Everyone in the tiny Moroccan village of Gfifat knows Caroline Ayes, CCAS BA ’13. She’s the American instructor at the Dar Chabab youth center who teaches English to their sons and daughters. She’s the enthusiastic volunteer who converted an old garage into an exercise studio for house-bound Gfifat wives. And she’s the energetic architect of a development program that connects youth to the country’s natural environmental beauty.
And no one here at home—including her classmates who voted her Miss GW in 2013 for her dedication and service—is surprised by the impact she has made within this modest, predominantly Muslim hamlet surrounded by acres of orange and banana farms.
“Caroline has that rare and increasingly precious combination of compassion and pragmatism that is essential to making social change stick,” said Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs Kerric Harvey, a mentor whom Ayes credits with “teaching me how to think differently.”
“You don’t dabble in the Peace Corps,” Harvey noted. “It’s a serious commitment to bettering the world. It takes alert, energetic, committed and big-hearted people to do that. People like Caroline.”
An International Focus
Ayes is no stranger to foreign countries and cultures. As a political communication major, the Pennsylvania-native took five alternative break trips, volunteering for excursions from South America to South Africa. She worked with young people in underserved Honduran villages, promoted community-empowerment in impoverished Nicaraguan neighborhoods and manned aid centers for neglected children in South African townships.
“I have always had the community service bug, and my time at GW broadened my international focus,” Ayes said. “Those travels made me realize what I wanted to do with my life.”
But none of her journeys quite prepared Ayes for her Peace Corps experience after graduation. Fully expecting that her Spanish fluency would land her a Central American assignment, she instead found herself in the northern African kingdom of Morocco, a placement that, she said, “came out of left field.”
A self-described “outspoken, liberal woman,” Ayes committed to spending 26 months immersed in Morocco’s conservative Muslim culture and its sensitive gender dynamic. A youth development specialist, Ayes’s responsibilities range from encouraging young women to pursue their education to engaging teens in environmental awareness—all while learning to hold a passable conversation in Darija, a hybrid of French and indigenous languages that even many Arabic speakers find unintelligible.
“Coming here was like being dropped on the moon,” Ayes recalled. “I didn’t know the local customs. I couldn’t speak the language. I thought, ‘Holy cow, have I made a terrible mistake?’”
But now, one year later, Gfifat feels like home. Dressed conservatively in pants and a long-sleeved shirt, she’s comfortable strolling along the town’s lone main road—a busy thoroughfare where speeding cars kick up dirt clouds on their way to Agadir. She greets male passersby with a respectful downward glance and a traditional touching of her hand to her heart. And while she hasn’t quite mastered Darija, she’s fluent enough to order a kilo of tomatoes from a street vendor, compliment a neighborhood mother on her lamb tajine and joke with local teenagers about their grades.
“Just a year ago, I felt like a stranger in a strange land,” Ayes said. “Now I absolutely think this was the best place for me.”
Morocco has a long history with the Peace Corps. Since 1963, more than 4,300 volunteers have served there, including 220 current workers. With its relative amenities like Internet access and indoor plumbing, volunteers jokingly refer to a Morocco assignment as the “Posh Corps.” But the 99 percent Muslim nation offers its own challenges, particularly for female volunteers. While Morocco is considered more tolerant than other Muslim countries toward Western cultural norms, it’s still a traditional, patriarchal society; couples rarely mix in public and many women spend most of their time inside the home.
Ayes said she initially struggled with finding an appropriate way to reach out to Gfifat’s women. “Gender is a very complex issue here,” she said. “I want to help women . . . but I have to do it in a respectful way. As a Peace Corps volunteer, you realize that the way you live is as much a teaching lesson as any class.”
Gradually, she began introducing new ways for women to connect, like offering all-female aerobics sessions and art classes for young girls. At the youth center, her nuanced approached resulted in an uptick in teenage girls stopping by for everything from English instructions to first-aid workshops.
“The thing I’m most proud of in the past year is transforming this base into an environment where girls can now flock to learn,” she said.
Her latest project is her most ambitious yet: Dubbed CLIMB (Creating Leadership in the Mountains and Beyond), Ayes is taking young people on outdoor excursions to teach team-building, leadership and environmental skills. Each month, her class takes a hands-on approach on topics like preserving Morocco’s natural landscapes and tackling Gfifat’s troubling waste disposal problems. At the end of the program, the 15 teens—including eight girls—put their training into practice by hiking to the 13,000 foot summit of Mt. Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak.
“Morocco is blessed with an amazing and varied physical landscape—beaches, deserts, mountain ranges,” she said. “But there’s a lack of knowledge about the environment among Moroccan youth. I want young people to appreciate what their home has to offer.”
Ayes’s Peace Corp assignment ends in April 2016. She’s not sure where her travels will take her next; perhaps to graduate school or a government position or her “dream job,” working with Sesame Workshop, the community education arm of Sesame Street. But she knows she’ll be emotional about leaving Gfifat behind.
“I’ve grown so attached to the families and young people here,” she said. “These are the most hospitable, welcoming people I’ve ever met. We don’t always think alike, but they have gone out of their way to make a stranger feel at home.”
This story was first published on the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences News site.