How was your study abroad experience? My friends and relatives have continuously asked me this after my 4-month expedition to Morocco to study Arabic and migration in the region. This is a loaded question, and I have, in many instances, struggled to answer it precisely. My study abroad experience was filled with every emotion under the sun: extreme joy, shock, frustration, anger, gratitude, anxiety, and love, to name a few.
For some time, I was upset that my experience was not the all-consuming happiness and joy I had always heard when people referred to their study abroad semesters. But, what I had heard, and what many hear, is unrealistic. If an international experience is going to be truly valuable, you must be open to the positive and negative experiences you may have in order to benefit fully from the lessons it can teach you.
When I traveled to Morocco in February of 2022, I was filled with anticipation, anxiety, and excitement for what my next four months would entail, all the people I would meet, and the lessons I would learn.
I started my journey in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. On my very first night there, I learned an important characteristic of Moroccans, one that I would continuously be reminded of throughout my time in Morocco. I was first introduced to the genuine, incomparable kindness of Moroccans when I was walking down the street and locked eyes with a Moroccan who shouted from a distance, “You speak English, you are welcome in Morocco!” This interaction was preceded by the hotel front desk worker giving out flowers to my friends and me on our first night after we casually commented they were pretty. I was unaware that these interactions would become common in my daily life while living in Rabat.
A huge component of my program in Morocco was the homestay aspect. I was most excited about this part of the program and had imagined how I would meet my new family for months before arriving. However, the nerves and all of the “what if’s” circling in my head took precedence over the excitement. What if they didn’t like me? What if we couldn’t communicate because of the language barrier? What if I felt uncomfortable with them?
I had three sisters, a mother, and a father in my new family. My sisters were all around my age, but only one spoke English fluently. My mother spoke some French and Spanish, and everyone else only spoke Arabic. I remember feeling angry at my academic directors for putting me with a family where only one person spoke English.
What would I do if my sister, who knew English, wasn’t there? How would I communicate with the rest of my family?
I thought it would be impossible. But, it taught me an important lesson, one that I was not aware I would learn at all. Communication is so much more than language. It is touch, it is eye contact, it is a feeling you get when being around someone. Although I learned a good deal of Arabic, and it aided me in communicating with my family, I primarily communicated with them non-verbally.
This was a lesson I probably would not have learned if I had studied in Europe. In Morocco, I was literally forced to learn this lesson in order to communicate with the people I had grown closest with, my host family.
I remember being able to look at my host sister and know exactly what she was thinking. She would constantly use physical touch to communicate her love to me, and I would do the same in return. There was something extremely special about these relationships with my family, something I can not even find the words for, but am eternally grateful I had the opportunity to experience.
Another lesson I learned, and one of utmost importance in getting the most out of my homestay experience, was the value of vulnerability. I learned that there is an unwavering vulnerability a person must have when immersing themselves wholeheartedly into a new culture completely unlike their own. In order to truly get to know a different way of life and the people in it, you have to let go of everything you think you know about yourself and the world and open up. It sounds a bit cliche, but it is so important if you really want to get the most out of your experience. Try EVERYTHING, even the food that makes your spine curl, ask questions, even if you think they are stupid, and most importantly, be present.
There were many aspects of my overall experience in Morocco that did not go according to plan, but meeting my host family and the relationship I had with them exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds.
It was in Rabat where I became aware, first-hand, of the difference in the treatment of women in Morocco compared to the United States. I had been told that catcalling would be something I would have to become accustomed to, and that it was just a part of life where I was choosing to study abroad. However, I was not fully prepared for what I would experience.
When I left my home in Rabat, I left the shelter and protection that came along with it. In the street, I became an object, an object that was constantly being watched and objectified by most men I walked by. Although I was never physically threatened, I was slowly beaten down by words and began to believe, a little more each day, that my worth was determined by the comments men shouted at me.
It sounds backward, right? I consider myself confident with who I am and at peace with my inner self. But somehow, after hearing comments about my appearance shouted by every man and their son on the street, I slowly began to believe that I was, like they had been saying, just my appearance.
Going to Morocco, I never really believed this was something I would have to deal with. I expected my journey to be largely positive and uplifting, filled with memories of joy and excitement rather than exhaustion and frustration. But, because of this, I dealt with extreme anxiety that I had never experienced before.
The true lesson I learned from this had nothing to do with me or how I dealt with this anxiety but everything to do with Morocco itself and the gender norms present in this country.
The feeling of anxiety I got when walking down the street, being sexualized by men who I had never met before, was a norm in this country. My host sisters had grown up not knowing anything different. I speak from a privileged, white perspective and know that this street harassment is multiplied tenfold in severity for Black women. Black women in Morocco are subject to harsh harassment. They are often assumed to be sex workers just because of the color of their skin. As a white woman in Morocco, I did not experience anywhere near the same amount of harassment. Nevertheless, it is the norm.
How could something so culturally entrenched in a society ever be changed? Would my host sisters grow up and have daughters who were subject to this same kind of treatment?
I had learned about gender norms in multiple classes before coming to Morocco. I learned about countries signing agreements like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (which Morocco signed) and, in theory, how to diffuse more democratic, gender-equal norms in countries that are currently patriarchal. But what does this actually mean in the context of my experience in Morocco?
Although I still don’t have an answer to this question, it taught me an important lesson that I would learn in the context of studying migration as well. I, along with other Westerners, can not go into a country like Morocco and simply change these norms. Although many Westerners and western organizations may like to think they can, this is not how it works. The ability to change norms is done by community building, organizing, and true change coming from the people themselves. I learned that Westerners hold no secret ideas, weapons, or skill sets that make them any more valuable in helping women gain rights around the world. This experience gave me a glimpse of my positionality as a white, educated woman from the United States criticizing the treatment of women in a country that is not my own.
Where does that leave me? I struggled for a bit with how to process this new lesson I had learned, one that at first caused me massive anxiety. But, it helped me gain a new perspective, reshaped my views on gender norms, and gave me a new appreciation for my ability to speak up for myself in the United States. It has given me a newfound motivation to use my voice in the US whenever necessary, as my host sisters, in many situations, aren’t able to use theirs when faced with harassment and catcalling.
This lesson has given me a perspective on global human rights issues, one that, before I came to Morocco, was privileged and in essence, perpetuating white saviorism ideals. I would soon realize I was perpetuating these ideals in my rhetoric when studying migration too.
After 6 weeks spent in Rabat, I had the opportunity to do research or to partake in an internship of my choice, using the vast connections and resources SIT (my program provider) had throughout the country. I chose to intern at Diocese Delegation Migration (DDM), an organization funded in part by the Catholic Church that provides basic services to migrants, specifically Sub-Saharan migrants. The organization is located in the strategic position of Tangier. Tangier, right across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, is a large crossing point for migrants, as you can reach Spain on a speedboat from the Tangier shoreline in around 12 minutes. This is an extremely dangerous route but, in many cases, the only option that migrants have in hopes of securing a safe, meaningful life for themselves and their families.
I had the opportunity to work with Moroccan staff at DDM, as well as staff members from all over Sub-Saharan Africa. I taught English to the staff after the workday was over and assisted staff in providing services to migrants during the day.
I learned more about the world and migration at DDM in four and a half weeks than I had learned in my entire college career.
At DDM, I became aware of how Moroccans view themselves in terms of their positionality on the continent of Africa and the world. They view themselves not as Africans but as Arabs. They dissociate entirely from the continent of Africa and consider it a foreign land. My host sister once asked me if I had thought all Moroccans would be Black, like the rest of Africa. And Moroccan guest lecturers, professors, and others I conversed with constantly referred to migrants as “Africans” coming to Morocco.
I was deeply confused by this at first. How could you dissociate so much from your own continent? But then I realized that this is not dissimilar to the way Americans see their Southern counterparts. Latin Americans are not treated with a sense of comradery and community by citizens of the U.S. because we are all living on the same continent, but instead are villainized, dehumanized, and made out to be different from us, “Americans.”
This sentiment is deeply ingrained in the rhetoric surrounding migration in Morocco and informs the way migrants from all over Sub-Saharan Africa are treated.
Although I was not able to speak with many migrants coming in for services at DDM because of the language barrier (most of them spoke French along with their native language), I was able to converse with Nigerian migrants, who spoke English, and some Cameroonian migrants as well.
These migrants would often tell me about the discrimination they faced as a Black person in Morocco, and some went as far as to say that they wished they could return to their home country because it was too difficult for them to handle.
Specifically, one man from Nigeria made a lasting impression on me. I accompanied him and his son to a doctor’s appointment, and he opened up to me about his life and how horribly he had been treated in Morocco. He experienced this treatment not only as a Black man but also as an English speaker who does not know any French or Arabic (almost all Moroccans speak French, as it is a former French colony).
I was used to English being a colonizer’s language and a language of power. But, in this context, it was just the opposite. English excluded him from fully integrating with other migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and made it difficult for him to receive services in Morocco.
He told me that he had not had a conversation with anyone (outside of his family) in 4 weeks before speaking to me because no one around him spoke English.
He told me about the shame he feels, waking up every morning and begging on the street for money. This is his only source of income to provide for his family. But, he said, it was worth it to be in Morocco because, “If I make it to Europe someday, I have fulfilled my job for my children.”
This sentiment was shared among a large number of migrants I interacted with. After going through unimaginable hardships in their home countries, and making the journey to Morocco, the promise of what Europe can provide for them is their only hope.
I learned so much from speaking with migrants at DDM and am so thankful for the relationships I was able to build with them.
At DDM, a majority of the staff are migrants themselves. There were staff members from the Congo, Senegal, Madagascar, and Cameroon. While teaching the staff members English, I grew extremely close with them and was able to learn about their background and their cultures as if I was visiting these countries myself. I was able to attend a Senegalese religious celebration and eat Senegalese food, and my coworker from the Congo showed me videos of traditional Congolese dancing.
These conversations and relationships opened up my eyes to the diversity of cultures there are on the African continent.
Overall, the most important and impactful lesson I learned in Morocco was about my privilege and positionality as a white American studying migration.
I grew to understand the power of the American passport. I had no idea the privilege I held with just a tiny, navy-blue booklet. Americans virtually have the power and discretion to travel anywhere in the world, whenever they please, for however long they wish to.
This is something that can not be said about most other countries. My DDM coworker from Sub-Saharan Africa has been living in Morocco for over 15 years. He has never left the African continent and has been applying for a tourist visa to visit Spain (just 9 miles away) for years. He told me he worries he will die never having left the continent of Africa. He dreams of being able to travel around the world and experience new cultures but is currently unable to do so just because of the country he was born in.
He is by no means less than me or any other American with the power to travel freely. But, in the eyes of the law, he most certainly is.
How can this be, and how had I gone my entire life, even while studying international human rights, without considering this?
What gave me the right to intern at DDM without knowing the primary language of communication (French) and never having to know or confront any of the struggles these people are facing every day? I slowly realized I will never be in the same position as the people requesting services at DDM because of the immense privilege I hold. Even learning about all these different cultures and having the opportunity to write about them, is a privileged act in and of itself.
Before I studied in Morocco, my plan within my program was to come back to the US and tell the stories of the migrants who are often silenced and victimized. But what I realized is: that these are not my stories to tell.
Stories of migration should be told by those experiencing and living it. My role is not to tell the stories but to help amplify migrants’ voices and implement change in whatever way I can, using the direction of migrants themselves.
Before my experience at DDM, my aspirations in the context of migration were rooted in white saviorism and American exceptionalism. I thought, somehow, I was in a superior position to these migrants and could help them without ever going through, firsthand, the daily struggles they face. As a Westerner, I thought I held special power to go to Morocco and “help.”
I was taught these messages through the media I have been consuming since I was a child. I learned that Americans and the western world are more developed and, therefore, better equipped to help those in need, which clearly is not factual.
Being in Morocco taught me that I was perpetuating these beliefs in my thought processes and in my aspirations to “help.”
Morocco taught me a lot of things, but this was by far the most important lesson I learned. A lesson that will guide me and impact all avenues of my life going forward.
(Thank you to everyone at DDM, the SIT staff, and the SDSU Global education office for giving me the opportunity to have such a transformational experience. I will carry the memories and lessons I learned in Morocco with me for the rest of my life.)