Usually an hour-long trip from Tangiers to Tetouan, located in the Rif mountain range in northern Morocco, it took almost two hours in the driving rain through narrow, winding roads. We pull into a nondescript alley and run inside, where Mohamed El Bakkali and Abdelmalik Asrih greet us with smiles and steaming pots of Moroccan mint tea. The offices of La Colombe Blanche (the White Dove Association) are beautiful, with blue and white tile covering the walls and spilling onto the floor.
La Colombe Blanche was founded in 1993 to advance the rights of adults with disabilities throughout the Tetouan region, and Abdelmalik has been working with the organization since the very beginning. Estimates for people with disabilities in Morocco ranges from four to 7 percent[i], but the rate is nearly double in Tetouan. While Abdelmalik was lucky enough to go to school, the CDC notes that 73% of people with disabilities in Morocco receive no formal education. Adding to this, while organizations exist to support youth with disabilities in Tetouan, there are largely no protections or services in place once individuals turn 16 years old. Together with some friends, Abdelmalik decided that that needed to change.
Abdelmalik and a group of dedicated volunteers established La Colombe Blanche, initially meeting in cafes and relying on the help of local law students to help them learn how to run an organization. They set up a series of town hall meetings, speaking with stakeholders throughout the community to explain that La Colombe Blanche would complement the other youth-focused organizations, and that they were allies, not competitors.
Gaining momentum, La Colombe Blanche worked with government officials on both the local and national level to advocate for improved accessibility for people with disabilities, including access to medical services and employment. They fought to improve laws protecting people with disabilities and worked with local, regional, and national media to combat the stigma their community faced.
Through a series of increasingly-popular public forums and conferences, La Colombe Blanche’s name recognition grew, leading to invitations for Abdelmalik to speak at international conferences as an expert on issues facing people with disabilities, and later to participate in the UN General Assembly in New York to fight for adoption of the International Convention on Disabilities.
With additional funding and support, La Colombe Blanche was able to purchase a small garage in Tetouan’s Old City and, as funding allowed, slowly converted the space into a community center, adding additional floors and even an elevator to ensure accessibility. The community center was transformative, giving the organization the ability to work directly with local community members, bringing in tutors and local business leaders to teach vocational trainings and ensure an education for those who had previously been forgotten.
Despite this progress, La Colombe Blanche knew that to truly change the conditions for people with disabilities in Tetouan and to give them a brighter future, they needed to learn how to manage their organization in a more professional way. La Colombe Blanche approached the U.S. Agency for International Development, asking for support in developing their strategic plan. USAID immediately saw the promise of this small organization, and encouraged La Colombe Blanche to apply for funding as an Intermediary Support Organization – an application which proved successful.
As part of their new four-year funding from USAID, La Colombe Blanche will work with Counterpart International to strengthen their organization. Through Counterpart’s organizational development process that has helped build the capacity of thousands of organizations around the world, they will learn better management techniques – improved communication outreach strategies, accounting practices, project management, donor reporting, and other strategies – to make their work more effective. With this additional funding and improved organizational capacity, La Colombe Blanche plans to increase their reach, both in terms of the geographic area and people they work with, expanding their support to people who are hearing or visually impaired, and will be better prepared to serve the community as a whole.
While La Colombe Blanche has lofty goals to break down barriers for people with disabilities and to continue leading a dialogue on the unique needs of this population on both the regional and national level, they aren’t forgetting their roots. With new funding from USAID and technical support from Counterpart, they are renovating their community center again, adding a larger classroom where vocational training and workshops can be held. On my visit, I learned firsthand just how vitally important this training is to the local community.
Horia Hayani Zinat has worked with La Colombe Blanche since 2007. When she first met Aidani Ahbemd, the President of La Colombe Blanche, he realized her potential and hired her as an administrative assistant. With his support and La Colombe Blanche’s training classes, Horia learned how to manage an office and use a computer and other office equipment, and is now an invaluable resource to the association. Even better, this partnership allowed Horia to find her true passion: as part of her work with La Colombe Blanche, she had the chance to participate in culinary classes and realized she loved to bake. She also soon discovered she had the talent and skill to bake delicious food that others in the community would love as well. Coupling this newfound ability with the office management skills she learned at La Colombe Blanche, Horia tells me proudly, she is now in the process of opening a small bakery with her family. Abdelmalik, Aidani, and the rest of the passionate La Colombe Blanche staff and volunteers are excited to see how Horia was able to not only improve her own life, but the lives of her family and friends as well. It is exciting to imagine how many other lives will be transformed with the support of La Colombe Blanche, USAID and Counterpart.