A Special Return to Morocco by Sam Vaghar

Last September I had the honor of traveling to Morocco on a speaking tour for the US Department of State. 

We visited six cities—Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, Agadir, Tiznit, and Fez over the course of seven days (with an additional three days back in Rabat), engaging with over 500 youth and educators. 

I returned from America to Morocco this June-July for two weeks to reconnect with friends and meet new leaders.  What an extraordinary experience!

At the beginning of the trip, we convened 100 youth leaders from across the nation to network with each other and for a conversation on our upcoming Global Youth Survey and Policy Paper.  We invited Moroccan youth leaders to serve as Country Coordinators for this policy paper and I was thrilled to see several apply for this role.  We want to document proven youth-centered initiatives that tackle global poverty and related crises, hear directly from youth what they need to scale up these efforts, and then take these requests to public and private sector leaders to request financial and technical support.  We will share preliminary outcomes from this process on October 12th during a Global Town Hall online during the sixth annual Millennium Campus Conference.  I’m thrilled to share that many youth leaders will be organizing their own event and watch party in Rabat for our global livestream on that day.  Four Moroccan youth leaders will even be traveling to join youth from 50 nations in person at our conference in Florida this fall. 

Kenza Benmoussa of AISEC speaks at MCN Rabat meeting

Kenza Benmoussa of AISEC speaks at MCN Rabat meeting

Sam with Sanaa Afouaiz, youth leader on climate change from Agadir

Sam with Sanaa Afouaiz, youth leader on climate change from Agadir

I was deeply impressed by the youth leaders we connected with.  I met youth leaders from AISEC, ENACTUS, Circle of Young Moroccan Democrats (note: non-partisan), Moroccan Association of Political Science Students (we signed an MOU together), Droit & Justice Association, Search for Common Ground, and many others.  Some youth leaders traveled from Fez and as far as Agadir (6 hours!) to be with us—absolutely extraordinary.  These youth are tackling climate change, homelessness, and other crises with passion and energy. 

This trip also afforded me the opportunity to meet inspiring, experienced entrepreneurs and global leaders.  I had the opportunity to connect with Younes Boumehdi

Sam meeting with Younes at Hit Radio

Sam meeting with Younes at Hit Radio

In 1993, Younes had the idea to start a radio station for young people.  He applied for a license but was not accepted.  Every three months for the next 13 years, Younes applied for one.  In 2006, Hit Radio began.  Today, the station has 74 frequencies in Morocco and reaches over 1.5 million daily listeners (and over 500,000 online) across Africa and Europe.  Even as I type this blog post in Boston, I’m listening to my new favorite station (Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” currently putting me in a great mood).

I also had the chance to catch up with Samir Benmakhlouf, the General Manager of Microsoft Morocco.  I had helped invite Samir to speak to outstanding youth leaders at a State Department Alumni Enrichment Seminar on my last trip, and this time around, he invited me to Microsoft’s special Partners in Learning event.  It was a unique look at how Microsoft is using technology to transform the classroom experience, and I had the opportunity to hear from and meet the Minister of National Education Rachid Benmokhtar as well.

Sam meeting Minister Rachid Benmokhtar and Secretary Genera

Sam meeting Minister Rachid Benmokhtar and Secretary Genera

Shortly after these meetings, I had the opportunity to sit down at the offices of businessman, philanthropist, and politician Faouzi Chaabi.  Faouzi is widely known as one of the most successful business leaders in the country.  I was immediately impressed by Faouzi’s insights on maternal mortality and early childhood development.  He had also read two of our Advisor Jeffrey Sachs’ books and shared his passion for supporting the youth of Morocco. 

Faouzi Chaabi and Sam at Faouzi's offices

Faouzi Chaabi and Sam at Faouzi's offices

What I had anticipated as a 30 minute meeting turned into a two hour conversation on some of Faouzi’s passions, including education, healthcare, and economic growth.  I gained some key insights into practical solutions to empower youth, including the work Faouzi’s family has led in the creation of affordable university housing (and I had the chance to see this firsthand at one of the universities in Kenitra).  I left the meeting motivated to find more ways to connect the dots between youth efforts to tackle poverty and the efforts of business and philanthropic leaders like Faouzi.

This trip was also a timely one as much of it fell during Ramadan.  This was an eye opening experience, as I fasted for nine days.  In practical terms, among other things this means no water or food between around 3:30am and 7:45pm each day (goes by the moon calendar), and the meaning behind this is deeply meaningful and connected with our work.  Part of the fast enables us to cleanse our bodies, and another purpose is powerful: to empathize with the poor.  I have never felt so tired during the days, but I committed myself to working out each day without food and water.  By 4pm each day, I could barely focus on sending emails or producing any work.  The challenge of fasting is matched by a surreal experience called Iftar, or breaking the fast each night.  The foods, milk, water and juices taste unbelievable after a day without them.  Iftar also provides people with an opportunity to come together and celebrate family and community.  I had some incredible experiences for Iftar, ranging from spending the day with my new friend Ayoub Haddouch and his family in Kenitra, to being invited to join in with Mehdi Bousaidi and his colleagues in their staff room at Hotel La Tour Hassan, to Ouss Chemili and family in Salé (his mother is an amazing cook), and a big meal with Marouane Hajjaji El Idrissi and friends.  In an entirely new place, I was surrounded by new friends each night.  The two most unique experiences: Iftar on the floor of a tram (the train that runs through Rabat) and one on the beach. 

Iftar on the tram was unique.  I was running late to see friends in another part of town.  Lost, I walked up to two tram conductors and asked for help.  The tram and almost everything shuts down during Iftar, so they began pointing me in the direction to walk.  One of the conductors then asked if I fasted during the day.  When I said yes, the two conductors invited me into the tram.  I was shocked; there was a massive meal right on the floor of the tram.  Six of us sat together on the floor and shared a meal.  Even with a language barrier (I don’t speak French or Arabic and they spoke limited English), we were able to connect and share laughs together.

Iftar on the beach was a symbolic way to help close out the trip.  My friend Mehdi Bouaidi had come up with the idea, and I asked Omar Alaoui to coordinate it.  I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.  At first, groups of people showed up on the beach in different places and we were disorganized.  By the end, it was an epic sight: 40 youth leaders from seven nations joined together to break the fast.  The energy of this group was so special, uplifting, and motivating.  All smiles and laughs together.

I learned three important lessons during this trip:

1) I love convening great people.  From our initial meeting of youth leaders to our Iftar on the beach to help close out my trip, I loved the opportunity to link together young leaders who will be exponentially more effective in tackling poverty and inequality by working together. 

2) Everyone wants to make a difference.  From youth leaders and entrepreneurs to business leaders and politicians, when asked most people want to step in and be supportive.  And once again I saw that there are youth leaders tackling poverty and inequality in every place I visit (showing the best of our generation).  This was an important reminder. 

3) Morocco is even more special than I thought.  I was so impressed by Morocco last fall that I decided to return (thank you to IIP at the State Department for introducing me to this nation).  This was a more personal journey that gave me time to interact with old and new friends and recognize how special this nation and its culture are.  To be with Moroccans during Ramadan is an experience I won’t soon forget.  To play soccer with new friends in Hilton Forrest and on the beach in Kenitra showed me that even with a language barrier, friendships can be forged and we can find common passions.

I owe special thanks to the US Embassy in Rabat, and especially Jennifer Bullock and Loubna Arrach, for their support of student leaders tackling global poverty and hosting our meeting at the beginning of the trip.

To all my friends across Morocco, thank you for your hospitality, for your passion, and how warmly you welcomed me.  You made me feel like I was home.  Below are more pictures from this unforgettable trip.  Shukran.

Click through below to see the gallery!

- Post by Sam Vaghar, Executive Director of The Millennium Campus Network