The trip to Morocco over February break by 23 students and 3 teachers began as a “what-if” between senior Amalia Walker and math teacher Steve Weissburg. The two started “the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Project” in November 2015 as a 6 week forum through which Ithaca High School students could connect with both Israeli and Palestinian students over Edmodo and learn from guest speakers. The project was an attempt to inform students of the conflict and perhaps aid in bridging the gap between the two nations. Over the course of the 6 weeks, Steve and Amalia toyed with the idea of a trip to Israel, or perhaps Morocco as Steve had travelled and taught there previously. When fellow math teacher Todd Noyes travelled to Morocco to teach for several weeks during March 2016, and it was discovered that English teacher Elizabeth Campbell had lived in Morocco for 8 months when she was in school, the three teachers realized the potential for a student trip to the north African country.
The idea quickly came to fruition as students applied to travel and the school board unanimously approved the trip’s proposal last June. In October, the group of accepted students began to fundraise. Earning donations through raking leaves, a pancake breakfast, and a GoFundMe campaign allowed the club to provide scholarships for all those who requested, and lower the cost of the trip for the entire group. By late January 2017, the Morocco Cultural Exchange was well established and ready to travel.
We took Morocco in 7 days. We breathed the air of 4 cities, speaking and hearing the tongues of at least 4 languages. We drove through rolling green hills and rode ponies on the coast. We saw the ruins of the Romans, and the development of metropolitan areas. We ate olives and honey, kafta and harira, figs and oranges. We saw the sites, acting as tourists. We stayed in the homes of locals and their children, making friends, and experiencing the culture in the most intimate of ways. We laughed constantly, but more importantly, we learned.
In light of the the recent election, the travel ban, and general fear all around, America’s increasingly contentious reputation globally made the trip all the more important. The trip allowed us to discover some of the preconceived notions that we had, even in our liberal idealism. We realized how much respect Moroccans still held for Americans and our culture, despite the glaring stereotypes our media portrays of Islam. The most important lessons we learned were to reconsider and evaluate our own perceptions, and the assumed perceptions of others. The people we met in Morocco were kind, compassionate, and unassuming of us. They did not pass immediate judgement, they only offered respect. They did not view us differently because of our new president, nor did they assume that our views reflected his. They gave us the benefit of doubt. While we took in everything we could, we came to be almost embarrassed by our position. Were we worthy of the respect of these people?
Like the Palestinian-Israeli Peace project, the ultimate goal of the Moroccan Cultural Exchange was to expose students to Islam, and break the multitude of barriers that surround our society. In order to break these barriers, we not only have to place ourselves in the shoes of others, but we have to acknowledge our privilege and realize how we can be allies to those who are targeted for their differences. While we had a week in a foreign country, and were lucky enough to travel with friends having fun along the way, it was so much more than a vacation. The opportunity to interact with a school and families in Morocco was far more authentic than the manner of travel in which a typical tourist partakes. With a fragmented country politically, a diminishing international standing, and a fading tolerance for others, it is active learning and connection that makes for global citizens and improved relations.