When I looked ahead to the month of August, I envisioned a challenge. The previous August contained the bulk of Ramadan, my best friend's termination of service, my assault and eventual medivac. Not exactly memories of rainbows and teddy bears. Aware that I needed a 'safe' space in Morocco to spend the month, I signed up to work at the El Jadida SOS Children's Village.
SOS Children's Villages is an international organization present in 132 countries which focuses on long-term, family-based care for children who can't stay with their biological families. In El Jadida, there are roughly 100 children placed in 12 homes complete with a mother, siblings, and more western amenities than a typical volunteer enjoys. Arriving with a plethora of emotional, mental and often physical setbacks, the children benefit from counseling and additional support throughout their life.
In order to provide alternate programming during the summer, Peace Corps volunteers work at various villages throughout the country. It's a chance to gain additional experience, work in a well-funded facility (we have paper?!) and collaborate with other volunteers in a comfortable environment. The draw of a beautiful beach town and mild temperatures during the heat of the summer isn't terrible either...
Given the number of holidays and unofficial breaks present in the month of August, the work has been relatively light. We have benefited from several days at the beach, a few trips to the local dive 'Le Tit' and even attending the first ever El Jadida Grand Prix - race cars and adrenaline in Morocco! The city comes complete with its' share of harassment, but it's still a leap ahead of sweating it out in the desert sun.
Our typical schedule includes several hours of activities or classes with children ages 3-14, with additional evening activities or films throughout the week. The program is manageable, however the needs of the children can be overwhelming at times. After two hours of morning classes we have been scratched, clung to, hit, kicked and broken up more than a handful of fights. It's exhausting to continually tell children how bad they are, to take away privileges and deal with the physicality of their conflicts.
Volunteers are in a tough spot. Corporal punishment is used frequently at the village and it's not uncommon for us to see or hear the children being hit for their misbehavior. Since the kids are accustomed to physical punishment, they rarely react to our verbal reprimands. We stand in classes where groups of ten children overtake us, feeling powerless in a sea of tiny miscreants.
Constantly attempting to entertain the kids into good behavior, we put together 'The Olympics' for a celebratory activity. After crafting countless games, a scoreboard and medals, we were sure to have a successful day, right? The morning passed without any serious incidents, but it was the afternoon that challenged our will to live. Picture chaos - utter chaos. Twenty kids running with sharp objects, overturning water buckets, babies wandering into the paths of racing teenagers and the worst cooperation imaginable. During the three-legged race, partners would shove each other onto the pavement while literally attached at the knee. Moroccan teamwork at its' finest. After four rounds of attempted activities, the Moroccan staff shamed the kids and sent them home.
We returned to our apartment still holding the water balloons, unearned medals and prizes. Deflated and frustrated, we analyzed our plans to figure out what we could have done differently. Eventually concluding that we had planned well, come energized and given it our best, we sat together. Too often at the village, with children in our towns and in Morocco, this is the way the day ends. Two steps forward, one step backward. We sit together and hope that one kid felt loved, that a kind word was appreciated and that the single step forward makes a difference.