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Soft Power at Work – Moroccan Entrepreneur looks back at her US Year – Jean R. AbiNader

Impressed with Volunteerism, Commitment to Family, Joy of Celebrations

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
January 19, 2016

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Safa Hajjaj is on her way home to Morocco, having come to the US in September 2014 as an Atlas Corps fellow at the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC. Dedicated to addressing critical social issues, Atlas Corps, according to its website, “develops leaders, strengthens organizations and promotes innovation through an overseas fellowship of skilled professionals.” Since its inception in 2006, it has brought more than 250 young professionals to the US to work in partner organizations, largely in the NGO community, to acquire and share “best practices” that benefit both the fellow and the host.

Safa is a great example of how the program works. At Meridian, she served as Curriculum Developer in the  GlobalConnect Division, working on exchange programs related to entrepreneurship and social action. She came well equipped for her placement. After completing her studies at the Ecole Nationale de Commerce et Gestion in Settat, a leading Moroccan business school, she went to work for Nielsen Company managing regional projects in the Maghreb. Always interested in international travel and social entrepreneurism, she then moved to Istanbul, Turkey, as a coordinator for Citizenship and Public Affairs for Microsoft. In that capacity, she worked with local and regional teams promoting entrepreneurship and community empowerment.

When she returned to Morocco, Safa started her own company supporting local artisans and encouraging access to international markets for local cooperatives. She received a number of fellowships while building her social entrepreneurship portfolio and is part of the growing alumna network of women entrepreneurs in the country. Before coming to the US, Safa was president of the Junior Chamber International (JCI) chapter in Marrakech, and became involved in broader community affairs, including human development issues.

What works about America?

We spoke with her last week as she was preparing to return to Morocco. Safa goes home strongly believing in the benefits of international exchanges. Since she dealt with delegations coming to the US from abroad, she had the opportunity to hear from participants about their experiences. She said that she, like many of those with whom she worked, had their “assumptions” about America challenged and changed while they were here. Among the leading positive impressions are the attachment to family, extensive volunteerism, and celebration of holidays and events, from Thanksgiving and Christmas to the Super Bowl and March Madness.

Experiencing the “you can do it” spirit that permeates American culture was an enriching experience personally and professionally, she said, that helps build self-confidence,. Safa is impressed by how much energy in the US is directed towards empowering individuals, especially youth. While in Washington, she had the opportunity to attend many conferences hosted by NGOs, think tanks, and multilateral organizations, gaining exposure to many perspectives and programs.

Safa was particularly struck by the scope of the volunteer culture in the US. She noted that at the JCI in Marrakech, there were small numbers of people involved. In the US, “Lots of people participated, naturally, professionally, in a sustainable and efficient manner.” This is one of the strongest impressions she will take home with her.

The other is the importance of exchanges. They are “so powerful in breaking down stereotypes and assumptions when you see the host culture through your own eyes.” If she had not spent so much time observing how Americans interact and going to homes, she would have missed a lot, she said.

Professionally, she focused on benchmarking how the US works and what might be useful in Morocco. One example that particularly impressed her is ADA compliance — how the US provides access to transportation and other services for the handicapped, whereas in Morocco, the notion of helping the handicapped as a matter of policy doesn’t exist. “Someone from outside then asks why in the US…the answers change perspectives and lead us to see how the general public will is so key to making changes, like in volunteering.”

Safa will miss the multicultural environment in Washington, where she met many people who actually knew about her country and had been there. She reflected on a group of Moroccan men and women community leaders who had come for a program at Meridian and who loved their time here and were greatly affected by how open and gracious they found the American people. Still, at times, Safa felt like a geography teacher or a tour leader explaining “her part of the world”; and she herself learned a lot about US assumptions about Morocco from the questions that were asked.

Headed home, she has lots of thoughts about what to do, how to develop her strategic vision, and the projects she hopes to launch. For this coming year, she will take her time, build partnerships, recruit proactive people, and launch herself into a world where she will work hard to define herself as a committed woman entrepreneur. To enjoy the full experience that is Safa Hajjaj and her time in the US, take a look at her blogs at http://www.atlascorps.org/blog/?author=213.

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