Professional & cultural exchange program for social workers and youth workers

by Maria Caravaca Ontivero

Orientation and Introduction

I feel fortunate to have participated in the CIF PEP Program in Morocco March 23 to April 4, 2018 in the beautiful country of Morocco in North Africa, a country bathed  by the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It was an unforgettable experience: exotic, simple, beautiful, meaningful, enchanting, enriching, educational, challenging, diverse, and so much more.

Co-participant in the program was Ms. Marie-Anne Carlson from Sweden. She spoke French fluently, unlike myself, who spoke it fairly. We had fun.

We arrived on March 23  and were treated to a delicious dinner that was supposed to be light! Light? Thereby commenced the experience of Moroccan cuisine, to me one of the most delicious foods in the world.

The  PEP Orientation took place for two full days. CIF Morocco provided information about the New Constitution Code for Moroccan woman. We were educated and  introduced to the Kingdom of Morocco, its history, culture, geography, social, economic and political issues. We, the participants, provided information about our social work professional experience in our countries of the USA and Sweden. I gave information about my job as a supervisor at  the Child Protection Hotline in the largest  Child Protection Agency in USA.

On March 25, we had a picnic in the mountains and visited Saidia, a tourist spot by the Mediterranean Sea at an eyesight distance from neighboring Algeria. On our way there we traversed some mountainous terrain. Everywhere we went, every place we saw was a teachable moment, a learning opportunity about geography, its people, economics, and the like. Not a doll moment. I was usually quiet looking out the window trying to absorb it all,  as I did when I was in grade school, making my own picture, my own movie.

Professional Experience

My first agency placement was  at a Centre for Children who were abandoned or subjects of abuse, neglect, and/or whose families had difficulties and had no place of abode. The Centre was a residential facility that provided food, shelter, and extracurricular activities. Children attended school off grounds at a nearby school or centre. The staff at the Center provided care, control, and supervision and was staffed 24 hours. Children were treated with respect, they enjoyed nutritious food and were in good health. The Centre was operated with funding from the Kingdom and private donations. Many volunteers were also involved in providing needed items and oversight. These Centre was only for males. At the end of my stay, we shared a chocolate cake made at the Centre’s Bakery. The bakery is open to the public and its purpose is to train some of the youth (metier) and provide funds for the Centre.

My second agency placement was at a Centre for children and young adults who presented  intellectual disability at it various levels, or had Down Syndrome. The Centre provided educational intervention and activities, as well as professional training specially in the bakery business, candle making,  and others according to students’ abilities. Children and  young adults’ learning ability was based  on their individual situation, but all were provided with an educational environment that provided families with respite and at the same time protected children from potential risk elsewhere. Children learned to color, basic reading and writing, singing, playing, and socialization opportunities that they could not experience if they stayed home. Children were bussed in and out of the Centre. They had lunch at the center that provided them with nutrients needed for their appropriate physical development.

Working with this population was specially enriching for me because I have never experienced the closeness of working with Down Syndrome children and intellectually  disabled persons. It was a touching experience for me. Learning about their love for closeness and touch. Seeing their joy when they accomplished the simplest of skills and their need for recognition and admiration.

How they blessed me! I will forever guard with much appreciation all their smiles and innocence!

I participated in candle making activities with one of the young adults in the center, as well as coloring and play activities with the children in their classrooms. One of the children drew the logo on my ID card and proudly showed it to me and the director. That skill was proof of attention to detail and appreciation toward me. He was elated of such great accomplishment, and so was I.

I admired the gentleness of all the staff toward the children and the commitment of their director, Mr. Ibrahim, although retired from Academia, found a new joy in directing this institution with so much dedication.

I could not really comprehend the role of social workers in general in Morocco . What I did observe is that most institutions that provide social work type services are run as civil societies or NGOs with grants of funding sources from the Kingdom and many volunteers are involved and committed.

As in any country, rendering the services needed by vulnerable population requires hard work and continuing efforts in finding ways to do it better.

Host Family Living

One of the most important aspects of the program was the experience of host family living. No CIF PEP program is complete without it. I stayed with the family of Nadia, her parents, her younger brother and their adorable pet dog, Rosa.
I truly enjoyed their hospitality, warmth and embrace provided me. Even their dog embraced me and I  took her for a walk; mischievous and spoiled as she was.

Appreciation of family living is an intimate experience, participating of  meal time: Moroccan tea drinking, a ceremonious activity in itself; watching television; going to the market; and communicating without speaking the native language. I recall with great pleasure my “conversations” with Nadia’s mom that spoke neither French nor English, let alone Spanish--my native tongue--yet we conversed and laughed. I knew that Arabs were present in Spain for centuries and that the Spanish language has some words that have Arab roots or are indeed Arabic.

She remembered some Spanish words she learned as a child where mom used to work for a Spanish family.
One such time, the dog was misbehaving and she mentioned “chancla” in Arabic. I understood the same word in Spanish that means sandal. So, I got up and brought her house sandal from the living room. She was static that I understood Arabic!  Vous Parlez en Arabe!  She exclaimed with a grin in  her little French. "No," I said, I understood Spanish. We laughed and held hands. And so we talked! On another time she said “vecino ici “ and pointed to her eyes. I understood her neighbor (vecino in Spanish) was here (ici in French!) and she wanted to see her! So grateful for language and body Language, laugh, and people.

With Nadia, I mostly communicated in English, with the father in French (my fair French I should say) and at work mainly in French. I did not have a problem understanding French, my challenge was speaking it back.

I was treated to a  Morocaan Hammam, the first in my life. (Hammam is a steam room where people go to clean themselves and is usually a weekly ritual and an opportunity for socialization for family or friends, women, and men have separate quarters).

Morocco’s CIF President and his wife, Maria, are an exemplary couple! They are hard working, great parents, and fully committed to the cause and purpose of CIF and other activities in their country. And they are the greatest hosts anyone can dream off.

They took us for a weekend trip to see Fes, Meknes, and Volubilis. I am so grateful for the opportunity to see other parts of Morocco and learn about history and other issues: Moroccan Sahara, Argelia, France and Spanish influence, etc.
The day we left we visited many agencies. At the end of the day we gathered for the closing ceremony. We received our certificate of participation in the company of professionals that is  already, or about to be, involved with the CIF Morocco.

I am grateful for the opportunities life has provided me in participating in many exchange programs throughout my life; CIF being the latest one, and I hope not the last one. Thank you CIF-USA for the opportunity of participating. Thank you Morocco for having me there.​

Unforgettable experience: 2018 PEp Morocco

Council of International Fellowship-United States of America