Photo caption: Moroccan girls attend literacy lessons to learn how to read and write in Temara, near Rabat, May 30 2007. (Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
MARRAKESH, Morocco — Nestled in the heart of a field of olive trees a few miles south of Marrakesh is a small pink school full of chattering and giggling girls.
These young female students of all ages come from nearby villages, sit in classrooms, sewing, making patterns and reciting dialogues in French.
At the Riad Zitoune School, founded by a Moroccan philanthropist more than a decade ago, the program is not just about teaching rural girls to read and write, it is about giving them a fighting chance at independence.
“Our goal is for them to learn a skill, become financially independent so they can do whatever they want,” said Zhour Sebti, the founder. “Many of them continue studying or move to the city and find work.”
Fifty years ago, Zhour Sebti created the Tahar Sebti Foundation to fight illiteracy in Morocco, where more than 40 percent of the population still cannot read, according to UNESCO figures. In rural parts of the country, the challenges are greater. Boys are sent to school but girls are often kept home to help out with daily chores and raise their siblings.
In 1998, Sebti took on a new challenge: She reached out to these girls and started the school which offers a three-year program which teaches them to read, write and, most of all, learn train skills such as sewing and pattern-making so they can become financially independent.
When the school started 12 years ago, 40 girls enrolled. Today, there are more than 100. Some of these students, who were too old to attend state school, sit next to their younger classmates and learn how to read. A bus offered by another nonprofit organization, the Mohamed V Foundation, picks up girls every day from their villages and brings them to class.
Still, it isn’t enough.
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“We go around the villages and explain to families that it is vital for their daughters to go to school,” said Saadia El Hazmiri, the school's general manager. “Unfortunately, we haven't even reached our full capacity. I dream of the day when I can say we can't accept any more students but for now, many girls are sent to work in factories or to collect olives for $2 a day instead of going to school.”
According to El Hazmiri, the biggest obstacle is parents who genuinely believe there is no reason to educate their daughters.
The Riad Zitoune School is built on two levels and is full of plants. Its classrooms have blackboards, sometimes sewing machines and recently, they have added a computer room. After the students learn to read, the school provides French lessons — a class the students seem to enjoy.
In one classroom, the students are reciting dialogues in French. It is one of their happiest moments of the day: They laugh, help each other and loudly recite sentences in a language they never thought they would one day be able to speak.
The school hopes to add more courses, including culinary classes.
Sebti, the widow of one of Morocco's most illustrious army figures, Gen. Driss Ben Omar, built the school on her estate in the region of L'Ourika. She lives about a mile away in a house overlooking fields of olive trees. When she is not gardening or hosting potential donors, she visits the girls during school hours and also teaches the students embroidery, a craft she has a particular passion for.
“I remember when I was really young, weeks before my wedding, they were preparing my trousseau and I was in awe of all the beautiful fabrics and patterns,” she recalls as she demonstrates the skill to a 10-year-old student. “Since then, embroidery has been one of my greatest passions.”
Sebti proudly said that the institution has saved many girls from having to marry at a young age and thereby miss their chance at an education. Regardless, her greatest wish is that these girls will become independent women who will also fight ignorance and by doing so will help break Morocco's illiteracy cycle.