SOS Camp, or How I Spent a Week in a Moroccan Orphanage and Lived to Blog About It

In America, when we hear about orphans, we immediately conjure up images of little orphan Annie fighting the evil Miss Hannigan with rich ole’ Daddy Warbucks on her side.  It’s a hard-knock life, after all.  My guess is that you’d think, in a developing country, that stereotype would be even worse, but I’m not sure that’s true at all anymore.

Last week, I had the opportunity to work at one of Morocco’s orphanages called the SOS Children’s Villages International.  I worked with my girlfriend and another volunteer at one of the villages in El Jadida (there are villages all over Morocco) about an hour southwest of Casablanca on the coast.  My initial reaction was this: given the opportunities available to SOS children, it’s better to be an orphan kid at an SOS Village in Morocco than a rich kid with a family living in the countryside.  

Case in point, the SOS Villages here are partnered with the Ronald McDonald House and Dell.  The apartment-style homes are fully furnished and beautiful places to live.  There are art rooms with clay and paint and everything you can imagine under the sun, computer rooms with brand new Dell computers and fast internet.  The students partake in beach activities, English classes, nautical clubs, movie and dance parties, a solid education, and the list goes on and on.  The opportunities they are afforded seem endless.

Of course, I don’t pretend to gloss over the emotional or socio-economic difficulties these children are likely to face growing up without their “real” parents.  But as an adoptee (though never exactly “orphaned”), I think as long as you have someone who loves you the way a mother or father should love you, you’ve got it pretty good.  You may even have it better than some kids who have both biological parents if those parents suck at parenting.  Every kid at the SOS Village had a mother looking after them, and the director of the camp was referred to as “Baba” by all the campers.  Watching their interactions with their mothers and the camp director was a clear reminder to me that adoption isn’t so much a legal process as it is a virtuous choice.  You don’t just love a child because that child came from your flesh and blood.  Granted, that may contribute to a parent’s decision to love their child, but at the end of the day, any parent can choose to walk away, can choose to not parent at all.  And that happens a lot in our world.  Anyone who has ever loved their children and nurtured them has participated in adoption, in the choice to love and nurture, and in that sense, I think these SOS orphans are not orphaned at all but actually incredibly loved – by the mothers, by the director, even by the American volunteers who work there briefly but fall in love with every orphan they meet.

At no point in the week did I find myself thinking, “Wow, these poor orphan kids.  I wonder what awful thing happened that caused them to end up here?”  I feel like if I walked into the orphanage Annie lived in, I would have found myself wondering what awful circumstances brought them there, if I didn’t also feel sorry for them.  Instead, I spent the week thinking how blessed and privileged they were – whether they knew it or not (and I think they did) – to have so many wonderful opportunities.  And that says a lot, I think, about the state of these orphanages, that being there would make you think you were at a camp or a nice apartment complex rather than an orphanage.  It’s a complete paradigm shift from the orphan Annie stigma or even the horrors of foster care and Child Services in America.

If anything, my biggest struggle during the week was the harsh realization that I have absolutely no ability or patience to work with eight year olds.  I just let them walk all over me, because they scare the daylights out of me and because I don’t know how to discipline them.  I have no desire to have or be responsible for one of those, and as long as I feel that way, I don’t think I have any business trying to raise one.  Too many people who feel like I do try having kids anyway thinking it’ll be different once their kid is born, and I think that’s part of where child-rearing has gone wrong in America.  The decision to have a child is placed more on blood-relation and narcissistic desires to have a “mini-me” rather than taking time to be self-aware, thinking through the consequences and ramifications of what raising a child actually means for a family.  And I suppose thinking through the responsibilities of starting a family is exactly what it means to adopt.  It’s not about whether the kid came from your blood line or not.  Or as a friend once quoted to me, “Anybody can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy.”

Honestly, my dog, Abner, was enough of a handful to keep me busy and stressed back home, but props to my friends who are having kids and who will, inshallah, make great parents, like Adam and Trace or Ben and Jill.  I don’t know how you can do it, and I have the utmost admiration and respect for anyone who is capable of being a parent.  I’m not saying it’ll never happen for me or that I don’t want kids, but if it ever does happen, I want to make sure I know exactly what I’m getting myself into and exactly how to handle it.  I’d want them to feel “adopted,” to know I wasn’t just a father but that I was their dad.

On the last day before I headed back to my site for Ramadan, I helped the other volunteers draw and paint three murals on a wall in one of the complexes – Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, and a random Disney princess with no name.  After we drew and outlined the characters on the wall, we let the kids help paint their rooms to give them a sense of ownership.  The looks on their faces were somewhere between utter confusion and complete, overwhelmed excitement.  It’s nice to know that something as simple as a giant Spiderman on your wall can make you the happiest kid on the block.  That kind of thing, that very simple way of serving and putting smiles on faces, is exactly (I think) what we’re here to do in the Peace Corps.  We’re not here to save the world or change culture.  We’re just here to make some kids smile.  To Love.  To Adopt.  To make the hard-knock life a little more bearable.

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