by Rachel Berets
MARRAKESH, MOROCCO—While her own newborn baby slept soundly inside, Nora Fitzgerald found a baby girl, wrapped only in a blanket, abandoned on her doorstep. She brought the baby inside and called the authorities, who took the child away a few hours later. But the next day, Fitzgerald wondered if she had made the right decision. “What if I was supposed to take her?” she asked herself.
“I spent the next day looking in all the orphanages and I couldn’t find her,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know what happened to her, I just prayed that she was OK.”
This innate sense of personal responsibility would ultimately lead Fitzgerald to found Amal, a nonprofit restaurant that teaches single mothers and other disadvantaged women practical skills so they can find jobs and provide for themselves, their children and their families.
The women, many of whom find out about Amal through a local shelter, come to Amal as part of a four-month program. They learn to cook Moroccan and international cuisine and wait tables in a restaurant environment. They also have the opportunity to take language classes and to learn professional skills. After the participants complete the program, they often get jobs in restaurants, hotels or riads—traditional Moroccan homes that serve as hotels.
According to the United States Agency for International Development, women in Morocco make up 23 percent of the labor force and 51 percent of the population. Single mothers in Morocco, especially those without formal skills or education, endure such harsh financial and societal conditions that some choose to abandon their children. Amal’s mission is to instill single mothers and other disadvantaged women with the skills and confidence needed to succeed in a work environment.
Fitzgerald was born in Salé to two American parents and moved to Marrakesh at the age of 4. She went to public school in Marrakesh and visited family in the United States every other summer.
She long had a foot in each world but felt mystified by the excess she saw in the United States. “My grandmother had an extra fridge and freezer in her garage just for ice cream and soda,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald left Morocco to study in the US during her university years but moved back to Marrakesh with her husband soon after receiving a degree in applied mathematics from the University of New Mexico.
She found herself empathetic to single mothers when she became a mother herself. Fitzgerald wanted to support these women, many of whom face the social stigma of raising a child as a single or divorced mother. Many also endure financial hardship in a society where men are expected to be the breadwinners.
“I had this soft spot for single mothers because they carry so many compounded burdens,” Fitzgerald said. In Morocco, “you either adhere to the traditional worldview, or there is not a lot of space that supports you.”
On her blog—which dates back to 2010 and now has over 400,000 hits—she started writing about chance encounters she had with women on the street in Marrakesh and the bonds she formed with them. Soon enough, her readers responded.
“People would write back and say, ‘I want to support these women,’” Fitzgerald said. With her readers’ encouragement and financial support, Fitzgerald started giving these women small stipends, about $100 or $150 per month.
She continued writing, fielding donations and distributing stipends for the next five years but afterwards felt “emotionally exhausted” and knew she had to do something more concrete, more tangible to help these women.
“I felt like I’d really done nothing. I’d assuaged my own guilt about having privilege and resources,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald knew of a nonprofit in Casablanca, the Women’s Solidarity Association, run by a Moroccan woman named Aisha Shinna. The organization had a restaurant where it trained women to cook and in turn paid for itself.
Fitzgerald recalled telling her sister, “I wish someone would open something like [the Women’s Solidarity Association] in Marrakesh.”
Her sister looked at Fitzgerald and told her, “It’s going to have to be you.”
Fitzgerald wasn’t as sure as her sister. “I don’t think I had any sense of my own power,” she said. “It was scary, to make that mental leap, instead of sitting around wishing somebody would do something.”
Fitzgerald started small, teaching one or two Moroccan women at a time how to bake American-style brownies and lemon bars. They then sold these sweets to the children attending her husband’s language school.
After a year of training people informally, she decided to start looking for a small space so she could expand the number of participants. She rented the bottom floor of a small villa, registered as a nonprofit and launched Amal with the help of friends who supported the project financially.
She makes sure to acknowledge the part that her so-called “friends with money” played in opening Amal, as to not give herself undue credit. “I don’t want it to be ‘from nothing I built this,’” Fitzgerald said. “I am aware of all of the things that made this possible.”
Six months after launching Amal, Fitzgerald received a grant that enabled her to hire staff, buy equipment and hit the ground running.
These days Amal trains about 20 women at a time. The original restaurant has become a popular tourist destination in Marrakesh. Amal opened another location devoted to catering and has recently started accepting deaf students to work at a small cafe. Many participants in Amal, some of whom were previously homeless, now hold stable jobs at riads and are able to support themselves and their families.
In the coming years, Fitzgerald hopes to create an “Amal Dream Fund,” a million-dollar fund that would provide interest-free loans or small seed grants to Amal graduates who want to start their own businesses.
Even though Amal has grown beyond what Fitzgerald originally imagined, she still remains committed to the details.
“I always tell the staff, make sure that the women are the subject of the verb and not the object. It’s not ‘Amal empowers women’; it’s ‘Women change their lives at Amal,’” Fitzgerald said. “They are the ones doing it.”
Photo by Abderrahim Bouglas