welcome—and even encouraged—to travel with project leads to areas throughout Morocco to facilitate conversation and follow up with projects to ensure that our help was continuing to be, well, helpful.
And let me tell you about these project sites. In the first week, I was asked to do some social media work for “Sami’s Project,” a project that plants trees at local primary schools in memorial of a young boy who died early, living and learning in an arid, treeless village. My coworkers picked me up, and we drove out of the Marrakech busyness through fields of crops, by clay homes, and aside kids playing soccer on dirt fields. After an hour drive, we arrived in the rural, agricultural town of Rhamna at a colorfully painted school, lush with green and shaded by large trees. My Moroccan coworker turned to me, “I am so happy to see how green it is because this school used to have no trees,” he said, beaming. “Oh, you mean when HAF first started working with this school?,” I questioned. “Yes, and when I went to school here, there was only dirt,” my coworker replied. I tried to conceal my surprise, but I was quite honestly pretty shocked to learn that my coworker, who came to work everyday in a button-down shirt and khakis, who spoke flawless English, and who is attending university in Marrakech grew up in this rural village with limited access to water or electricity. He continued to smile, as he introduced us all to this school’s biology teacher—the same biology teacher who taught him many years before.
The biology teacher brought us into the classroom, a brightly painted classroom full of excited students wearing long white lab coats. My coworker, still beaming, took center stage. He introduced us all, speaking in Darija, and began asking the students about HAF’s tree planting: if they enjoyed the project, how the trees were doing, and what HAF could continue to do. I stood behind, equally enthused to see student after student, both boys and girls, shoot up hands to respond to my coworker. My coworker drew images of trees, as well as the system of photosynthesis, filling in the process as these students answered his questions. He then continued to ask the students about their aspirations, giving high fives, as we learned about people’s dreams to be doctors, lawyers, police officers, soccer players, farmers, and teachers.
I left that classroom overwhelmed by excitement, seeing these boys and girls so enthusiastic about HAF’s projects and passionate about their future. As we left the students, the biology teacher gave us a tour of the trees: thriving fig, olive, apple lemon, and orange trees coloring the campus. He concluded by showing us a workshop of student sustainability projects including a beautiful papier-mâché structure of the greened campus, which stood in stark contrast to photos behind it of the dry, arid campus that existed before HAF’s work.
Before leaving the community, we stopped by my coworker’s childhood home, a farm of massive proportions with an equally large family (15 siblings!). Upon arrival, we were flooded by greetings. His mother guided us into a cool room where she insisted upon feeding me (and only me, as I was the only person not observing the month of Ramadan) a Moroccan feast of freshly squeezed juices (yes, multiple), bread, and tea. After talking with her and her family, my coworker led us through their farming fields where we observed their watering techniques and were given bags full of melon, zucchini, squash, and cucumber. As we left the farm and this town, I felt excitement and joy: about these people and about what HAF was doing to help them realize their goals, as well as pride that I was lucky enough to get to see this side of Morocco and work for HAF.
That experience was undoubtedly special to me, but it is in no way unique to the HAF experience. During my short tenure with the High Atlas Foundation, I observed HAF working with women’s cooperatives, empowering women to profit from their products and giving them greater opportunities in their personal lives. I drove with HAF on windy, rocky roads to nurseries in the High Atlas Mountains to help create sustainable water practices that allow farmers to be more successful and simultaneously more environmental. I saw HAF facilitate community discussions in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of Marrakech to try to find ways to lift all people up. These examples, and so many others, show the great variety of projects HAF works on. More importantly, these examples help demonstrate that despite the diversity of projects, HAF’s approach remains the same: invest in people to invest in progress. In all cases, HAF uses the participatory approach to facilitate progress for these communities in need, while simultaneously forging lasting relationships with these people to ensure sustainability in the long term.
HAF works throughout Morocco, directly with these communities, to improve the lives of Moroccans. HAF creates a relationship with and attachment to these communities. It invests itself in the goals and dreams of these communities and has a stake in the long-term success of the projects. I believe that this approach makes HAF unique, and this belief led me to make the journey to Marrakech, to endure 110-degree weather, and to join HAF’s community.
Ellen Lempres is a senior at Claremont McKenna College, studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She is from Berkeley, California and spent the summer interning at the High Atlas Foundation in Marrakech, Morocco.