2019 Spring Amideast External Programs Gwen Jensen

…The Games Might Stop…

Throughout the course of my semester abroad, I have had the opportunity to volunteer at Fondacion Orient-Occident (FOO). Along with my fellow 'FOO Fighters' I have had the priviledge of working with and learning from the refugees and migrants and local Moroccans which come to our english classes a week. My time at FOO has been one of the most transformative aspects of my semester abroad, but also one of the most challenging. I am so thankful for my time at FOO and the students that have turned into friends.

“Safi safi!” Enough enough! I tell my taxi driver, tossing the crumpled bill as I slide out of the still moving taxi. It’s been a learning curve, but after making this trip twice a week for the past three four months, I’ve finally got the hang of it. I scurry across the picturesque blanket of green grass, smiling at the array of Moroccans soaking in the afternoon sun, as I approach the tall iron gates, nestled among the towering green shrubs that hide the massive clay dome. Inside the shrubbery-walls, I wander up the winding brick walkway, into the massive clay enclave; it takes me at least five minutes to make the short trip into the building, as I stop several times along the way. “Salaam! Bikhar?” I greet the other interns, from the local Moroccan university. “Hello! How was your week?” I chat with my migrant students. “Ohhh and hello!” I coo to the baby gnawing at my knuckle. The faces of the people are always changing, but despite the never ending in and out and greetings and goodbyes as I make my way to my classroom, one thing remains the same: the eagerness to stop along the way and converse.

It is strange now to reminisce to my first time wandering up this now familiar walkway: frazzled from the taxi ride, and running late for my first day, I hurried up the concrete and into the classroom, not giving the people that occupy it a second glance; I was still caught up in my East-Coast American hustle-and-bustle. After the thirty-second scramble up the walkway and into my classroom, I was surprised to see an unfamiliar woman standing alongside my American classmate, who had been assigned as my co-teacher for the semester. The woman introduced herself, a student from Denmark, and explained “we usually play games, to keep things light.” She nervously glanced at the broad-shouldered future Army officer towering beside her and sheepishly giggled, “…the games might stop…”

Words of the day: Cloud. Sun. Rain. Sno… how could I blame my students for nodding off, when I myself could barely keep my eyes open in the dim concrete cave where the evening’s class consisted of games to learn words I was sure we all already knew.

Today: three months, thirty class sessions, and a few games later, I sit with my students friends, mesmerized by the stories of a the hijabi women, broadcasted in a Ted Talk on the projector at the head of the classroom. The games did stop, swapped out for Ted Talks and news clips and the occasional debate.

Words of the day: Slur. Hate Crime. 9/11. Xenophobia. Gender violence. Queer…

The eventual realization, after our Danish friend became another goodbye- an all too familiar occurrence at the fondacion- that if we were bored with the games, our students were too, left my co-teacher and I in a short tailspin of dismay.

How exactly do you keep it lighthearted with such a vulnerable group: migrants and refugees? Were we really doomed to explain clouds and weather to ‘students’ twice our age, students that had been doctors, and engineers, and scientists, and teachers, and poets…for an entire semester?

I can’t imagine what they have been through…

But once one spends enough time at the fondacion, one need not imagine: the stories overflowed and classes turned into stories and silence and shock and support from classmates and teachers that turned into friends.

There are days I descend the brick walkway feeling utterly drained, when my little blue taxi ride home seems like endless conversations away: exhaustion not only from the struggles of teaching, and explaining, and fidgeting with printers that are somehow always out of ink, or speakers that must be prodded and twisted and popped just right to work…until a wire comes undone… but also from the stories and the willingness to share and the eagerness to learn and the utter hopelessness I sometimes feel to help.

“How was your weekend, Sir?” a friend asks me one Monday after class.

“It was great! I went to Spain.” I smile, remembering my weekend of relaxation, shopping, and exploring, only a short ferry-ride away.

He chuckles. “You are very lucky teacher, I wish I could go to Spain.”

My face falls, and I remember my friends and I standing in the hanging salty air of the Northern Morocco port ready to board our ferry to Spain. Suddenly, a dog’s barking slices through the buzz of conversation. The crowd of people tightens and closes around a massive tour bus, waiting in the line of cars to board our ferry. A police dog circles the base of the bus barking into the now silent air while several police officers rush over. After several minutes the silence is broken by a group gasp, as a man descends from underneath the bus. His skin and clothes are blotched with grease and dirt stains as he walks off the port, the bus rolls to the underbelly of the boat to Spain. This is the memory was easy enough to forget, as I easily boarded the ferry, passport in hand, for a less than 48 hour whirlwind trip to Southern Spain.

My time at the fondacion has opened my eyes to the realities of life in a transit nation, the resiliency of humans, and the willingness to open up to, trust, and even befriend a random American (i.e.: me) who in a few weeks will be another goodbye hug on the brick walkway that snakes into the bulging clay dome. The dome which has given me moments of shared laughter between stories, and the indescribable moments when that one word, that one indescribable word, suddenly becomes describable.

I hope my friends at the fondacion have learned a lot in the past four months about commas, and conjunctions, and the present tense irregulars, but I know that I have learned far more from their willingness to share, their curiosity, their frustrations, and every moment between.

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