Post by Gerald Loftus, TALIM Resident Director (2010-2014)
For a grandmother-to-be, it was a sacrifice to leave Europe for Morocco, just as her first grandson was about to come into the world in the summer of 2010. But Marie Hélène – as she had done during our years crisscrossing the world in the diplomatic service – gamely joined me to embark on our new life in Tangier at the American Legation. We didn’t regret it, and friendships made there are as strong as ever, almost seven years after leaving.
Marie Hélène found that she had something to offer – applying her experience as a teacher of foreign languages in the women’s literacy program. Working with Fatima Benguerch, the teacher of the primary subject, Arabic literacy, Marie Hélène joined several European and Moroccan volunteers offering French classes to the women of the medina. Also, early on, along with members of Tanger Accueil, she also pioneered at the Legation what has now become a yearly tradition – a Christmas market, where many of the women and Tangier-based community associations can raise funds selling handicrafts.
When we’ve returned to Tangier on visits, it’s always such a pleasure to be walking through the crowded streets and have a woman come up to hug her former teacher. And Marie Hélène’s friendships were also with neighbors, often chatting (in Spanish) with another Fatima as they hung the laundry on the flat adjoining roofs.
As we approached our departure in the summer of 2014, the Legation hosted a film premiere event for British documentary filmmaker Deborah Perkin, the screening of her film “Bastards” about Moroccan mothers and their children battling for recognition. The women of the Legation’s literacy program as well as civic associations for single mothers comprised the audience, and the director and one of the main protagonists were in attendance for the Q & A. It was very moving, as many of the women (and an elderly Englishman!) were able to attest to the prejudice and ostracism suffered by these mothers.
Afterwards we invited Deborah and Rabha El Haimer and her daughter Salma upstairs for tea, and we learned more about her ongoing struggle to obtain legitimacy (and therefore schooling) for her daughter. Sometime later came a brainwave: “What if the Legation hired Rabha?” asked Marie Hélène. The Legation had been considering for some time the need for a cleaning person for the museum and offices, to free the (male) custodial staff for more maintenance duties. So that’s how it happened: Rabha was hired, and it meant stability, income, and health care for her and her daughter, who’s now a 17 year old secondary student who speaks English and is learning French, and is now looking at prospects in higher education. Marie Hélène’s timely and inspired idea meant that two lives were fundamentally changed, and the Legation got a loyal addition to its close-knit and dedicated staff. I think that’s Marie Hélène’s most fulfilling memory of Tangier.