Laura Vang '15
Student Director for Conversations That Matter
Hometown: Memphis, TNRead the full interview
Looking back, I don't really remember why I wanted to venture to Morocco for three months. I think I was mainly intrigued about what it was like to be a Christian in the most non-Christian culture I could think of. Maybe I was running away from Dartmouth and its implementation of tests and grades on defining my life. Prior to this summer, I reached a point where I was just uncomfortable with being comfortable. What better way to destroy your comfort zone than to go to Africa? That should be enough to blow through all my expectations and understandings, right? When I left, I was up for a challenge, but what really marked my experience were the relationships I developed, and the blessing of observing Christ at work in a non-Americanized environment.
After 14 hours of plain flights, 6 hours of trains and 2 hours in a taxi, we finally arrived at our destination. Driving up the winding road from Ain Leuh, a small town in the Middle Atlas Mountains, the Village of Hope looks like a small summer camp, with an orchard, two family houses, a playschool, and bunkhouse for workers like myself. The first decipherable noises upon entering the VOH grounds were the screaming and laughing of young children.
I traveled to Morocco with 5 other individuals from the Hanover/Dartmouth area. One of the men in our group is a Dartmouth graduate from the '03 class, the other gentleman is a fellow '04, and the three other ladies, all around the ages of 21-23, are high school graduates who work in the Upper Valley and attend a church near Dartmouth's campus. Our group was made up of individuals with different educational backgrounds, economic classes, and social understandings. These differences proved to be a challenge from the start.
From the second we got to the airport, there was a strong tension between the "leader" of our group and one of the other girls. Although they were able to bite their tongues and make it through the long day of traveling without too much confrontation, the situation did not make three months together look good. I will never forget the first few minuets I spent at the VOH. I sat down on the piece of foam that was to be my mattress for the summer, stared at the hairy spider the size of my fist crawling up the wall beside me, and cried. All the reasoning leading up to my decision to come on this trip was extremely fuzzy. At once, I could only see the challenges. Three months of challenges in front of me.
Our first morning at the VOH we were "oriented" to our cultural, spiritual, and physical surroundings. Graham Jones, the director at VOH, showed us around the grounds. He discussed with us the various jobs we would be asked to take care of, showed us the buildings that were under construction, and where the three different families live. He then sat us down and talked to us about the Muslim culture, and about the history of the VOH. As non-Moroccans we are legally allowed to practice Christianity within the boarders of Morocco. However, the children that are being taken care of at the orphanage are still Moroccan, so it is against the law for them to practice Christianity. On the other hand, the government knows that the orphanage is run by Christian families. The VOH is answering a huge need in Morocco for unwanted children to be taken in, and the government is willing to overlook the religious implications of the Village for the time being. By asking its volunteers and staff to dress modestly and not advertise our Christian faith in town, we were not being asked to lie about who we are and what we believe, but instead, just be culturally sensitive to the beliefs of the Moroccan people in town and at the VOH.
As representatives of the VOH, we were also responsible for maintaining a positive name for the orphanage. The reputations of the Moroccan men and women that are employed at the orphanage - in construction work, child care at the playschool, cooking, etc - rely upon us all representing the orphanage as a non-threatening, moral, positive contribution to the community. As it is, the workers have a hard time justifying to friends and family that they work at a Christian-run organization. The orphanage makes a significant effort to have Moroccan people working on the grounds of the VOH, especially working with the children, and maintaining a Moroccan cultural environment.
The goal of the orphanage is not to raise little Americans, but to raise Moroccans, in a Moroccan setting, in their native language of Arabic, within Christian family environments. When they are old enough, these children will attend school, where they will learn the Koran, and have a basic Muslim education, and at some point come to their own conclusions about religion. Currently most of the children are between the ages of two and four. Arabic is their first language, most of them speak French, and some of them speak English, Dutch, or Afrikaans. Most of the older kids (the four year olds) speak at least three languages. In one of the families that I took care of for a weekend while their parents were out of town, the three-year-old girl named Hanane spent the weekend translating from Dutch to English and Arabic to English for me.
It became clear very early on in the trip that it was important to learn enough Arabic to get across basic needs while working on site with the Moroccans and in town at the market, bargaining, and greeting people every day. As it turns out, one of the best hours of my day all summer was Arabic class. The VOH has an Arabic teacher on site who is there to work with the parents and the rest of the non-Moroccan staff. As a result I took the opportunity to receive lessons for the two and a half months I was there. The excitement that lit up in the faces of any Moroccan I attempted to speak to in Arabic was more than encouraging. The smallest attempt to try and communicate to them in their language almost always resulted in an invitation to tea or dinner at their family's house. These experiences made learning Arabic a fun challenge, as opposed to the dreaded obstacle I expected as a dyslexic student.
Learning the language provided a wonderful intellectual/religious connection with Moroccans both in the town of Ain Leuh and at the VOH. Using the small amount of Arabic I knew and the small amount of English they knew we could get a pretty solid intellectual conversation going, usually initiated by the Moroccan. Religion is a huge part of the Moroccan culture, as well as their language. In everyday greetings, with people you have never met, it is standard to welcome them or say hello by asking God's mercy on them, say God give you safety, may God convey your blessings, God bless you, God be praised…ect. In conversations over tea or dinner, I would be asked about my religious beliefs and given the opportunity to share my faith and who I believe Jesus Christ is, without feeling awkward. I didn't at all feel closeted in my faith this summer. If anything, I felt more free to share and talk about religion without the paranoia that I won't be taken seriously intellectually because I believe in things beyond the physically explainable.
Every Sunday morning, we would go to a church service on site, where we all got together, sang Christian praise songs in all sorts of languages, including Arabic, and shared experiences of the week or a Bible verse that was especially meaningful to someone that week. At these services we would also pray for the various needs of the VOH, as well as individual needs of people on site.
The first week in Morocco we spent in the orchard tilling the ground by hand with hoes. This was mentally frustrating, slow, and physically challenging work. It was sort of our initiation into the physical labor for the summer. After the first week we took on several other projects throughout the summer. We built a bridge, cleared fields, took on several painting jobs, worked with the children in the playschool, taught English at a week long camp, and built a building.
After our first week of working in the orchard, we started on our first real construction type project. We rebuilt a bridge connecting the village's dirt road to the paved public road, so that it could be driven over without bottoming out and destroying the cars. This was about a two week job of breaking up the existing concrete, digging out the hole for the slab, laying the rebar, mixing the concrete by hand and pouring the slab. This was a physically exhausting job, but provided us with our first real sense of accomplishment in seeing a construction need of the VOH being met. Throughout this first project we also had our first experience in mixing concrete by hand, which we would later become experts in.
The other large-scale construction project our group of six took on was the building of a barn/storage/garage building out of cement brick. We first began by laying the footer, where we were to build the walls eventually. We dug 2 ½ foot trenches, up to 30 feet long, and 1 ½ feet wide, built the forms, tied in the rebar, mixed the cement by hand, and poured the footers. In the beginning of the project, every couple of days we would get help from some of the Moroccan builders on site. As the project progressed and we began laying brick, we got help regularly from three of the brick layers, who helped us perfect the art of laying brick. By the time I left, the walls were up, and the doors were being put in.
In between these two projects and on the weekends we helped out with various odd jobs, such as painting, apple picking, and babysitting. About a month into my time there, I was asked to help out with the children at the playschool, which helped me get to know the kids better, and dramatically improved my Arabic. The orphanage held a weeklong program in the middle of the summer for the surrounding communities in Ain Leuh, and Toffstool. It was basically a day camp, where the children came and learned some English and played games. I had a group of about fifteen boys who I taught to hold some basic conversations in English. We had a great time, and they contributed to my Arabic conversational skills as well. The family of one of the boys from my group actually asked us to dinner at their house, about a five minute walk from the VOH, later on in the summer, where he welcomed us into his home in the English that I taught him.
Towards the end of the summer, relationships began to become a very significant part of my everyday experience. Now that I could better communicate, had less social insecurities, and a peaked interest in specific individuals that I interacted with on a daily basis, I was much more able to meet people where they were. After a few weeks of laying brick side by side with the Moroccan workers, a group of them invited me to join them for lunch. Apparently four of these guys eat lunch together everyday, and I got to join them a few times. These particular men know almost no English, but with my small amount of Arabic and French, we could usually get across an understanding. When in the city, or just in Ain Leuh at the market, I could have a conversation with the merchants beyond just what I needed. I could explain to them who I am, where I am from, how long I had been there, and where I was working. They were always interested and beyond hospitable.
The most rewarding relationships I built with Moroccans were some of the women at the VOH. The women at the playschool know very little English, but were always willing to tell me how to say something if I would teach it to them in English as well. These women spent at least 5 hours a day, 6 days a week with the children, and deeply care about their well-being. At the same time many of these women have had really difficult lives. Some of them have been married before and their husbands have left them. This basically makes them social outcasts, especially if they have children as well. These women have a stereotype of America as a paradise that they will never be allowed to experience. Several of them would ask me why I would want to come to Morocco when I could be in America, saying, "isn't America better?" I would respond truthfully, by saying that, "no, I like both America and Morocco, they are just different." They were always surprised to hear this response, and I don't know if it will ever mean anything to them. But the fact that a couple of these women were willing to share their life experiences with me was an honor.
There are currently three families at the VOH taking in children. The family that I became closest to was the Deininger family. They are the newest couple to commit the next twenty years of their lives to the VOH and to raising up to 10 Moroccan children. This family currently has two Moroccan children in addition to their own four year old. They are both boys. One is 7 months old and the other is now about 3 ½ months old. Elias, the younger of the two boys, arrived at the orphanage a few weeks after me. I cannot express how much I love that child. I developed an attachment to Elias through out the next couple months that made it especially hard to leave. I have no idea how these mothers can leave their children, even at a wonderful place like the VOH. Throughout the summer I had daily opportunities to watch these babies, from 10 min to a few hours, to a weekend. This family in particular was very warm and supportive. They welcomed us into their home all the time. We would all make dinner together, watch movies, and play games. I accompanied Stephanie Deininger to the hamam (a public bath house, a cultural experience that was way out of my comfort zone, but enjoyable) several times. We also took trips with Stephanie into the cities of Azru, and Fez.
Observing the Deininger's in their everyday real life was really encouraging. It is really easy for me to become jaded about the institution of marriage based on divorce rate statistics, or simple observation of the unhappy couples around me all the time. The Deininger's definitely witnessed to me through their everyday life this summer. Their lives aren't perfection. They argue, get really mad, have bad days, and aren't afraid to let us all see it. But by not being afraid of letting us see them fight with one another, they also let us see the love in their relationship that overcame everyday, petty frustrations. It was wonderful to be able to observe a real life couple, committed to each other for life, and making it work through love.
The VOH recognizes the cultural significance and curiosity about religion that provides openings for discussion. As a result, they do not feel the need to force Christianity on anyone. The VOH doesn't describe itself as a "Christian orphanage". There is too much of a correlation of Christian as American, and orphanage implying unwanted children. The Village of Hope is a community of Christians with diverse cultural backgrounds who take in children as their own, and love them. It was amazing to see Christians from all over the world - South African, Dutch, Spanish, French, English, Canadian, and American - come to live in a Muslim culture as fellow Christians, with a common goal of providing a loving environment and better future for these Moroccan children. It's working. There are cultural clashes, differences of opinions, and tense moments, but the common goal of providing these children with Christ-like love is what makes it work.
Last Updated: 12/1/08