In 2006, Moroccan-American Nora Belachen Fitzgerald encountered a woman begging on the street, earning approximately US$2 a day to feed herself and her two small children. The woman’s heartbreaking story inspired Nora to take action and make a difference, as did the Association Solidarité Féminine based in Casablanca. She set out on a mission to improve the lives of women from disadvantaged backgrounds, including single mothers, orphans, child maids, and those who have limited access to education.
In 2012, Nora founded the non-profit Amal Women’s Training Centre with a group of friends. In 2013, she crowdfunded enough money to buy kitchen equipment and to ensure the centre’s catering facilities were up to code. Shortly after, she was awarded a three-year grant by the Drosos Foundation, before receiving further crowdfunded donations, plus a €25,000 award from the Orange Foundation to help the centre’s graduates set up their own micro businesses.
The Amal Centre has grown hugely in the last five years. What began as the baking and selling of pastries from her family’s language centre became a fully structured, fully staffed restaurant and training scheme. Currently, up to 40 women each year are given the opportunity to spend six months learning cooking and restaurant management skills (while earning a living wage) before finding employment in a relevant field. In addition to vocational skills, the ladies are trained in transferable life practices, such as personal health, languages, and conflict resolution. The Amal Centre has also partnered with local businesses and professionals to deliver additional special classes to the students, such as horseback riding, reiki, art therapy, cake decorating, and yoga.
The training programme has helped women like Zineb find the skills and confidence to achieve a better quality of life. Zineb was sent away by her father to work as a child maid at the age of six. After running away to escape abuse from her employees, she became homeless on the streets of Morocco, surviving only through odd jobs. After the birth of her daughter, an organisation supporting single mothers in Marrakech recommended her to the Amal Centre. Now she has a stable job at a riad and is able to independently provide a better life for herself and her baby.
The trained chefs plate up an ever-changing menu comprising both traditional Moroccan and international delicacies, from the iconic tagine to gazpacho. The Amal Centre is open seven days a week, operating with three key principles placed firmly at the heart of the entire organisation: faith, community, and love. Plus, the ladies are paying it forward, delivering cooking classes to members of the public in Arabic, French, English, and Spanish. Amal may be Arabic for ‘hope’, but the centre continues to empower women with the essential life skills to transform their hopes of social stability and economic independence into a reality.