IMPACT JOURNALISM DAY: In Morocco, a restaurant gives women hope

L’association Amal pour les arts culinaires à Marrakech permet aux femmes, qui n’avaient jusque là aucun revenu, d’apprendre le métier et de le mettre en pratique dans leur propre restaurant - Association Amal

By Stéphanie Jacob, L’Economiste, Morocco

It is an initiative so successful it’s struggling to keep up with demand.The Marrakesh-based Amalfor the Culinary Arts association enables women who previously had no income to learn the restaurant business and gain hands-on experience at the association’s own restaurant, before finding them a job through its network of partners. Today, Amal (Arabic for “hope”) is a victim of its own success, and doesn’t have enough trainees ready to fill all the positions that potential employers are willing to offer.

The nonprofit offers free six-month training courses to Moroccan women age 18 to 35 from disadvantaged backgrounds. It provides them with professional skills in culinary arts  (traditional Moroccan and international cuisine) and business management. Theory meets practice during the classes, since everything takes place at the association’s restaurant, which is open to the public. The trainees run the kitchen, wait tables, take care of maintenance and manage the accounts and budget. Making a thorough commitment to the restaurant is essential to obtaining a diploma. The women must also regularly attend classes in hygiene, customer service, safety, and languages such as English and French.

Photo courtesy of L’Economiste

The restaurant has found a place in the hearts of local Marrakshi, who are keen to savor the excellent family cuisine while supporting these women on the path to financial independence. Each day, a choice of two dishes is written up on a slate, along with traditional couscous on Fridays. The restaurant welcomes around 100 customers for lunch and dinner.

The program recently received accreditation from the Hotel Industry Association (AIH) in Marrakesh, which is responsible for auditing hotels in Morocco and giving them star ratings. Currently 26 women are undergoing training.

La table de l’Association connaît du succès auprès des marrakchis qui s’y bousculent pour sa très bonne cuisine familiale et pour soutenir le chemin de ces femmes vers leur indépendance. Chaque jour, avec deux.

Since the launch of the association and restaurant in 2013, around 200 women have attended the courses, and most of themhave found employment through Amal’s network of partners in Marrakesh’s high-end eateries. Six of the graduates preferred to become their own bosses: one of the women is setting up a snack bar and five others have opened a bakery together.

Both businesses were funded thanks to the generous support of Nora Belahcen Fitzgerald, the founder of Amal. In 2015, Belahcen Fitzgerald received 25,000 euros (USD 29,914) from the Orange Foundation’s Women for Change prize in France. Born in Morocco to American parents, she realized that her situation was relatively comfortable,and she wanted to share some of her good fortune with women in need.

Opening this community restaurant has been her way of fighting the economic insecurity faced by women in Morocco, who are disproportionately affected by unemployment (14.7 percent compared to 8.8 percent for men). All of the restaurant’s profits go toward the association’s expenses. “I never imagined it would be such a success,” Belahcen Fitzgerald said. “Our aspirations were quite humble at the start.” Her project was able to grow with financial support from the Swiss foundation Drosos, without which “it would have taken longer to get to where we are today,” she said.

L’association Amal pour les arts culinaires à Marrakech permet aux femmes, qui n’avaient jusque là aucun revenu, d’apprendre le métier et de le mettre en pratique dans leur propre restaurant – Association Amal

Today, Amal is part of the fabric of Marrakesh life. Word of mouth travels fast between those who have been trained and found employment and women in need who would like to do the same. Some of the beneficiaries find Amal through its partner associations, such as Kafalat El Yatim, which takes in orphans, and El Amane, a shelter for single mothers and women who face domestic violence. This year, two of the trainees are deaf, so everyone on staff has learned sign language to accommodate them.

In 2016, the association opened a café, also in Marrakesh, which is run entirely by deaf women. A visual menu that works like a board game,with counters, enables the staff and clients to communicate. Among Amal’s beneficiaries there is also Khaoula, who has Down syndrome and works wonders as part of the wait staff. “We want to welcome women from a diverse range of backgrounds, so that no one is stigmatized,”Belahcen Fitzgerald explained.

Her association is becoming a hub of ideas for new projects. Amal’s latest initiative is the publication of a personalized recipe book, in which 21 women offer 21 recipes, each one accompanied by her life story. “Above all, what stands out for me is the joy of these women, who – with their small salary in pocket – manage to take care of themselves and their whole families,”Belahcen Fitzgerald said. She is currently putting all her energies into overcoming the technical and financial obstacles that make it difficult to create a micro company.“Amal version 2.0 will be a structure that mentors women and supports them on the path to entrepreneurship, in the form of community business development,” she said.

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