I’d read about Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, the founder of the Amal Association (Amal means ‘hope’ in Arabic), and the incredible work they were doing. Having helped and trained over three hundred women, I was eager to find out more. When I sat down with Abla, Amal’s communications manager and she unfolded its heartfelt story, I was completely in awe of everything she told me! I feel honoured that we’ll be spending a morning with Amal on our Moroccan trip at the end of the year.
For those who don’t know, Amal is a cooking school focused on uplifting women from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. They train women struggling to earn a living to support themselves and their children, and equip them with life-altering job and life skills. In this interview, we go deeper into Amal’s story of turning compassion into a non-profit that swept Morocco off its feet… and how they are surviving, innovating and continuing to serve the community during Covid.
Amal opened in 2012, but was there a defining moment for Nora to open the cooking school and restaurant?
Yes, you are right! Amal’s official launch was in 2012 but the story started much earlier, in 2006 when Nora met a single mum while shopping in the souk. In Morocco, it’s extremely hard for a single mum or a divorced woman to survive. They deal with a lot of prejudice and shame – not just from their community but also from their family who abandoned them and leave them to fend for themselves. The woman Nora met took any job she could find to feed her child – from cleaning and washing clothes and floors to chopping and preparing food. Nora was inspired by this woman’s strength, she didn’t give up or complain, she carried on everyday despite the constant rejection, the long hours, and the lack of support.
Nora felt something deep within herself and wanted to find a way to help. Almost at the same time, Nora’s friend told her about a woman in a similar situation. Knowing many women in Morocco were suffering, Nora was desperate to find a solution. This was the catalyst to starting Amal… to find a solution to help these women reclaim their dignity, independence, and to be able to live a self-sufficient life with a decent wage.
Nora had an idea about how to help and spoke to her father who owned a language school for American students, which also happened to have a small cafeteria. He told Nora she could use the cafe and see if her idea would work. So, Nora employed these two ladies, took them to the cafe and taught them how to bake cookies, brownies, cheesecake, and other typical American desserts – recipes these women had never tasted or even heard of before! They were an instant success and in no time their cheesecakes became the talk of the school.
In Moroccan culture, cooking and food is considered a gift and goes beyond the right ingredients and correct measurements. It’s more about the magic in your hands and the love from your soul that creates the end result.
Seeing the popularity of these women at the cafe, Nora realised she needed to look beyond the cafeteria and invest not just in these 2 women, but for the many disadvantaged women who were in the same position. She started looking for her own premises, a place where she could launch a small independent restaurant. It took time and love to find the right place until one day she heard of a doctor’s surgery available for rent. As soon as she stepped inside, she knew this was perfect. There was something about the energy that felt right, even though it wasn’t by any means set up for what she had in mind. It’s actually where we still have one of our restaurants today.
I do believe the right things come to you at the right time! So, it sounds like there was a bit of renovation project needed?
Yes indeed! She signed the lease for four years with no secured funding but had a huge amount of will and vision. Nora was really lucky – she had a lot of help from family, friends and also strangers who heard of the concept and wanted to support. The project started with these two women and another five women in desperate situations. With renovations underway, these seven women would cook traditional Moroccan dishes to sell to the public which in return paid for the next day’s ingredients, food to feed these women and their children, and also a wage so these women could start to gain independence and feel part of society again.
After the first year, a Swiss organisation heard about the work Nora was doing and wanted to know how they could help. Nora’s vision had expanded, and she desperately wanted something more structured. She knew for that to happen, she did need financial backing. Cooking meals on a daily basis was a good foundation, but Nora thought if she could introduce a six month long culinary training programme, she would be able to help more disadvantaged women. The idea was to include Moroccan and International cuisine, a pastry service, food preparation and culinary etiquette as well as finding the women a place to work when they finished. Self-development and confidence were a top priority, especially as most of these women had not had it easy. Our slogan is ‘We Empower Women’ but what we are really doing is helping women to address how powerful and strong they are.
In 2013, with the help of this organisation, we were able to remodel the restaurant to include the school, and within three years our restaurant ranked one of the top three restaurants to eat in on TripAdvisor. In fact, for two years it was at the top. It was such an amazing achievement which also clarified to Nora there was room for further expansion. Three years later, with extra funding from the Swiss company, we opened our second restaurant. This concept was slightly different. With so many tourists interested to know more about the school, wanting to help and wanting to eat in the restaurant, we realised there was a growing demand to organise cooking classes where they could not only experience how to make authentic Moroccan cuisine, but also enjoy eating it, chat to the cooks and women on the programme and be part of the bigger picture to help.
Once we got this seconding funding, we were able to provide a catering service for the local schools. We now work with schools preparing lunch boxes for students from kindergarten to junior high school, and before covid, we had also introduced a vegetarian buffet every Saturday as we were close to a weekly cultural market.
How do you choose the women to for the culinary training, is there a specific criteria and selection process?
Every six months we receive between fifteen and twenty young women between the ages of eighteen and thirty five. In the beginning, when Nora wasn’t well-known, we went to other NGOs to find women, but now we receive applications from women all over Morocco who want to benefit from the programme. Firstly, even before an interview, we need to see papers to justify their family situation. In the interview stage, a huge emphasis is based on the woman’s motivation and their financial circumstances. Even though she may not be living in a good situation, if she doesn’t show that she wants to change, have a different life and is eager to learn, we cannot help her. This is the most difficult part of helping others is when we try to help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves, so we have these two criteria to select the right applicants. Motivation and financial situations are a key because the training is free. We provide money to help with their rent and give them bus card. All of the daily tips in the restaurant are divided equally between the chefs, the waitresses, and the rest of the kitchen staff, which helps these women considerably.
I can’t imagine how hard this past year has been for Morrocco and Amal, how has this affected the women in your programmes?
It’s been now a year since we have closed, but we actually started a campaign to reach out to 1000 families that needed help and presented them with the food baskets. We ended up being able to help more than 20,200 families. We also were able to distribute more than eight 818,000 sandwiches for people in need. When people can’t work it’s awful to see them suffer and heartbreaking to see women we have trained (many used to have jobs that we even helped them find) contact us to receive the baskets. These are proud women who never asked for help from anyone, and now they found themselves in a situation where they had to ask for food. It’s so hard to see, especially when you know their situation and have a personal connection with them.
What are your plans for the future. Do you see yourself branching out to other countries?
We prefer to inspire people to do same kind of projects in their own country and to help anyone who’s facing a difficult time, be it a woman who is responsible for a child, or just a person who needs help. It heartbreaking to see how people have suffered this last year, and small gestures can make a huge difference to someone else’s life.
We are looking forward to receiving tourists again, especially as we know many people want to support us. Opening our school and restaurant is definitely a priority, and collaborating with companies such as yours is always really positive for the growth of Amal.
We’ll be visiting Amal on our upcoming Morocco adventure. Learn more about joining the trip!