CASABLANCA, Morocco, May 27, 2010 -- Turning the corner into the slums of Sidi Moumen on the outskirts of Casablanca, the pavement ends and the buildings give way to what looks like a garbage dump -- crumpled plastic bottles, paper, metal and broken glass.
A low, rambling mess of corrugated tin and wood stretches over the reddish dust, and in many doorways, thin sheets flutter listlessly in the hot air. A few sheep huddle together near a haphazard structure of old chairs, ladders and rotting boards, and a rooster picks its way over the dirt.
Every single one of the suicide bombers that ripped through downtown Casablanca in 2003 -- and again in 2007 -- came from this place. More than 350,000 people live here, with no running water, no toilets, no sewer system, no proper doors.
"When you have nothing, you have nothing to care about," said Boubker Mazoz, a local man who is received as both rock star and angel around these parts. Everywhere he goes, he attracts a crowd -- men, women and children shouting greetings, reaching out to clasp his hands, kiss his cheek, and ask for help. And he is doing everything he possibly can.
"The best thing to do is to change these conditions so these people can feel that they are cared for," he says. "That they count as citizens, that they can participate in the development of their country, that they can have the same opportunity."
After the 2003 bombings, when 14 suicide bombers killed 33 people in downtown Casablanca, Mazoz, who works for the U.S. Consulate here, decided it was time to reach out to children and teenagers living in the worst of the city's notorious slums. With the support of the Casablanca Chicago Sister Cities Association, he started an organization called IDMAJ -- "integration" in Arabic -- to give children power through education.
Because, he says, "I feel these people have been left out." IDMAJ is about finding a way to include them.
Since 2006, Mazoz has recruited more than 60 young volunteers from the neighborhoods of Sidi Moumen and Ben M'Sik -- which includes one of the poorest slums known simply as al Hofra, or "the hole" -- to serve as teachers, tutors and mentors to more than 500 at-risk children.
"We said, why not give a chance to these young people to lead, to have a chance to initiate things and to be responsible," says Mazoz. And so far, IDMAJ, according to all involved, has been a resounding success. "We discovered a lot of talents, we discovered a lot of brilliant people that can have a brilliant future," Mazoz says. "They were not given the chance, they were not given the opportunity."
Last Wednesday, 10 high schoolers from Chicago arrived here with the Casablanca Chicago Sister Cities Association to meet Mazoz, work with the children, and, ultimately, learn what it can really mean to transform a community through volunteerism.
For the kids from both cities, says Marilyn Diamond, co-chair of the Sister Cities organization, the lasting impact of a trip like this is seeing, really, "that the other is me. That we have much more in common as human beings than what our differences appear to be."
Since 9/11 particularly, Diamond says, "one of our major accomplishments and successes has been to destroy the stereotypes that exist both in Morocco about the United States, and in the United States about Morocco."
On their second morning in Casablanca, the Chicago students are scattered through the cheery red walls of the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, which Mazoz opened in 2007. Some are upstairs, packed into the art room with children, communicating through hand gestures and coloring, and cutting and folding paper into pinwheels. Others are gathered around tables downstairs with their Moroccan counterparts, asking them how to write their names in Arabic.
One student, Erica Perez, 17, sports a bright turquoise headscarf, like the one her Moroccan host sister wears. "I think it's beautiful," she says. "I've seen many women wear it, and I wanted to experience it."
This is Perez's first trip out of the country, and she is so clearly moved by what she's seen, and the people she's met. Especially the younger kids. "When I see IDMAJ, what they're doing with the children, you see the energy that the children have, and it makes me think, 'Wow. Why can't I do that in Chicago?'"
Soukaina Hamia is living proof of what can happen to a kid whose path crosses Mazoz's. Now 23, Hamia is the president of IDMAJ -- Mazoz's right-hand woman. It's a volunteer role, but one that she devotes her entire life to these days -- tutoring kids in English and French, and running the theater program at the beautiful, new cultural center.
"It's very hard, but for me, it's my life," she says. "It's a pleasure. When I'm with the kids I feel that I am useful. ... I feel that I have something to share with other people."
Hamia, with her curly black hair and a warm smile that finds its way into her eyes, grew up in the Ben M'Sik district of Casablanca, just a few miles down the road from al Hofra. Her mother is an elementary school teacher, her father a calligrapher. They're not rich, but not poor either. Not by the standards she's used to.
Yet the mere fact of where she is now, of what she's accomplished, is inspiring. She's graduated from college, is fluent in three languages, and has been accepted to start a master's in international studies and diplomacy this winter. After that, she has her sights set on earning a Ph.D. in the United States. For setting her on this path, she credits Mazoz, whom she first met when he came into her high school class. "He changed my life," she says.
When asked what she wants to be "when she grows up," Hamia laughs and glances at her mentor. "I want to be Mr. Mazoz," she says. "My biggest dream is to realize 1 percent of what he did. Because I think that only 1 percent will be something huge."
On the wide, barren expanse outside al Hofra, a crowd of kids and adults, American and Moroccan, are unloading young trees and plants from a truck, and some have started attacking the hard, dry dirt with metal shovels.
Others have broken out paintbrushes and cans of red, green, pink and yellow paint, and started splashing the newly white walls of al Hofra with flowers and stick figures, soccer balls and flags. What stands out most is this: "Casablanca" painted in blue above a brown and green flag, "Chicago" below it.
The kids from Chicago have been here for just 48 hours. Already, they are visibly moved by what they've seen, intensely inspired by the people they've met.
"I just want to go back to Chicago right now and do something huge," says Darcy Redmond, a 16-year-old junior at Lincoln Park High School. "Really, I do."
And they can't stop talking about what that might be, about how they're going to translate what they've learned here back home.
"Hopefully, what I want to bring home is an organization," said Cameron McEwen, a senior at Walter Payton College Prep. Seeing what Mazoz has been able to do for kids in just two neighborhoods, McEwen said, "we were inspired to just start focusing on a neighborhood, and start building up from there."
Looking around this place -- its crumbling walls, dirty ceilings warped and dangerously heavy with water, families of nine living together in one dank, tiny room -- you can't help but think that for most of these people, it would take a miracle to get out of Casablanca. But miracles are no longer outlawed here.
Boubker Mazoz has made sure of that.