Entering the Ben M’Sik caves on the outskirts of Casablanca, a visitor goes through a hole in a crumbling concrete wall and down a flight of stairs covered in a slippery layer of mold. At the bottom lies a dimly lit room that houses roughly 100 people. The walls are splintered, the floor damp, and thick blue tarpaulins, pregnant with leaking water, hang from the ceiling. Every morning, the people who call this place home stuff their mattresses into a corner to turn the single 97-sq.-ft. room into their kitchen, washroom and dining area.
In this city of about four million, Morocco’s biggest, thousands of people live in suburban shantytowns and slums. The urban squalor and poverty fuel extremism; the suicide bombers who killed a total of 48 people in attacks on downtown Casablanca in 2003 and 2007 all grew up in such places. While Moroccan authorities claim to have eradicated terrorism cells in the country’s most depressed urban areas, millions of residents remain cripplingly poor. Unemployment in the slums stands at 32%. And the illiteracy rate of 64% is more than 10 points higher than the rest of Casablanca’s.
Community organizer Boubker Mazoz knows these neighborhoods well. For seven years he has been wandering through the city’s slums and reaching out to Casablanca’s severely disaffected. When he arrives at dilapidated homes where food and money are scarce, his hosts serve him tea and honey-drenched bread. “I am after those who are left aside, forgotten, marginalized,” says Mazoz, 58, whose day job is public-affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of State. “With some help, these people can produce miracles.”
Mazoz believes Casablanca’s bombings “could have been avoided entirely if we had just paid attention to these people.” Within weeks of the 2003 attacks, he began devising ways to keep the slums’ marginalized youth from turning to terrorism. Three years later, with the help of private funding and the town’s mayor, Mazoz built the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center on the site of a former garbage dump in one of Casablanca’s poorest ghettos. The center boasts a library, computers and a theater, and serves as headquarters for a corps of community organizers dedicated to luring impoverished kids away from drugs and extremism with educational and artistic projects.
Instead of recruiting privileged volunteers who live miles away, Mazoz is determined his organizers should hail from the slums he is targeting. “No one can speak the language better,” he says. By creating role models who work and live in the community, Mazoz hopes the impact of his pioneering program will endure. “I ask my organizers, ‘Do you really think it’s only drugs or extremism left for you You can be better. You can be the politicians of tomorrow,'” he says.
Now the lessons learned in Casablanca are being applied elsewhere. The project has proved so successful over 150 volunteers have joined to mentor around 350 kids so far it has caught the attention of Casablanca’s sister city, Chicago, the old stomping ground of the world’s most famous community organizer, U.S. President Barack Obama. This September, a delegation of high school students from Chicago will visit Sidi Moumen to study Mazoz’s methods and implement them in deprived neighborhoods back home. “The grand vision is to make his endeavor into an international model,” says Marilyn Diamond, co-chair of the Chicago Casablanca Sister Cities International Program.
The day I arrive to see Mazoz’s project at work, four local girls are performing a short play about the birth of Islam. Playing the part of a queen is 11-year-old Ikram Malki. Her eyes flutter under a thick coat of turquoise eye shadow; on her head sits a crown of sequined plastic flowers. After she takes a bow, I ask about her experience with Mazoz. “There was a vacuum in my heart before he came along,” she says. “This program filled the emptiness.” And what does she want to be when she grows up “A community organizer,” she replies.
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.
See the Cartoons of the Week.