In 8th grade, at one of my first youth group meetings, the beloved advisor Sue gave some sage advice to the high school girls going through finals. “There will always be someone smarter than you. There will always be someone faster than you, prettier than you, someone more talented than you, with better grades. The one thing you can do is to be a good person. That’s something no one can take away.”
The much-needed advice really stuck with me as I entered Winston Churchill High School. Still, I made some bad decisions, driven by the perpetual fear of mediocrity and not getting into a “good” college. I cheated in chemistry twice (and got caught, twice). To seem more “well-rounded,” I stayed in band for ten years—even though I dreaded picking up the clarinet each time. For me, high school was often more about succeeding than it was about learning, critically analyzing, or becoming self-aware.
The Dar Taliba of Sidi Bouzid
A performance-driven culture is something that Churchill, and Sidi Bouzid’s high school, Farabi, share. Churchill students are expected to get great grades, take AP classes, do extracurriculars, and get high test scores. At Farabi, 100% of that pressure and value is placed on a singular average of test scores, out of 20, at the end of every semester.
I have specifically been working with the students of the Dar Taliba (girls’ dormitory), who are from nearby rural villages without local high schools. The pressure the girls face to achieve high tests scores is clear as day. Upon entering the Dar Taliba, their exact scores next to their names and grades are hung up on charts. The girls who did well are at the top, highlighted in green, the ones who scored in the middle, in yellow, and the ones who brought the lowest scores are at the bottom, in red.
Everyone knows (and discusses) who got what score. The president of the Dar Taliba organized an event at night where the girls discussed how to improve their studying techniques and discipline. The ones with high scores were presented with gifts, certificates, and a free ticket for a day trip to a nearby tourist destination, Oukaimeden.
The Competition’s Rigged
In my personal case, the stress I felt at Churchill was tempered by a constant slew of encouragement from my two college-educated, involved, and employed parents. I had access to tutoring and guidance counselors. I had outlets like my youth group to explore the routine tribulations of adolescence. Not having to deal with racism and classism, especially at Churchill, also gave me a leg up.
Indeed, in high school, I never was challenged to think about how this racism, classism, or my own privilege played crucial roles in my ability to succeed within the very competition I bemoaned. I was so focused on just succeeding that I remember being stressed out about not having any hardships to write a compelling personal statement for college applications. While school should be a time to think critically about the world around us, and our own roles in it, the performance-driven culture in the U.S. and Morocco seems to just magnify the socioeconomic disparities that already exist.
I see this being true in Sidi Bouzid, where the pressure of school makes dropping out an appealing and feasible option for many students at Farabi, and especially the girls in the Dar Taliba. Staying in the Dar Taliba to study means being away from family and lacking any alone time and free time during the school week. Most of these kids don’t have any of the things that helped me get through high school. Their parents aren’t there to encourage or help with homework during the week. With a regulated schedule there is seldom time, much less money, for review sessions. Lastly, there is no room at all to explore and face shared challenges together.
Whereas school was the end-all-be-all for me, for these girls, it is as presented as something that’s just “not for everybody.” If the students fail a class, they have to repeat the entire grade. Students can only repeat the grade up to three times; after that, the school system kicks them out altogether. From what I’ve seen in my narrow experience, the pressure to bring good grades can be a dangerous last straw that convinces a girl that school is just not for her.
In an environment where your potential as a student and learner is completely wrapped up in your average out of 20 points, it is easy to decide to stay home. Out of the 50 girls I registered for Project Soar, 100% of their mothers dropped out before high school (if they were ever in school to begin with). Today, only 15% of first grade students in Morocco are likely to graduate from high school. In a local context, then, not finishing high school—specifically for girls and in poorer areas—can seem even more expected than finishing it.
Why I’m a Project Soar Advocate
My counterpart and I have so far implemented ten Project Soar empowerment workshops with about 50 girls. In the first Module of these workshops, the girls had the opportunity to discuss and explore “value”-related topics like resilience, self-confidence, potential, and uniqueness. We say affirmations of “I am strong, I am smart, I am capable, I am worthy” at the beginning of each workshop. At the end, we lead sessions to meditate and journal.
These are habits that I, as a 26-year-old, still would benefit from but struggle to get into. With all the pressure that these girls face to get good grades, it makes so much sense for them to have a space to develop the character and self-esteem they need to stay in the game. Of course, youth groups and workshops like Project Soar aren’t for everyone. Not every girl learns the same or has the same needs. But having that option available, for those that want it, makes for a more inclusive learning environment.
Unfortunately, after seeing that overall test scores were not up to expectations, the President of the Dar Taliba had been trying to stop us from continuing Project Soar, choosing to blame it for the girls’ low grades. After much discussion and weeks of waiting, we finally came to a compromise, where we’ll try and squeeze abbreviated Project Soar workshops into the girls’ schedules if they have breaks between classes before 6 pm. This way, the girls can ostensibly use the time after 6 pm to focus exclusively on the memorizing and studying necessary for success.
Project Soar and School Dropout
Over the school vacation, a few of the Dar Taliba girls had decided to drop out of school after getting discouraged by their grades. My counterparts and I have gone to three houses so far in an attempt to convince the girls to come back to school. Two out of three girls have agreed to return, and the third one is still thinking about it.
Regardless of whether or not these girls end up finishing school, talking with the girls and their families is only making me a stronger advocate for programs like Project Soar in the short-term, and diminishing or abolishing the importance of grades in the long term.
The two girls that have participated in Project Soar are the ones returning to school. When talking with them, I was able to reference the concepts we talked about from Module 1 on Value. Living in the Dar Taliba and hearing people gossip about grades constantly is tiring—but you are strong, capable and resilient. You may have gotten a low score this semester—but you are smart and have a value that is not defined by grades. It may be easier to stay home with your family now—but with education you have the potential to do anything you want in the future.
Of course, Project Soar by itself is not a solution for high school dropout among girls. School dropout, even within one village, is a multi-dimensional issue; every student that leaves school did so because of factors unique to them. For example, I heard that many fathers in my village do not let their daughters study—however, in the three homes I went to, the girls’ families were nothing but supportive. The mothers who never finished high school themselves are the ones that truly appreciate the options an education can offer.
Peace Corps Morocco and Moroccan School Attendance
There are plenty of people who want the best for Farabi’s students, but there are few people telling them that grades do not define their worth or potential to contribute to society. After all, graduating to the next grade level, and getting accepted into college, are exclusively based on test scores. In order for the social pressure on high marks to go away, the entire Moroccan education system would need to be completely restructured.
While this is a policy issue that warrants systemic change, the personal relationships I develop here can help on a short-term, individual level. Yet it is always a challenge to gauge where my own responsibility starts and ends. There are three more girls that I haven’t yet visited, and many more that dropped out last year. When I think about how I haven’t yet talked to them, or how we’re so behind on our Project Soar classes compared to other groups, I feel like a failure and lose my motivation altogether.
That feeling is a familiar one, the same feeling that kept me from avoiding math, or anything else I wasn’t immediately good at, back in high school. Ten years after graduating, I’m still trying to internalize the humbling notion that learning is more important than succeeding. I hope that in the future, both the U.S. and Morocco get to develop education systems that are founded on that same notion.
For now, even though it’s often hard to take my own advice, I will try and pass that message onto students and friends in any way I can. In a time when everyone’s trying to be their “#best self” and live their “#best life,” it’s relevant to remember Sue’s advice. Yes, there will always be someone better; but if all types of students could actually learn, our society as a whole would be better in many different ways.
I talked in a previous post about arrogance; how easy it is to think that the way I’ve learned about the world, and how to take care of it, is the best way. When I first came here, I noticed the great deal of litter on the ground, and especially outside my house. That’s because throwing trash away on the ground is not as taboo in this community as it is in the U.S.
Currently, I divide my trash into two categories—food-related trash, which I throw away in an open area next to my house, and non-food-related trash, which I bring to my neighbor’s fire pit so they can burn it for hot water in their hamam (sauna). Food-related trash is often thrown away in a plastic bag—so now there is a giant, communal pile of plastic bags, mixed with food trash just a few yards from my front door (see photo).
Since there’s more trash on the ground in Sidi Bouzid, you might think that my community full of trashcans back home is much more environmentally friendly. Yet given this topic’s complexity and scale, it is impossible to measure the environmental impact of an entire community on just one singular practice. After all, are our giant landfills in the U.S. any better than the little trash piles outside my door?
Indeed, many argue that litter is not the real trash-related “villain” in the U.S.; instead, it is how much trash we are producing (we are one of the world’s leading trash generators). The anti-littering campaign that was so “successful” in the U.S. was actually started by the very manufacturers who were producing the non-refillable packaging that still contributes to 1/3 of our trash today. The campaign, called Keep American Beautiful, is meant to “rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses.” But personally, I produce by far less trash here in Sidi Bouzid than I did back home.
Practicing Over Preaching
As an individual in the U.S., I ended up supporting climate change in words but ignoring it in actions. If I did recycle or refrain from littering, it was out of social obligation more than individual care. Because there are “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “environmentally conscious” people who have taken ownership of the global warming problem, it was just as easy to quietly position myself outside of those labels.
In Sidi Bouzid, removed from politics but not from reality, those labels are absent; no one here walks around saying that they are going green or trying to reduce their environmental footprint. The hour-long Earth Day activity I did last year was the first thing anyone here had heard about the UN-sanctioned holiday.
Yet in Sidi Bouzid, people wash fewer dishes, because everyone eats from the same one. At parties, they always use glass cups and plates—never paper or plastic. If someone does use something plastic, it is washed and used again, never thrown away. From water bottles to ziplock bags, everything has a second use. I have barely ever seen anyone throw away empty packaging. And thanks to Morocco’s Zero Mika campaign, almost everyone brings reusable bags with them to go shopping. Lastly—and I will get pushback on this—using the hamam once a week uses far less water than your daily showers.
My Personal Consciousness
I am not saying that people in Sidi Bouzid are overall better at taking care of the environment than my community back home. Yet on a personal level, I feel my own consciousness and perspective on climate change shifting. In my white collar DC bubble, where every coffee shop, office, and mode of transport had heating, it was easy to take a passive, surface-level responsibility in preserving the environment. As an American who does not understand the exact science behind climate change, I could leave taking care of the environment to a small, dedicated group of passionate people.
Now, in my relatively rural site, thinking about the environment has become a necessity in daily life. Without heating, I have taken to sitting in front of an electric heater that Peace Corps bought me. Yet since my electricity bill multiplied by five this month, I need to become more judicious with my energy usage. Living in farmland, I hear about how the long summer hurt the olive season; I see the difference in the wheat fields when we don’t have rain for a month. I can only imagine how villages further south, not equipped for the snow, dealt with their first snowfall in fifty years.
I am seeing now that even though youth in Sidi Bouzid are not trying to go green, it may be more natural for them to think about their environment than for someone living in a city. It was easy to hide behind my class privilege, and the fact that I’m not a “science” person, to join the bandwagon verbally and absolve myself of more active responsibility. But just as fighting racism should not be the sole responsibility of People of Color, preserving the environment should not be the sole responsibility of those in more rural communities affected by climate change in the U.S. and around the world.
It is positive that caring for the environment is the “socially acceptable” thing to do back home. Yet during a time when my country is the only one in the world to reject the Paris Agreement on climate change, the President does not take the threat of climate change seriously, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is lifting regulations on carbon and clean water regulations, it is time for me to stop hiding behind my ignorance and start actually learning more about how to make myself and my own country greener.
And as my time as a PCV has shown me, the first steps to learning more are humility and critical thinking. Just because I don’t litter, does not mean I’m any better at taking care of the environment than my neighbors. And a Whole Foods reusable bag that says, “I love my home, planet earth” is no better than the cheaper, striped ones that people use here.
It’s safe to say that caring for the environment is a global, borderless issue that merits personal awareness and political action in every country and every community in the world. While this dangerous reality is universal, there is no one-size-fits-all way to be an environmental advocate; there are admirable practices and people doing their parts all over the world—including in Sidi Bouzid, Chichaoua and Washington, DC. That is why I’m learning, in Morocco in a village, how as an American in a city I can finally claim my individual responsibility towards caring for the planet.
Please humor me and travel back in time, to when I was living in DC and working for the Program team of Atlas Corps, an overseas fellowship for skilled nonprofit professionals. It’s midnight, and I can’t sleep. I’m lying in my comfortable bed, thinking of a Fellow who had emailed me a few days ago about his creaky old mattress. It was on my to-do list to order a new one, but I don’t think I got around to it that day. I started sweating, thinking how, because of my own negligence, a person in my life was losing sleep or developing back issues right at this moment.
Anyone who has worked to support participants of cross-cultural volunteer programs could probably relate to the rewarding yet burdensome feeling of other people’s challenging intercultural experiences lying in your very human hands. I loved my job because I loved being able to interact with, learn from, and witness the journeys of the people I was responsible for. But what I was responsible for, exactly, was unclear. To what extent could I control the environment, wellbeing, or success of other people?
In so many ways, having worked for Atlas Corps has impacted the way I have approached my own Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) experience. I came in remembering the amazing support Atlas Corps Fellows would give to one another. I brought with me countless stories of Fellows staying resilient, and even optimistic, through trying situations. But most of all, I remember carrying the humbling knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried, I as a staff member couldn’t single-handedly change someone else’s Fellowship experience.
Subsequently, coming to Morocco, I had the distinct sense that my own success and wellbeing as a PCV was solely up to me. I looked at Peace Corps not as the organization responsible for me, but rather, the organization that got me here.
Today, I carry the humbling knowledge that, no matter how hard I could have tried, I would not have made it through these 16 months without the Peace Corps staff. From facilitating our pre-service training where we learned Darija, liaising with our local administrations, or just being our ally amidst a lot of uncertainty, I have relied on staff support more than I thought I would.
That’s why I was surprised when a leading question at our Mid-Service Training (MST) last week was “how can we improve the relationship between Volunteers and staff?” As an Atlas Corps staff member, I asked this question often. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had the luxury of not thinking about it until MST, where I realized that not all PCVs had the same, positive view of staff as me.
Will volunteers complain no matter what, or could staff really do better? My Atlas Corps-to-Peace Corps experience has given me unique perspective on cross-cultural volunteer support, and I’ve concluded that the answer to this question is more complicated than you’d think.
During the application process Peace Corps tries to set the expectation that, even though they take care of the basics like healthcare, language instruction, and site development, being a successful Volunteer will require a great deal of initiative. Still, without a clear role, the security of a formal job, a normal salary, or control over living environments, being a volunteer—especially an overseas volunteer—makes you vulnerable. In this vulnerable position, it is normal to expect the organization that brought you here to defend your existence and ease your experience.
Yet that organization is made up of human beings, ones that have their own lives, biases, and limits. It is hard to figure out, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, when to ask for help from staff, or when to rely on my personal support systems of other Volunteers, friends, and family. There were certain points where I could have smoothed out my challenges in Morocco much more efficiently had I communicated with staff first. For example, instead of advocating for myself, I waited a while before reaching out to my manager in regards to the local administration’s misperception of my role here. My focus on appearing independent hindered my ability to solve the issue quickly.
Some PCVs, no matter how adaptable they are, get placed in unsustainable situations. Others face issues related to their gender, ability status, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or age that I, with all my privileges, just haven’t had to deal with. In unsustainable situations, reaching out to staff for help is nothing less than a sign of admirable strength and perseverance in continuing service. Requiring staff attention does not mean that a volunteer is any less capable or independent; for that reason, each issue should be addressed with time, effort, and understanding.
Assuming Best Intentions
As an Atlas Corps staff member, it was sometimes hard to understand why Fellows waited to reach out to me with their issues when I could have helped out earlier. I remember telling Fellows that while I would always love to help, I wasn’t psychic and couldn’t assist with a problem I didn’t know about. At other times, though, it was hard to understand how Fellows wanted me to help in the first case. Here, all I could offer was personal empathy and an open ear on behalf of the organization as a whole; and sometimes, this was enough.
Overall, the lines are blurry between what the staff is responsible for and what the volunteers are responsible for in each individual’s experience. That is why the assumption of best intentions is key. Because maintaining clear expectations is perpetually challenging, mutual understanding and respect between all volunteers and all staff is crucial. While volunteers should know that staff does not have a magic wand to control every circumstance, staff should know that volunteers face a vast array of challenges related to circumstances outside their control.
Across the board, an improved relationship between staff and volunteers requires looking at one another as people; not just from staff to volunteer, but also the other way around. From a volunteer standpoint, we need to stop looking at staff as all-powerful caretakers. From a staff standpoint, volunteers should not be looked at as a monolithic group of (sometimes angry) customers. We’re all partners on the same team, trying our best, working towards an overall goal of meaningful exchange and service.
…At Least I Can Say That I’ve Tried
Especially today, international politics lies in the hands of people and forces that seem out of our control. Because of these politics, the student programs I benefitted from in Turkey are unfortunately not as available for Americans anymore. But the personal relationships I made there have stayed solid through ups and downs in Turkey-U.S. relations. Bringing individuals together across cultures and/or borders to learn from one another produces stories that are uniquely positive in the face of so much global injustice and pain.
Having conversations during MST about how to make Peace Corps better, I remembered how strongly I feel about making intercultural volunteer programs more sustainable and worthwhile for everyone involved (yes, I’m a nerd). Being a volunteer program staff means giving other people the opportunity and space to learn, grow, give back, and find their paths. Being a volunteer myself means learning, growing, giving back, and finding my path.
Even if my path leads me back to giving other people that opportunity and space, I have finally learned how to help and support others without staying up all night with feelings of guilt or worry. Empathy and genuine concern are assets I have that, if left unmanaged, will hinder me from helping anyone at all. Indeed, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve learned from experience that for the rest of my life, the only person I am fully responsible for is myself. This much-needed realization is perhaps the most empowering one I’ve had so far.
Last new years, I made a “2017 map” for all my goals of the year. It was a pretty ambitious mess that included taking several online courses, starting new initiatives, becoming skilled at multiple things, and of course, working out every day. The map was a lot—and so was my new years night, which I spent on zero hours of sleep, on a beach in Agadir with fireworks and dancing.
Fast-forward one year, and I present to you, the first 24 hours of my 2018.
On December 31st, 2017, I fell asleep at my host family’s house by 9:30 pm. My 2018 map, too, looks much less ambitious than last year’s. I want to cope with my anxiety better by writing things down, I want to stop drinking milk, to think more positively, and to be nicer to strangers and myself. My overall theme was to have enough optimism to keep me from freaking out about, well, everything.
I came home and made said map with a close friend in site who also is trying to focus on reducing anxiety. I left for a run, and two things happened. First, the same friend texted me that our neighbor’s grandfather had passed away, and we needed to go visit them to bid our condolences. As I neared home, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” came on my music shuffle – the song that reminds everyone in my family of my maternal grandfather, Papa, who would be 87 years old by now. The song ended--
I'm just a son of a son, son of a son
Son of a son of a sailor
The seas in my veins, my tradition remains
I'm just glad I don't live in a trailer
I traded my headphones for a scarf and entered my neighbor’s house not knowing the deceased but instead with a vivid memory of my own Papa’s shiva. My friend instructed me to say “Baraka f r3ask,” which means, “blessings be upon you.” We walked into a huge crowd of people, sitting together, being together. Some were silent, while others were in the kitchen cooking. My friend mentioned that everyone comes and brings food, “Sedaka” so that the family of the deceased doesn’t have to cook.
I got that small, humbly awestruck feeling I get so often when I’m here—a reminder that, no matter how many times I feel different, the painful and profound stuff that’s essentially human, like anxiety or loss, makes any cultural divides pale in comparison. I told my friend that in my religion too, we say barucha, we give tzedakah, and everyone brings food and sits with the family of the deceased so they don’t have to cook or be alone.
It seems strange that I’ve repeatedly thought about loved ones lost when I’m reflecting ahead for a new year. Their quiet wisdom gives me permission to let faith and personal growth, rather than pragmatism, guide my choices. This year was tough, but it did turn out okay. I came to Sidi Bouzid with no friends, no work, and no confidence. I live here now with lifelong friends, projects I’m proud of, and the knowledge that, even if not everything I try succeeds, I still have value.
I came to Morocco with a focus on professional growth, sense of competition, anxiety, and a denied American arrogance. I spent the first year chipping away at these barriers—I’ve grown more personally than professionally, and I’m fine with that. I’ve seen that patience can be even harder than productivity, and that loneliness and isolation, like happiness, are passing feelings rather than permanent conditions.
I recently finished a book that talks about Americans going abroad as “not an escape,” but potentially a “project of remembrance…where we may also discover that the possibility of [American] redemption is not because of our own God-given beneficence but proof of the world’s unending generosity.” No matter what baggage, anxiety, or arrogance Peace Corps Volunteers come in with, they will all experience unending generosity in their country of service. This undeserved chance can humble even the most aware and conscious American.
The author of the book, Suzy Hansen, was supposed to write about Turkey; instead, she ended up writing about the U.S. I was supposed to write this blog about Morocco. Only now, I realize I don’t write about Morocco, but instead, myself. I write about how my past colors my present, and how my own view is being expanded to push out blind spots I didn’t even know I had.
I came here seeking something shiny, new and foreign, but I feel my multi-layered past and identities—collective points of pride, shame, and responsibility—even more keenly than I did at home. Maybe it’s a physiological phenomenon that happens when you’re away from the familiar.
Or maybe it’s because, by going out on the sea for adventure, I’m closer to home than ever. Maybe it’s because my Papa was a sailor at heart, and so am I. If that’s true then I no longer need to be a “new me” to find some elusive fulfillment. Learning to be more comfortable with myself—as I am—is what prepares me to keep seeking new adventures in 2018; stormy as the waters may be.
Where it all ends I can't fathom, my friends
If I knew, I might toss out my anchor
So I'll cruise along always searchin' for songs
Not a lawyer, a thief or a banker
But a son of a son, son of a son, son of a son of a sailor
“Never. I never want to get married,” I say proudly to everyone in site who asks me when I’m going to get married. I didn’t use to say this; in fact, I’m pretty addicted to romantic comedies, gush over cute couples, and cry at weddings. Yet existing in a local culture where dating and marriage norms are so vastly different had made my expression of feminism one that scorns relationships altogether.
In Sidi Bouzid, many (not all) women derive their value mainly from family life. I’ve seen this focus on marriage become a vehicle for a masculine control and power that isn’t as openly acceptable in my community back home. People here call me "meskina," the word for “poor,” a lot here—not because they think I’m financially poor, but because I don’t have family with me.
I’ve pushed back against these attitudes by rejecting the traditional family structure and insisting I’m happier alone—I don’t need marriage, I don’t need babies, I don’t even need to live near my parents. I’ve leaned on my worth within professional and academic contexts to assert my idea of a true feminist. After living in Sidi Bouzid for a little bit, my idol became a single, confident CEO that travels the world and relies on herself.
Checking My Perspective
Thankfully I have examples of local women that remind me feminism takes many forms depending on the individual and her context. Many mothers in my Peace Corps site were married as children. But rather than playing victims of misogyny, they are resilient feminists in their own right. My host mother, married at 15, has raised a daughter who is top of her class. My neighbor, married at 17, makes sure her oldest daughter comes to girls’ empowerment club each Saturday. My friend’s mother, after raising five children, pushed for classes in her village and is learning how to read and write. The mothers of the girls in the dormitory send their daughters away to high school when local education is not an option.
From my position as a white, upper-middle class American, I was being ethnocentric, viewing women’s rights as a linear continuum in which the West has won and more isolated places were behind. In reality, my narrow definition of feminism, one that can’t encompass other desires, cultures, inequalities, and challenges, is another form of patriarchy in of itself.
My host mom can be just as feminist as my single CEO superwoman—there is no one ideal, a fact that I often forget. While I was home, I was a bridesmaid in the wedding for one of my close friends. Out of nine bridesmaids, I was the only one sans significant other, fiancé, or husband. As the beautiful ceremony progressed, I watched my parents sit in the audience. I was confronted by my conflicting personas— one from my Peace Corps site that’s scornful of all relationships, one that wishes rom-coms actually mirrored real life, and one that cares deeply about making my own parents happy.
While I felt no shame for being single, I wondered if my parents were disappointed, if they wanted to experience that same, emotional feeling other parents have when they walk their daughters down the aisle. Not one for holding in feelings, I shared this concern. My parents asked me if I was crazy—they don’t care about “giving me away” to anyone. In that moment, I realized that in order to become my fulfilled-independent-feminist-that-don’t-need-no-man self, I didn’t have to reject the same family and relationships that have sustained me up until now.
I can be independent, travel loving, romantic, and family-focused all at the same time—they are all parts of me, and none are in conflict with each other. Regardless of our social identities, employment status, or the people in our lives, there are no rules for becoming a complete woman. The reactionary and exclusive vision of a feminist I had come home with, was only holding me back.
A Complicated Freedom
As I focus on gender in my site, this same exclusivity also has the dangerous potential to put others down; the freedom we all should have doesn't mean we all can or will make the same choices. By working with many women and girls here, I’m learning to view my own life, and other people's lifestyles, through a lens that's more inclusive of individual context.
When I do this, I see so many examples of girls growing up with more opportunity, and less expectations, than their own mothers had. Living in a culture so focused on family has reinforced my view that womanhood should not be defined by motherhood or marriage. Yet living here has also made me consider motherhood, and mother-daughter relationships, as powerful forces that can hold up the freedom of choice so central to feminism.
It's made me even more grateful to my own mother, who encourages my independence beyond the confines of professional or marital success. I am now the same age my mom was when she got married. Many of my friends know whom they’ll marry, and not a day goes by where someone doesn’t ask me about it here. But unlike society, my mom has never made me feel like my lack of significant other makes me any less. And even if I don’t make the same choices as her, she will always be my ideal feminist.
After spending a couple weeks back in my comfort zone, I’ve realized the value of reflection in entering my second year of Peace Corps with intention and perspective. In my old job, we often facilitated a check-in at the mid-point of each fellowship to track progress and see if any issues need addressing. I am using these same questions for my own self check-in, since I don’t have a direct supervisor here.
Instead of just thinking through the questions, I found it more helpful to type them up. That is because this past year, writing has been a big tool for me to think through and reframe my experiences positively, and on my own terms. I’m sharing my “Self Check-in” here, especially in case other PCVs want to try this activity too.
How is everything going?
Overall, being a Peace Corps Volunteer is way harder than I expected—which makes me glad I did it. Of course, having never lived in a village, my cultural adjustment has had ups and downs. But more than that, my biggest challenge has been finding comfort and inner peace amidst the ambiguous nature of “work.” Not having specific goals is exciting in theory, because I have never been this in control of my time before. But in reality it is terrifying, because I don’t know how to define or celebrate my own success. Without specific team and individual benchmarks, my own motivation, confidence, and sense of accomplishment are withering.
What are your greatest accomplishments so far?
If I did anything this year, it was just connecting with and learning from local peers who are not only friends, but also partners and mentors in bringing more opportunities to youth in Sidi Bouzid. I came in knowing that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything impactful on my own. But I had to learn to trust these friends, and not shy away from asking for leadership from others. From afterschool clubs to refurbishing our women’s center, I was more a helper and less the organizer or teacher. On the Peace Corps section of my resume, I’ll probably never use the action verb “spearhead” or “led”—and that’s something I’m proud of.
Have you identified any opportunities for personal and professional growth?
In terms of personal growth, I need to work on my self-esteem instead of constantly tearing myself down. Guilt has been a big theme in my service, and is my first instinct when I’m spending time in my house watching Netflix, or away from site to meet up with other friends. Instead of approaching my Peace Corps service like I would a traditional job, I need to reframe it as a learning opportunity that is definitely going to teach me more than I can give back. I did write my first ever blog post about how I plan to measure my success in terms of relationships and lessons learned, but ditching my competitive focus on individual accomplishment is much easier said than done.
In terms of professional growth, I hope to practice more transformational leadership as opposed to the “dominant understanding of leadership” into which “much leadership discourse has remained locked.” I’ve seen both kinds of leaders in my site; my friends are transformational leaders, since they value relationships and bring people together for collaboration. By contrast, the way that provincial and local administrators talk to me shows their desire to exert control rather than inspire. In the next stage of my career, especially if I ever manage others, I hope to adopt the leadership style of my counterparts.
What do you imagine to be your long-term impact on Sidi Bouzid?
Over the next year, I hope to expand my work with women and girls—both formally and informally. Living in an area where patriarchy plays out differently than in the U.S., has caused me to constantly perceive my world through a gender lens. Formally, I hope to keep engaging women and girls through our girls’ empowerment (GLOW) club, opportunities to exercise, and activities with the girls in the dormitory. Informally, I can say that I open up discussions about gender a lot with both male and female friends. If my own focus on gender equality helps motivate even just one girl or woman to exert more control over her own life, then that is enough long-term impact for me.
What do you imagine to be the long-term impact of this experience on you, personally and professionally?
Thanks to the criticism and doubts of the local administration, I’m becoming less reliant on the opinions of other people to feel worthy. In the long-term, I hope to be able to make decisions and handle life’s challenges even without unanimous social approval. In place of structure and formal guidance, I’m learning to trust my relationships with the people around me to create more collaborative plans.
Do you feel that you are adjusting to the local culture well?
I’ve adjusted well enough to function without having to give up some of the things I do differently, which I talked about in an earlier blog post called “The Value of Hashuma.”
What can you do to ensure that the second year of Peace Corps is even better than the first?
I’m switching from a deficit-based to an asset-based way of thinking. I need to stop stressing that I’m not doing enough and just focus on what I came here for—connecting, learning, and helping where I can. I aim to catch myself whenever I start feeling guilty or comparing my experience to that of other volunteers. That way, I can focus less on what I think the year should look like, and more on the incredible assets that already exist within this community and my life here.
I have always found a new career goal to answer whatever passion or interest I kindled in each phase of my life. I’ve wanted to be, at various points, an entomologist, park ranger, a sign changer, actress, a writer, diplomat, Peace Corps Volunteer. My dream always has been, and always will be, to work. It is an end, a big source of not only my living, but also my future fulfillment.
Around the world, and in the U.S. too, many people don’t have that same privilege. In Morocco, the youth unemployment rate reached 25.5% this year. For my young, working-age friends in Sidi Bouzid, work is a means to an end—it is a way to make the money necessary to live out other dreams like helping parents, raising a family, or giving back to the community. When jobs are so scarce, and so necessary at the same time, reflecting on your purpose and aligning it with your career goals seems an irrelevant luxury.
But that doesn’t stop my counterparts from improving their community in other ways. Contrary to what I expected, there is a culture of volunteerism in my Peace Corps site. And absent community service hours, an obsession with full resumes, or a desire to “hone skills,” the voluntary work I’ve done at site seems more altruistic than a lot of other volunteer opportunities I’ve encountered in my American community. Unlike a lot of traditional development work, it is entirely focused on the beneficiaries.
So what’s the Problem?
My counterparts in site are, without a doubt, some of the brightest, most genuine, and most passionate people with whom I have worked. While I am in the U.S., one of my counterparts is singlehandedly be running our Model UN class, English class, Aerobics class, and girls empowerment club, alongside her fulltime job of teaching. Another one of my counterparts has started a volunteer youth association made up of his peers. Another one of my counterparts works tirelessly with the girls in the dormitory, serving as a role model and providing them with their one opportunity to play soccer and basketball. Still, another Sidi Bouzid friend is teaching illiterate women to read and write. Additionally, another has volunteered to serve as full-time camp counselor at multiple overnight camps this summer.
These are the people that truly understand what it means to give of themselves, utilize limited resources, build genuine relationships for social good, and accomplish humble yet impactful work at the grassroots level.
Under the current status quo, most of them will never become part of the “social sector,” because mission-driven jobs are reserved for those that have had the time, opportunity, and freedom to reflect on, and go after, a specific mission in the first place. By contrast, at my site, “giving back” and “passion” are reserved for voluntary endeavors—no one has time to wait around for the perfect, fulfilling position that has room for growth and freedom for creativity.
Curbing my Enthusiasm
I see this as a gap, and a tragic paradox, in the social sector— that those best fit to make decisions and rise through the ranks are the same people that never had the chance to do so in the first place. That’s why I try to encourage my friends from site to think about their own careers more strategically.
Whereas my close friend at site had always focused on job security and salary, I have been challenging her to think of her “career path” in terms of steps. With intentional choices, introspection, and patience, I insisted that she could find a job she actually loved with opportunities to constantly learn and grow. As I was talking to her, I began to get excited at the prospect of creating a program for young people to think about how their own strengths and interests can lead to fulfilling and productive careers.
As I shared the idea with her, she met it with a skepticism that I should have expected. That’s because my role as an encourager in this community is complicated by the fact that I will never understand what it’s like to be working to dream or even just to live. However much I may try to “integrate,” I have been wired to dream of work and am continually blinded by my own privileged narrative.
My Positionality in Various Contexts
I don’t know what my friend’s going to decide to do with her life, but I don’t actually have the wisdom to tell her what’s right. Eventually, I decided to connect her with another Moroccan I met, who had taken more career risks and has become accustomed to the “dreaming to work” narrative I grew up with. Then I bowed out.
That small, humble act of connecting people is part of the essence of my Peace Corps service. I now have knowledge of multiple contexts; both contexts with young people who want to make life better for others. In one context, my resilient counterparts, many with less privilege, search for a steady job and give back in their spare time. In another, ambitious peers at home, many with considerable privileges, invest in themselves so they can grow and give back.
We all want to make life better for others—so how can we be assets to one another? After all, both contexts could have flaws. In the first context, young, passionate, caring people never learn to invest in themselves and reach their full potential professionally. But in the second context, the ambition and self-investment necessary to advance in the social sector could also threaten the very ideals that it’s based on.
When I Grow Up…
I want to help more people in the first context (like my counterparts) see the benefit of investing in themselves, even if the perfect job or path isn’t in plain sight. But I also want to help people in my own circle recognize the necessity of investing in and making space for others in order to accomplish collective goals.
Indeed, getting to know the people who work to dream has not extinguished my dreams of work—but it has humbled them. I used to want to be the entomologist, the park ranger, the sign changer, the actress, the writer, and the diplomat. Now I recognize that there are a lot of people whose perspective and life experiences would make them even better equipped to fill those positions instead of me (although I’d probably be a pretty excellent sign changer).
With that in mind, the best thing I can do for this complex and ambiguous “social good” is to identify those people, encourage them, and connect them. It might not be a traditional or concise job title. But more so than any one position, I know that this updated mission can fulfill my dreams and keep me very busy to boot.
There are similarities in the Jewish and Muslim calendars—to start with, they are both lunar. The Jewish and Muslim new years overlapped as well. And like last year, Yom Kippur coincides with fasting for Ashura, which is the 10th day of the first month in the Islamic calendar.
Ashura comes from the Arabic word for ten (عشرة), which shares a root with the Hebrew word for ten as well (עשר). For the Sunni Muslims with whom I live, Ashura marks the day that God saved Moses and his followers from Pharoah.
According to Muslim tradition, when Muhammad (peace be upon him) saw Jews fasting on this day (for Yom Kippur), he also told his people to fast, to thank God for creating a path in the Red Sea. For Jews, Yom Kippur focuses explicitly on atonement and repentance—it is known as the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Shortly before the death of prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the “Jewish-type calendar adjustments of the Muslims became prohibited,” and Ashura became a distinct holiday from Yom Kippur. Yet Jews and many Sunni Muslims still both fast on this day.
Social versus Spiritual
So, what does this have to do with my time here in Morocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Well, like many PCVs, living in a village where Islam is a big part of life here has of course driven me to reflect on my own religious identity, faith, and resolve. As the New Year begins, celebrating Ashura and Yom Kippur simultaneously embodies this experience.
Back home, as bigoted groups take the center of national news, and activists have to take on identity-based hate speech, the social aspect of my Jewish identity in an American context seems to take a front seat. While I undoubtedly benefit from white privilege, anti-Semitism is still a nuanced, subtle reality especially as “hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the idea of Jews having unique sorts of advantages.”
But in my day-to-day life in Morocco, religion is not a matter of identity, but rather, of faith and belief. Now I’m realizing that when I remove the social aspect of my Jewishness, there doesn’t seem to be much left. That’s especially as a lot of people I hang out with here pray on their own every day, read the Quran, and base many of their daily beliefs and actions on the teachings of the prophet. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to clarify my definition of God.
Collective History and Nationalism
There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, so like in any religion, everyone interprets and practices their beliefs in vastly different ways. Specifically, for many of my friends in my Peace Corps site, faith is not something you observe when it’s convenient, but rather, a sacred code that dictates how to live and view your life. They live out their beliefs with friends and family, but also on their own in their daily routines and perceptions.
My closest friends here know that I am Jewish, but I’m not sure they understand what it means to me back home. Most have never heard of the Holocaust (although they do study the rise of the Nazis in school). While I was explaining to one of my friends what it was, she asked me, “but why did they do this?” and I grew emotional. This collective history of oppression has been a huge part of my Jewish education.
The next aspect of Judaism for me had centered on Zionism as an uncomplicated and strong reflection of Jewish identity. As I developed my own independent ideals and worldview, I stopped believing that being a “good Jew” and being Zionist go hand in hand. And I’m definitely not the only millennial Jew that thinks this way.
Looking back at my days of religious preschool, bat mitzvahs, sleep-away camp, Jewish youth groups, Hebrew school, Hillel gatherings, weddings, shivas, and brit milahs, it’s safe to say I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. For that, I have to thank my family, community, upbringing, opportunity, and eventually, personal choice.
But when I’m alone, without my Jewish community, without people that know my collective history, without any personal sense of Jewish patriotism, I’m only left with my faith—the core belief, spiritual, stuff. Now that I’m looking at it closely, naked, under a microscope, in a sea of other people’s unwavering faiths, I realize just how wavering my own faith is.
Wavering Faith is Still Faith
What do I do with this realization? Clearly, I’m at a crossroads in my, to sound hokey, “spiritual journey.” I could realize that religion is indeed not a “biological reality” and be atheist or agnostic, which would certainly make things easier. I could start from scratch and research all religions, and see which ones I like best. After all, at 26, I’m certainly old enough to pick my own religion, instead of the one chosen for me at birth.
Except—I never did feel pressured to be Jewish, anyway. My community and family, for as long as I can remember, always encouraged me to think critically and choose my own path.
Abandoning my religion would feel like I’m letting Judaism’s emphasis on questioning, doubting, and learning lead me away from Judaism itself. And, to not be Jewish would feel like turning my back on the community I grew up in and the self I’ve created. It’s when I’m critiquing my religion, and observing it alongside friends and family, that I feel most Jewish.
It may not seem like the most solid foundation, but for now, it’s enough to keep me here—and that’s what counts. Maybe that’s what faith is—that simple, unexplainable force that makes you keep going, even when there aren’t so many tangible reasons to do so.
Concealing and Atoning
While the word Kippur means atonement (hence Yom Kippur), the root K-P/F-R in Arabic and Hebrew scripts can actually mean to “ conceal or deny,” as in, denying one’s religion. This possible connection between denying one’s religion and atoning seems perfect for what’s in my head this year.
This Yom Kippur, as I fast alongside many of my faithful Muslim brothers and sisters, I will aim to begin a more forgiving, yet closer, relationship with Judaism. I no longer want to let doubt lead me to denying or concealing my faith overall.
It is precisely that doubt, and talking about religion with my wise and admirable Muslim friends here, that push me to engage with my own faith and grow from it. This internal struggle with faith, by the way, is also a major aspect of Islam, internal Jihad—a struggle against “those basic inner forces which prevent man from becoming human in accordance with his primordial and God-given nature.”
The Struggle is Real
And for me, it really is a struggle to reconcile an ancient body of understanding with real, present-day life. Listening to the podcast On Being, I was inspired by the interviewee Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who said:
Part of the reason why I’m not an Orthodox Jew but a flexidox or polydox and otherwise-Jew, and not just “Jew,” is that I do believe in evolution, not just of our species and the world, but of concepts. And if the Bible and the Jewish values that have sustained my people for thousands of years believe that women were subservient and that sexuality was of a specific type and that types of worship included slaughtering animals, we’ve evolved. That’s not where we are. So we need to read some of those sacred words as metaphor, as bygone models, as invitations for creativity, and for sort of the second meaning and the second naïveté here that still retrieves this text as useful and these narratives as holy, not as literal.
I believe in evolution and recognize that sexuality and gender are spectrums. I might not be able to keep kosher, celebrate Shabbat every Friday, or attend Torah study. It may seem to you that I’m picking and choosing what I want, as if God’s commandments are just an open buffet.
But unlike my ancestors, I’m lucky in that, the only one who can prevent me from being Jewish is myself. It’s with this understanding that I will keep learning about religion, having belief be a part of my life, and connecting with my past and future. My own reality and the Jewish texts will never be mutually exclusive, because my own interpretation of religion gives me not dogma, but rather, a platform for freedom to further explore.
So this year, it is with continued faith, forgiveness, and learning, that I choose Judaism anew. And for that, I have to thank a caring, inclusive, and humble Muslim community in Sidi Bouzid, Morocco for challenging me to do so and showing me what true faith looks like.
Just like the U.S. government was founded on racism and has been dominated by white men, the U.S. Peace Corps, and other government sponsored exchange programs, are also historically white. Today, I am a white Peace Corps Volunteer representing, and thus contributing to, a U.S. image that has been whitewashed around the world.
I think international exchange (and following, volunteer support) is crucial for bringing about social change both at home and around the world. Yet I can’t help make Peace Corps more inclusive, or the U.S.’s image less white, without acknowledging my own complicity in this current reality. I’m writing this post to explore my own place in the context of implicit racism in the international volunteering field, and to see what it means to be an ally for Volunteers of Color (VOC).
I first got the opportunity to travel at an early age, without having to think about border discrimination, racism overseas, or being questioned on my “Americanness.” My positive experiences abroad opened my world. Later on, they motivated me to pursue a career in international affairs and the public sector. And with the relevant unpaid internships and continued study abroad experiences, I could.
My racial and class privileges gave me easy access to enriching opportunities, which came at the expense of others, for example those that had to work during summers to put themselves through school. My experiences became assets essential to finding a job in the non-profit sector, surrounded by many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). I knew Peace Corps well—it was part of my circle. I was confident that my Peace Corps application would be accepted for Morocco, even after I had turned down another Peace Corps invitation a year earlier.
Race and identity was not something I had to think about before coming here. My privilege is what made my road here visible and smooth, and as a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), and I still don’t have to think about race during my service. Yet for current Volunteers of Color, stepping foot into a historically, and still majority, white volunteer pool, means that my own voice has the power to marginalize.
Focusing on Diversity; Why Now?
In talking about diversity, especially as a white volunteer, it’s important for me to ask why this focus is happening now and realize that before, the white voices at the Peace Corps table had the privilege to ignore how race and racism affects volunteer experience. The small increase in racial diversity is only recent and comes from long-fought battles and hard work from both Peace Corps leaders of Color and Volunteers of Color.
I can’t tell you the racial makeup of the first volunteer classes (because, surprise, surprise, I couldn’t even find statistics on that). But I can tell you that today 29% of volunteers identify as minorities, which is a drastic increase from earlier years. In 2012, Peace Corps finally made a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and previous director Carrie Hessler-Radelet has talked at length about efforts to reach communities of color in the U.S.
Today, because of the whitewashed image of an American, the (historically and present-day) majority-white makeup of PCVs, combined with discrimination in-country, the (still small number of) Volunteers of Color have to suffer the burden of multi-layered racism that I, as a white volunteer, benefit from. You can understand more about VOC experiences, in general and with racism specifically, by reading blogposts from VOCs. I have highlighted some pieces from fellow Volunteers at the end of this post.
Obviously, the burden of the racism should not just be on those that face it, but rather, on those white volunteers who privilege from it. Yet white privilege still operates in Morocco—I don’t have to actively seek to change the Peace Corps support structures, because my experience, voice, and service is the historic and present default for Peace Corps Volunteers and Americans abroad.
Reframing Volunteer Support
Creating more effective volunteer support mechanisms for marginalized PCVs is essential for bridging Peace Corps’ goals on paper with the daily realities of each volunteer seeking to carry out those goals. Instead of assuming that volunteers are monolithic, selfless robots serving this overall goal, organizations need to look at volunteers as full people, and members of a two-way exchange who are constantly learning and growing.
And people need other people, allies, in order to thrive as volunteers. Because most PCVs are still white, and because any group of Americans carry with them the complexities of U.S. racism, it will take intentional effort from me, as a white volunteer, to support rather than marginalize; there is no neutral ground in this unequal status quo.
Still, institutional changes to include and support Volunteers of Color have been limited. Peace Corps Headquarters has been providing “Intercultural Competence, Diversity, and Inclusion” (ICD&I) training for its American and local staff. It wants its senior leadership at posts to “encourage the development of support networks that promote diversity and inclusion.” In Peace Corps Morocco specifically, there are diversity conversation sessions during Pre-Service Training, In-Service Training, and Mid-Service Training, facilitated by our Volunteer Support Network (VSN).
Outside of these 3-4 collective hours over 27 months, white PCVs like me can continue avoiding race, and perspectives from PCVs of Color, if they so choose. There are not other institutionalized avenues in place to unpack how racism and white privilege play out within our volunteer staj and during our service. Most of the time, volunteer support comes in the form of contacting Peace Corps staff. And feeling vulnerable due to racism is not something I have to think of approaching anyone about.
Whether it be a designated staff person in every country specialized in providing support to Volunteers of Color, special retreats for Volunteers of Color or marginalized volunteers in general, or regional meet-ups to discuss these issues in a structured way, it is clear that the ICD&I trainings and diversity sessions are only beginnings. Carrie Hessler-Radelet said herself, in an outgoing interview, that “we have made a lot of progress” on the ICD&I Initiative, “but we’re not completely done, we still have work to do.”
Working on Fellow support for Atlas Corps, I wanted to help incoming volunteers persist amidst the same American xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism that I myself got to avoid. As I wrote in another blogpost entitled “Learning to be an Ally,” I quickly learned that since ignorance and bigotry affects Fellows in different ways based on intersectionalities of identity and service like gender, location of service, traditions, class, religion, or ability, there is no one prescribed solution for how to provide support—and there is no way to shield someone from a reality that you yourself don’t live in.
The same is true when it comes to being an ally for Volunteers of Color in the Peace Corps. While there’s no one solution for creating inclusivity and equitable support, examining my own privilege, complicity, even ignorance, as a white Volunteer, opening opportunities to hear VOC perspectives, and lending an empathetic ear, are some small ways I can help centralize this conversation in a way that doesn’t sideline other voices.
Indeed, the systemic racism that has always existed in the U.S. is a reality that white progressive circles back home are just recently acknowledging. As a white PCV I must remember that I’m serving in an institution that’s also just learning to talk about and fight racism as it becomes more diverse—because it was racism that excluded People of Color from the Peace Corps Volunteer and leadership pools in the first place.
Racism isn’t just people riding down the streets in white hoods and tiki torches chanting hate speech. And I can’t single-handedly disband the KKK by looking at my computer screen. But I can actively keep trying to make Peace Corps a more just, less racist institution by promoting critical and inclusive volunteer support. Such mechanisms are essential if the Peace Corps hopes to reach its ideal of representing the “American people,” rather than just the “American government” and the groups that it privileges (me).
Some Relevant Blog Posts on VOC Experiences with Race & Racism
I was pretty “nishan” (Arabic slang for straight-laced) growing up. Measuring myself against an imagined norm, I developed holes in my confidence. I wondered what might be wrong with me, since I wanted to be an entomologist, preferred staying inside and playing truth or truth on Saturday nights, I never had a boyfriend, bikinis made me feel exposed, and 100% of my close friends were girls. Honestly, I haven’t changed that much since high school (probably why I relate so much with angsty, coming-of-age books and movies #bildungsroman).
The traits that made me question my normality in the U.S. are really more the societally accepted norm here in Sidi Bouzid. Compared to some other Americans, you really might think I’d fit in well in this Moroccan village. But socially constructed norms have a funny way of never actually making you feel normal. In my current community, I’m just as weird against my Moroccan community’s norms, but for completely different reasons.
Here, some things I carried over from my life in the U.S. make me “hashuma” (shameful)—how I love having a glass of wine and venting, my views on dating before marriage, my propensity for sundresses, and the (from time to time) mixed gender company I keep. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced here is determining when I should hold onto my own norms, and when I need to respect the norms of the people that surround me.
I’ve been toeing this line by untangling my values from the norms that, if stripped away, aren’t actually so important to my identity. A quick Google definition search tells me that norms are “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” Values are “a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life.” A lot of the time, this exercise is easy, and I don’t feel like I have to compromise my values by adjusting. That’s because the friends I’ve made here really do share most of these values.
I am happy to report that we raised the grant money for repainting and refurbishing our center for women and youth in Sidi Bouzid. Members of a local youth association have been working for hours each day to get the job done before the new school year starts. I love working with them, because like me, they value teamwork, volunteerism, and helping their community.
As we worked into the night, I texted a friend, asking if I could come over and have a bite to eat. Instead, she made and brought dinner to all the members of the association working late. Like me, she values generosity and sharing. And this morning, as my neighbor knocked on my door to see where I’ve been, I was reminded once again how much concern my friends in Sidi Bouzid have for the welfare of others. Like me, they also value loyalty and being there for one another.
I can go on to my friends here about how much I miss my mom, and show people the pictures of what my family back home has been up to. That’s because like me, people here also value family and community. It’s safe to say that most people here are in the same page as me in terms of core values, which is what makes me feel so welcome.
Am I Normal?
Of course, there are times when I feel like I have to choose between adopting new norms or staying true to my values. I was faced with such a question last week, when I had some friends staying over, one of whom was male. Since I have my own house, I had the choice of letting everyone in or asking the guy to stay somewhere else. I knew hosting him would be hashuma.
Yet those of you who know me from home, know that hospitality is a value that I hold very dear. I can’t turn a friend away. A few girlfriends voiced their disapproval directly to me, and I’m sure many more people in the community did so behind my back. But I didn’t even think twice about welcoming my male friend into my home, and I would do so again.
Choosing to follow my own norms, especially when they contrast with others, is an opportunity to realize and express what I value most. As most people here ask me when I’m going to get married, I’m learning how important my independence is to me. When I hear a friend making a comical nod to Hitler, I speak up about its inappropriateness—I value calling out bigotry rather than keeping a low profile. As many people here spend most of their time together, I’m realizing how I do value some alone time.
While I might sound confident, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, if I hear someone say something I do is hashuma, I become anxious that everyone in my community will stigmatize me. This fear is compounded by the small, interwoven nature of this community; similar to social circles at home, people here gossip, and things spread fast. I’ve had a recurring vision of myself wearing a scarlet letter, cast out for all the hashuma things that I’ve either talked about with friends about or acted on at site.
Is it possible for me to live freely while maintaining the relationships that are literally everything to me here in Sidi Bouzid? After all, another one of my top values is openness. How can I have genuine friendships without being 100% open about the traits that make up who I am?
Learning to Relax
But alas, I have made real, evolving relationships, without feeling like I’m hiding my true self. Someone might think something I’m doing is hashuma –they might even talk about it with me, or gossip about it with someone else. Yet the more I interact with my community, and the more I open up to friends, the more I realize that, while social and cultural norms can be mean and unforgiving, my real friends are not.
Now that I’ve been here for almost a year, it’s safe to say that to my friends, I’m more than just my “hashuma” traits. And regardless of the Moroccan norms and rules we learned about in pre-service training (PST), every person here is more than the norms and rules of their society—like me, they are full, complex people with varying values, boundaries, and perceptions.
I need to give myself the room, and my friends the trust, to maintain respect for their cultural norms while knocking down my own guard at the same time. These are not the people that will shut me out; only my own fear and anxiety can do that. I feel confident now that I can hold onto my values even when it means being selective in the norms to which I’m adhering.
It’s important to recognize that I’m in a position of privilege as an American. People expect me to be different, and so I can more easily get away with playing by my own rules. In that sense, it is easier for me to hold onto my own values than for someone else who will be here long term. But it is exactly that—the shifting of environments—that has forced me to really consider how fickle norms can be, and what those values are (plug for exchange programs).
I’ve learned so much from my community, especially my counterparts; I’ll save that for another post. But we don’t learn just about others through international and intercultural exchange—we also develop and learn about ourselves. Moving from one set of norms to another is hard and stressful, especially for us anxious and people-pleasing types. But it is worth it. It’s making me more confident in my own skin, with a clearer idea of what values I hold most closely, absent the norms and judgments in both societies that always held me back.