Little Sisters of Jesus in Morocco, Fez. My companion Rida,

Rida with Latiffa preparing lemon drinkRida with Latiffa preparing lemon drink

I will try to share with you here a bit about my work here in Fez. Since March 2004, I have been working in an association for mentally handicapped children and I live this work as a path of encounter: encounter with myself, with others, and with the Other ...

It was in mid January 2004 that a friend of ours, the father of a handicapped child, spoke to me about an association for handicapped children, which was going to begin with three young graduates, who had been out of work, and he proposed to take me there. I found a group of 15 to 20 children, crowded together and very agitated.

I met the three young women. Each had had a year of formation at a teaching centre in Rabat after getting their psychology degrees, but they had no experience. I found them lost among these children who were also completely lost. But I also thought how brave to dare to begin something together at the service of life! And I felt something like a call inside me to try to help in any way I could. In September 2004, 1 started working there full time.

Rida with his teacher LatiffaRida with his teacher Latiffa

The Association is called ‘BASMA’ which means smile. About 30 to 35 children from 5 to 20 years old come everyday. In the beginning the place was bare; no materials, no tables, no chairs, no toys. Everybody sat on the floor on a wall- to-wall carpet. For most of the children, it was the first time they had left home and this getting together with others stirred up lots of fear and anguish. The first thing we did was to break into little groups and play a game with the children to get them to relax. I tried to play leap-frog with one group. It was a great success and what fun but in the evening my bones told another story!

I work with a group of 6 to 8 children from 5 to 10 years old. These are the youngest at BASMA. My work consists in accompanying the children on the road to autonomy, that is toilet training, eating, and sleeping. Often at 7 or 8 years old, they are still in diapers. Some mothers carry huge guilt feelings for having given birth to them. We try and work with mother and child and the changes are miraculous. Soon the child becomes fully involved. We live moments of great joy and between us all,  the children the mothers, and those of us accompanying them, a true friendship has been woven and we love each other very much. There is life circulating among us and our children are all so happy.

Rida in Fez MedinaRida in Fez Medina

For two years now, I have a little ‘companion for the journey’. Rida is 12 years old. He lives in the middle of the medina, the old city. His family, the parents and several children, live in a single room which is humid and dark. Rida's father is deaf and dumb. It is far to go to the Centre where I work in  the new city. Even if Rida was signed up since the beginning, his mother was not able to take him everyday. Since I have been working full time, I suggested to the one in charge that, if the mother accepted, I could accompany him. So it was that one day Rida’s mother brought him in the morning and let him come home with me in the evening. Rida came with me without any problem. We took the bus and his mother was waiting for him at the bus terminal. He still had a 20 minute walk from there through the little alleyways of the medina to get home.

Rida at home with his mother FatimaRida at home with his mother Fatima

When I speak of Rida I say my ‘compagnon on the journey’ as that is really what he is. Rida is trisomique. He came to the Association in diapers but after the first year, he said goodbye to his diapers. The fact that he could go away from home all day long made him discover another world. Rida is a ‘child made for friendship.’ On the bus, he greets the bus driver, the person who gives the tickets, and whoever sits next to him. As soon as he sees someone a little different from the others, he goes to greet them. One day there was a man with an amputated leg who got onto the bus. On seeing him, Rida got up and went over to him. He put his hand on his leg and he hugged him. I am sure that Rida's gesture touched the hearts of everybody on the bus.

Several times, I had to accompany Rida all the way to his house. It is very dark and in the narrow alleys, there is a lot of drug traffic. I would never have dared to pass there alone. But with Rida, little by little all the faces of these youths who are engaged in drug trafficking have become familiar to me and now I even know the names of some of them.

Yes, it appears to be me who is accompanying Rida. But, really, it is Rida who accompanies me along the paths of the medina and who shows me all its nooks and crannies, the places tourists never go. He helps me to discover something of the hidden life of this old and sacred city, its beauty and the courage that dwells in the hearts of so many men and women. He helps me to discover that, in our common humanity and beyond our differences of culture, language, and religion, we are all brothers and sisters.

Rida and his friend Abd el SalamRida and his friend Abd el Salam

Yes, I feel privileged to be taken by the little hand of Rida and led on the way of encounter, on the way of confidence, on the way of life. In the medina of Fes, it is Rida, this little child, who has given me my identity. If one day he does not come to the Association, there are people on the bus who ask me: ‘where is your son today?’

When I think of all that I live in and through my work, I feel like a huge conversion is taking place in my heart. In the beginning, when I was looking for work, I wanted to earn my living. But today I am more and more aware that LIFE is not something to gain, but a GIFT to receive... and that I receive life every moment I am at BASMA from the children, from my colleagues, from the parents, from those I meet on the way or in the bus. ALL IS GIFT and my heart sings its Magnificat at the end of each day. Today I am going to make my own one of Tagore's sayings and I am able to say:

Rida with KhalidRida with Khalid

'Dear BASMA, I arrived on your banks as a stranger
And you welcomed me as a guest
And now if I have to leave you,
I will leave you as a friend, as a sister. 
Thank you!'