My GiveLight Journey

logo lg

Javed also wrote up a wonderfully touching and humorous guide on how to visit one of our homes. Hope you enjoy reading this as much as we did. 

 

Visiting Givelight Oujda Morocco: A Not-so-Funny Guide for Volunteer-Visitors By Javed Mohammed

In my travels, I have come to believe in the adage that it is the journey and not the destination that counts. However, on my Givelight trip to the beautiful Oujda, Maison De Lumiere home in Morocco, I would say the destination was more important than the journey. Why? Because, in spite of all the challenges I faced in getting there and returning, the joy of meeting the children (and staff) was priceless. It is hard to capture emotions into words, so here is what I will share instead. If you are a Givelight well-wisher, and beyond donating or volunteering, you want to visit a GiveLight home, let me share with you my experience and some do’s and don’ts. There is a caveat - of course, these are all my personal experiences and you will have to adapt them to what works for you.

givelight-children-orphans-africa-morocco-volunteer-visit-2

With that, let’s get started.  I will do this in a Q&A format.

How do you pick which home to go to?

In my case I was thinking of visiting Morocco either with my wife on a personal trip, or for work. The latter is what ended up happening, and I then extended my trip with personal time. 

What is the process for visiting, and is there an application?

After you select a GiveLight home, you must complete an application.  Besides simply the basics, since you will be visiting children, you will be asked if you have worked with or been around children, if you have a criminal history, and if you will comply with being fingerprinted and having a background check. These are not cause for concern; back in the United States,  the same questions and requirements apply if you are going to be volunteering or working with children. The form also asks for 3 references, and you are expected to cover your own expenses.

Where and how does the screening work?

After the application was submitted, I had a call with one of the GiveLight board members, Sister Noshaba Afzal. We went through a little bit about my background, but most of the conversation centered around her and her family’s experience visiting Oudja. I found this conversation to be very helpful. MashaAllah, there are forty girls at the GiveLight Oujda home, and Sister Noshaba shared that since the staff is mainly made up of women, the girls truly connected with her husband as a father figure. That was some relief to me. 

givelight-children-orphans-africa-morocco-volunteer-visit-5

How do you plan the activities for your trip?

As with most plans, I created an outline, shared it, and based on feedback, iterated on it. I also had a follow-up call with another GiveLight board member, Sister Naurin Beig to discuss my plan and get some very helpful feedback. The following is an example of the agenda I created for my one day trip: 

  • Introductions
  • Islam in Silicon Valley and America Presentation (I created the presentation, but ended up skipping it because it would not work due to the age and language barrier)
  • “You Are All Authors” - create your own book: Have fun with rubber stamps and writing (I will be bringing books,  crayons/markers, etc.)
  • Fun Activities: Balloons, Bubbles, Night GiveLightow Bracelets
  • Sharing new books for library
  • Reading Activity: I will read several books and record my readings on video so children can re-listen/watch them later
  • "I am Malala": Everyone has an opportunity to share a 60 second story that will be recorded and can be viewed later. (This was done with the older girls)
  • Ask Me Anything (Q&A)
  • Duas and Goodbyes

What things should I take with me for the activities/gifts?

Besides my own clothing, the following are items I also brought with me: 

  • balloons, bubbles, night GiveLightow bracelets
  • sticker books
  • crayons, markers, colored pencils
  • pens (I chose to bring unique florescent colors that come in variety packs)
  • small notepads the children can write in (I could not find what I needed, and ended up creating my own)
  • rubber stamps and ink in a variety of different colors
  • children’s books (either simple non-fiction reference books with bright visuals, or simple stories)
  • any additional activities that may be enjoyable
  • I took Ferrero Rocher chocolates (48 count) to be given as gifts. I was concerned the chocolate may melt, but fortunately, since I traveled in the winter, this was not an issue. 

givelight-children-orphans-africa-morocco-volunteer-visit-4

How do you get there?

If you are coming from the United States, most people fly into Casablanca or Marrakech.  There is a direct flight from Casablanca to Oujda which takes about an hour. Besides flying, you can take the train, which is what I chose to do. I am told that the Air Moroc flights are not the most reliable in terms of timeliness, and I also wanted to stop in Fes. It is a four hour train ride from Casablanca to Fes, and then another six hour ride from Fes to Oudja. I did look into renting a car and driver, but it was very expensive, and I also did not want to take the risk of renting a car without knowing the language (French or Arabic). The bus is another option, but I liked the comfort of the train, and easy access to a restroom. Getting a ticket is easy. It costs approximately $15-20 for each leg of the trip, and the trains were very punctual. Upon arriving at the train station, I was greeted by Sister Maryam, who is an EnGiveLightish speaker, as well as a wonderful and wise man by the name of Amoon. 

Where do you stay in Oujda?

MashAllah, the GiveLight Home in Oujda, Maison De Lumiere is not only beautiful, but very well designed. They have two guest rooms, each with two sinGiveLighte beds. Each room is new and clean, and has its own bathroom. A word of caution regarding the weather: I arrived in mid-November, and Amoon said I brought the rains with me; I take full ownership of that. Depending on what season you travel, it may be hot, warm, or as was my case, cold. Dress and pack your bags accordinGiveLighty. The building does not currently have A/C or heating. In addition to giving me extra blankets, Sister Maryam also got me a room heater, which despite all my engineering skills, I could not figure out how to turn on. 

How was the staff and student experience?

The staff and the girls were all very welcoming. It is one of those wonderful feelings that is difficult to explain. Besides the 40 girls, there are about 11-13 staff members, including approximately three cooks, three administration personnel, three nannies (who stay with the children at night), and one school bus driver/security guard. The facility is run by Amoon and Sister Fatima. The girls go to school during the week, and then they have some schooling on Saturday mornings. Despite their full schedule, everyone was very accommodating and flexible from my arrival on Friday evening, and throughout my full day with them on Saturday. The administrative staff work Monday through Friday, as well as Saturday mornings. 

Was language an issue and how did you address it?

As I do not speak Arabic or French, language was an issue. Without the help of Sister Maryam, and in her absence, one of the students, Manal (who both get five stars), it would have been very challenging. On the occasion they strugGiveLighted with a word or phrase, Shaikh “GooGiveLighte Translate” helped. I am indebted to them both.

So, how was the experience?

SubhanAllah, beyond expectations. Even though the conversations with Sisters Dian, Noshaba, and Naurin helped, as did the email and WhatsApp chats with Amoon and Maryam, there are always reservations. For me, it was wondering how the girls would react to an unknown man. My guess is two-thirds of the forty girls are under the age of 12/13, and the rest are older. They warmed up fairly quickly, and by the second day I had made several “best friends”. I joined them for all meals and rotated tables with my trusty translator, Manal. Food is very simple (so get those buffet ideas out of your head). I wasn’t there long enough to get an idea as to what is served throughout the week, but the staples are fresh French bread, olive oil, mint tea, and dates supplemented with either soup, yogurt, pasta, or chicken. While it is difficult to go through all the details of each activity, I will say that you should go in with your ideas and then adapt based on the situation. Saying goodbye was the hardest thing I had to do, and as I hugged each child, their emotions clearly mirrored my own.

givelight-children-orphans-africa-morocco-volunteer-visit-3

What did you get right and would repeat?

Alhamdulilah, most of the trip and activities went very well. I had asked Amoon and Maryam to buy some nice dessert that I could give as a treat to the girls and staff. I gave them a budget of 200 Dirhams which is the equivalent of 20 USD. With that, they were able to purchase a delicious dessert that was served to everyone at tea time. I also shared a ten minute closing statement with the assistance of Sister Maryam’s translation, and both the dessert and words were well received.

What would you do differently?

To begin with, I got food poisoning at the hotel-restaurant in Fes, so I would definitely not have eaten that horrible burger. Secondly, I do need to make a confession: After becoming quite hungry on one of those long train rides, I was forced to indulge in not one, not two, but THREE Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Yes, the very same Ferrero Rochers that were actually meant for the children I would be visiting. With three chocolates down, I was left with 45. Upon arriving at GiveLight, I began handing out the chocolates to both staff and students simultaneously, and soon realized that the box was emptying rather quickly and the situation was beginning to look dire. At this point, my only hope was dua, and I prayed that Allah (swt) would put barakah in my diminishing box of chocolates. My duas appeared to be heard, and as the box emptied one by one, my duas continued, up until I arrived at the very last girl. It was at that moment that I stared down at an empty Ferrero Rocher box. I was short. Short by one measly chocolate. Whose bright idea was it to make a box of 48 Ferrero Rocher instead of 49? What were those crazy people at the Ferrero Group thinking? Fortunately, a staff member was kind enough to donate their chocolate and my respect was restored. Looking back, if I had to do it again, I would never have eaten that last Ferrero Rocher. Besides my chocolate mishap, everything at GiveLight Oudja went really well, Alhamdulillah. Well, almost everything. Call it my third lesson. I arrived at the airport  Sunday morning, but could not find my 9:30 A.M. flight. The airport was deserted. It turns out I had read the wrong itinerary, and my flight from Oudja was actually at 7:20 A.M. The only other flight was in the evening, and it was already fully booked. I took a cab to the train station and purchased a new ticket. After waiting for five and a half hours and over extending my welcome drinking chai in a coffee shop, I finally boarded a 10 hour train ride to Casablanca. If I had to do it again, I would have definitely read the correct itinerary, but such is life. At least you have the pleasure of reading this and will not repeat my blunders. 

Would I do it again?

Hands down, in a heartbeat, YES! I hope I have the chance to return with my wife, InshAllah. Ya Allah, make it possible. I promise I will not eat an orphan’s Ferrero Rocher ever again.