AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In Morocco, women make up less than a quarter of the country's entire labor force. But there's a nonprofit that's trying to change that statistic and take things a step further. It's called the Amal Women's Center (ph). And for more than five years, the NGO has been providing restaurant training and cooking classes to some of the country's most vulnerable and stigmatized women, including single mothers, divorcees and orphans. Rebecca Rosman recently visited the center in Marrakech and sends us this report.
REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: One of Jamila Aamer's most vivid childhood memories was learning how to cook. After her mother died when she was little, her aunt took her and her siblings in and immediately started showing them how to work a kitchen.
JAMILA AAMER: (Foreign language spoken).
ROSMAN: Rule number one - let nothing go to waste, like these stems from eggplants. Instead of going in the trash as they usually would, they'll be fried in a flavorful meat sauce and served on top of a lamb tagine. Aamer's the head chef at the Amal Women's Center, where she's mentored more than a hundred apprentices.
AAMER: (Through interpreter) I want to teach these students with a lot of love and give them as many skills as I can so they can find better jobs and have better lives.
ROSMAN: Amal was founded by Nora Fitzgerald, was born in Morocco to American parents and has spent most her life here. She says the idea came to her as she walked her daughter to school and saw the same woman begging for money every day.
NORA FITZGERALD: And she had two little girls similar to my kids' ages. And I'd give her clothes from my daughter. And we just kept having this rapport. And she had just a beautiful face and a beautiful presence. And we stayed in touch for a really long time before anything like Amal happened because obviously you don't just go from, like, meeting somebody to having some great idea of how to help them.
ROSMAN: She was a single mother. And Fitzgerald started teaching her and other women how to bake, mostly American recipes like cheesecakes, cupcakes and brownies which they sold at local bake sales - small steps that made a big difference for the women.
FITZGERALD: They were like, Nora, it's the first time we ever worked for ourselves in our whole life. Like, we're not being bossed around by somebody. And I remember one of them, she said to me, you know, the color came back to my cheeks.
ROSMAN: From there, the idea grew into the center that exists today. Every six months, 30 young women are selected to work at one of Amal's two branches where they receive intensive training in cooking, restaurant management and life skills. The nonprofit has a small staff of around 25 people. Souad Kadi is the trainee manager.
SOUAD KADI: The trainees must have the age between 18 and 35 and should be one of the following categories - either divorced, a single mother, widows, orphans or single.
ROSMAN: Kadi explains that in Moroccan society, these kinds of women are often stigmatized and shut out. That's especially true for single mothers. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Morocco and could even result in a prison sentence.
FITZGERALD: They're like this category that society wishes would be invisible. Like, they just wish people like this would disappear. You know, nobody wants to look at it face on. Nobody wants to see them as full human beings who may be flawed.
ROSMAN: Fitzgerald first opened Amal's doors in the spring of 2013. Today it serves around a hundred customers daily. Locals and tourists alike come for traditional Moroccan specialties like tagine, a mix of vegetables, spices and meat cooked slowly over hot coals and served with homemade bread and freshly blended mint lemonade.
KARIMA MINOURZS: (Foreign language spoken).
ROSMAN: Karima Minourzs has been a trainee at Amal for about three months now. She says that because of a series of health problems she wasn't able to finish her high school education.
MINOURZS: (Foreign language spoken).
ROSMAN: But now the 24-year-old feels re-energized and wants to become a chef.
MINOURZS: (Through interpreter) I feel like things have really opened up for me here. Amal is my first home and my second home.
ROSMAN: At the end of their six-month traineeships, Amal helps the women find jobs, often in hotels and restaurants.
FITZGERALD: Getting your first minimum-wage job is basically our ultimate goal here.
ROSMAN: Even though it's just minimum wage, Nora Fitzgerald says it's a huge step towards independence for the women. And it's a second chance. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Marrakech, Morocco.
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