Mint Tea and Cookies

Author: Lydia Ruotolo

Tags: Africa, Quarter Finalist, Volunteering

Not even three days into the service trip in Rabat, Morocco, and already I  heard something that seems to reflect the culture and resonates with me very deeply. “Service like this is what feeds the soul and harbors love.” I am a strong believer in spreading the love and having a positive outlook on things, even when you must deal with difficult situations. Never have I experienced such loving and positive people that exemplify this ideal.

Soon after getting off the plane, we visited Abdasalam Sayah Middle School (meaning slave to peace) to meet the headmaster. I’m not even sure what I was expecting, but headmaster Touria defied any preconceived notions I might have had. She had a brightness that exuded out of her in everything she had to say and welcomed us with open arms as well as with mint tea and cookies (a common Moroccan welcoming tradition). Touria greeted us as ambassadors of change. She embraced us with love and positivity. With politics being what they are today, Arab countries are often shown in a bad light. There are extremists in every religion, but followers of Islam have been put under the microscope for criticism. Though Muslim people are frequently labeled as dangerous, the majority of the individuals that I have met are anything but dangerous or extreme.

The following day, the teaching began. The kids were much more advanced in their understanding of English than we thought. They also showed a level of respect that shocked me. These children were coexisting and welcoming foreigners with ready hearts and minds. I couldn’t even begin to think how the talented Amina, quiet Hanan, sweet Aya, friendly Malak, and engaged Fatima could ever be subject to stereotype based on their religion. One particular student, Fatima, started out very shy in the classroom. With just a little bit of help and time to teach her, she began to blossom and open up to let us inside of her world.

After just a short time, I have developed strong bonds with many of the students as well as other people we have encountered and interacted with along the way. Within our few days here, we have met so many extraordinary people from the translators to the students. Many times we have been accepted with mint tea and cookies as the catalyst for connections. However, the experience that has influenced my thinking most is the visit to Fatima’s home. It was there that we were introduced to a very large and very strong family. They met us with mint tea and cookies in a small space where they eat, sleep, and live. We spent two precious hours asking questions and trading tales of both hardships and dreams. The stories they told were weighted with difficult situations, yet the family had such a positive outlook that harbored no resentment of the past. That was when Ali, our program director, pointed out that this kind of service feeds the soul. That family offered so much love as if we were one of their own. It feeds the spirit. That was a key moment when I realized how truly wrong a view of a group could be if you didn’t experience their lives first.

I don’t know what’s to come while we are here in Morocco. Already though, I can safely say that my spirit has been fed and I feel as though I have been invited into a remarkable culture, of course with the aid of mint tea and cookies.