When Morocco went into lock-down during the Covid19 crisis, the first thing that Amal Center did was set up a fund to feed Moroccan families most as risk. Morocco’s High Commission for Planning believes that 34% of the country’s households are now subsisting on zero income. A $50 donation, supplies a 40kg food package, that feeds a family of four, for about two weeks.
Founded in 2012 by Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, who was born and raised in Morocco to American parents, the not-for-profit organisation was built on the premise of helping women achieve financial autonomy through food.
“These are women who have come from very challenging social situations, ranging from single mothers with children born out of wedlock being cast out from their community, to women who were child maids,” Belahcen explains. “All have very little, or no income at all, and limited education. Illiteracy rates are high.”
Amal Center provides practical, six-month-long training programmes, which cover all aspects of the restaurant and hospitality business from food hygiene and cooking, to front of house and service, to basic maths so they can calculate the cost of a meal for example. During their training period the women’s cost-of-living is covered by the foundation, and is supplemented by additional soft skills in English, French and interview technique. Effectively Amal Center helps them ‘learn how to learn’. The training takes place within two branches: a catering centre that delivers lunches to local schools and provides food for events, and a popular, not-for-profit restaurant in Marrakech, serving traditional Moroccan favourites such as couscous and tagine to a largely expat and tourist market, while providing hands-on work experience.
“In Morocco, 500,000 direct jobs and 2 million indirect jobs are within tourism. We want to continue to be there for people when they need it.”
Crucially, the women get a two-week internship within the riad and restaurant sector as part of their training and then help in securing their first proper job. Over 80% of graduates begin work immediately, achieving their longed-for financial, and personal, independence. “We have over 300 women who have graduated and now work in the restaurant and riad industry in and around Marrakech”, Belahcen explains.
Now, with authorities speculating that things will get worse in the post Covid-19 era, before they get better, the women of Amal Center are turning their attention to feeding the communities that surround them. “We spread the circle a bit wider and asked for all members of the team, past and present, to check on their neighbours and community and set about getting food to those who needed it. We decided to set a goal for ourselves. Phase 1 was to pilot the programme and get to 100 families, phase 2 was for 300 families, phase 3 was for 600 families, and so on, so we could keep fundraising.”
Amal Center was selected as a project by Global Pearls – a philanthropic organisation in US – meaning they would double any donations that come to them. “We will continue for at least two more months. Right now, we cover 200 families per week, and we have enough for another 1600 families. I’m confident that there would be more funding there if we needed it.”
Going forward, there are many questions for the Amal Center to address. Will they even be training women, will there be jobs in the restaurant industry, do they need to think about their social mission this year as looking at the post-Covid economic impact. “We never imagined we would do something like this, it’s not our specialty at all, but we’ve discovered we have the power to make things happen.”
Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, founder