Nora Belahcen Fitzgerald born In Morocco of American parents, founded the Amal for the Culinary Arts association in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2012 as an NGO for give unemployed women hands-on experience at the association’s own restaurant, before finding them a job through its network of partners. Today, Amal (Arabic for “hope”) is so successful it doesn’t have enough trainees ready to fill all the positions that potential employers are willing to offer.
The nonprofit offers free six-month training courses to Moroccan women ages 18 to 35 from disadvantaged backgrounds. It provides them with professional skills in culinary arts (traditional Moroccan and international cuisine) and business management. Theory meets practice during the classes, since everything takes place at the association’s restaurant, which is open to the public. The trainees run the kitchen, wait tables, take care of maintenance, and manage the accounts and budget. Making a thorough commitment to the restaurant is essential to obtaining a diploma. The women must also attend classes in hygiene, customer service, safety, and languages such as English and French.
Since the launch of the association and restaurant in 2013, about 200 women have attended the courses, and most of them have found employment through Amal’s network of partners in Marrakesh’s high-end eateries. Six of the graduates became their own bosses: One of the women is setting up a snack bar and five others have opened a bakery together.
All of the restaurant’s profits go toward the association’s expenses. “I never imagined it would be such a success,” Belahcen Fitzgerald says. “Our aspirations were quite humble at the start.” Her project was able to grow with financial support from the Swiss foundation Drosos, without which “it would have taken longer to get to where we are today,” she says.
Today, Amal is part of the fabric of Marrakesh life. Word of mouth travels fast between those who have been trained and found employment and women in need who would like to do the same. Some of the beneficiaries find Amal through its partner associations, such as Kafalat El Yatim, which takes in orphans, and El Amane, a shelter for single mothers and women who face domestic violence. This year, two of the trainees are deaf, so everyone on staff has learned sign language to accommodate them.
In 2016, the association opened a café, also in Marrakesh, which is run entirely by deaf women. A visual menu that works like a board game, with counters, enables the staff and clients to communicate. “We want to welcome women from a diverse range of backgrounds, so that no one is stigmatized,” Belahcen Fitzgerald explains.