MARRAKECH. The name alone evokes exotic images, and the city does not disappoint. The city was surprisingly clean, and, particularly in historical Medina, I encountered architectural beauty at each new turn. The air was filled with the enticing aromas of slow-cooked tagines and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice sold from push carts. Prayer rugs were periodically unfurled in random places as vendors momentarily paused their activity to honor God with their prayers. Except for an occasional beggar, one might not even notice the poverty hidden among the fringes of the city, out of the tourist’s eye.

The purpose of my visit was to get to know Nora, the gentle, soft-spoken founder of Amal (which means “Hope” in Arabic). Amal is an organization that helps desperately poor and vulnerable women by training them for six months in the food industry and then helping to place them in permanent jobs. Each story is different, but a common thread is that a woman, often a single or widowed mother of young children, is alone and has no hope as she struggles to survive with no education.

Zineb, for example, came from a large family in a rural Moroccan village. Her father, too poor to feed all his children, told her one day that he was taking her on a vacation. She excitedly packed her few belongings, but instead of a vacation, her father took her to a city and left her at a house to work as a domestic. She was 6 years old.

Such jobs typically involve long hours, hard work, and meager pay (her family received about $20/month for her labor). Worse, domestics are often treated harshly and are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Several times she escaped and returned to her family, but they ignored her pleas and sent her back. Abandoned by her family and unable to endure the harsh conditions any longer, she ran away and drifted from city to city, begging and pursuing odd jobs to survive. Eventually she gave birth to a daughter as a single mother, cementing her position as a social outcast. Hope finally came in the form of Amal where she trained for six months and now has a stable job at a riad. In the process, she also regained her smile!

Amal has about 100 applicants each semester for 30 training positions. Only the poorest, most vulnerable women are chosen, but with two semesters each year, this provides new hope and life for 60 women a year. They are given a small stipend during their training and help, if needed, for their children to attend school (a requirement if they want to participate in the program). In addition to restaurant skills, the women are taught basic French and English (important for work in the tourist industry), basic math, hygiene, interviewing skills, and other key job-strengthening skills. The work of Amal is powerful because it doesn’t just provide job training. It provides a sense of community, a family, that supports and loves the women through the difficult circumstances of their lives.

Nora was able to initiate Amal with a grant from the Swiss Drosos Foundation, and program revenue-generating activities, including a restaurant, catering services, and cooking classes, cover the basic operating costs. They lack money, however, for capital improvements and program expansion. They would like, for example, to install an irrigation system on their land to begin an organic gardening project and produce some of the fruits and vegetables they use in their cooking.

Of particular interest to me, and the reason for my visit, is their desire to develop a project for refugees. Refugees face particularly difficult situations. They are often traumatized by the circumstances that forced them from their homes, and they lack local language skills which hinders their cultural integration and ability to find work.

A Syrian family I met, for example, still mourns for their life and home that no longer exist in Syria. Before they left, people were killed indiscriminately – children as well as adults – and many of their friends and family were killed. The army started targeting schools to terrorize the people, and their oldest daughter – about 9 years old at the time – was at her school when it was bombed. It was a terrifying experience both for the girl and her parents, and they finally felt compelled to leave their Syrian life behind, choosing poverty and uncertainty in a foreign land rather than risking the lives of their children by staying. The house and town they used to live in have since been razed in the war.

Another woman is from Cameroon. She has two children, and her husband just died from a heart attack. She does not speak Arabic, and she suddenly has no means of support. I can’t even imagine how it must feel to be completely alone in a foreign land with two young children and no prospect of a job.

How can we help such people? There are psychological, language and cultural barriers as well as extreme poverty. It will be a challenge, but Nora’s compassionate heart compels her to try. She is not alone. She has a very talented team which helped her turn Amal into a remarkable success. I think there will be more trips in my future to Marrakech!