In the Marrakech-Tensift-Al Haouz region of Morocco, school dropout rates are among the highest in the country. Up to 14 percent of the region’s 100,000 poor and vulnerable children are already working or are at risk of becoming child laborers. Many of them live in difficult situations or end up on the streets.

But these most vulnerable children and youth have an advocate in Karima Mkika. At the Al Karam Center she founded in 1997, they have a second home and a second chance.

Al Karam, which means generosity in Arabic, serves children and youth 5 to 18 years old, providing housing, educational support, health and psychosocial services to the most marginalized and youngest members of society. Many of them arrive at Al Karam through the courts, after other possibilities have been exhausted.

A home in times of crisis

Creating opportunity for those without it has been a driving force for Karima, a mother of four, since she was young.

“I went to my grandparents in a neighborhood where there were children in trouble and I thought: ‘I’m lucky. I have a family and others do not, so why not share that with other children?’ ” she says.

The beneficiaries of Al Karam—some temporarily separated from their families and others who are orphans—gain more than a sense of family. The center’s staff work with government agencies and other partners to provide clothing, meals, health care and schooling as well as psychosocial support to help the children overcome family-related and other trauma.

“Al Karam is only one link in the chain,” Karima says. “We work with several government partners and also with private structures.”

Through these networks, Al Karam conducts outreach to families to prevent children in tenuous situations from falling through the cracks, dropping out of school or having to go to work.

For those in crisis, Al Karam provides protection from abuse and a safe place to continue growing, learning and playing, despite the instability that they may experience outside the center’s walls. Specialized staff work with youth and families to create safer environments and get children back in school or, for those of legal working age, engaged in safe, legal work.

With thousands of at-risk youth in the Marrakech region, this is an uphill and ongoing struggle, Karima says, but it is essential.

“We do not have the magic wand,” she admits, noting that tomorrow there may be more children working or on the streets in great difficulty.

But in those periods of crisis, she and her staff are there to support children and families in finding stability.

Photo by Erick Gibson
Photo by Erick Gibson

A stand for children’s education

A graduate of Morocco’s free public school system and a public university, Karima is a champion for education. For the children she serves, leaving school can be the first step to becoming child laborers and a lifetime of lower wages and less opportunity.

“The real tragedy is that when a child leaves school, he is vulnerable and likely to suffer from everything,” she says, including illiteracy and poverty.

Karima has made dropout prevention a priority for Al Karam. All the school-aged children at the center are enrolled or re-enrolled in school and provided with uniforms and transportation. For out-of-school youth who have fallen behind and those who can legally work, Al Karam provides alternative, nonformal education and workforce readiness training.

Al Karam has teamed up with the Promise Pathways project, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and implemented by Creative Associates International, to reduce child labor, improve opportunities for families and provide safe and productive employment alternatives for youth of legal working age.

Together, they educate families about child labor laws and build a culture of support for schooling among parents, youth and children served by Al Karam and the Promise Pathways project.

“Today in Morocco we must make education a priority for everyone—the state and the family. That’s why we work all the time in awareness sessions to make these families aware of the importance of school,” she says.

She says she is proudest of her work when she sees a young person overcome extreme challenges and go on to finish school and do well in life after leaving Al Karam.

The ultimate goal of Al Karam is to return children to healthy, stable family environments. But while children are at the center, Karima Mkika and the Al Karam team provide a caring environment and a sense of stability through recreational activities, like attending this soccer game. Photo by Erick Gibson.
The ultimate goal of Al Karam is to return children to healthy, stable family environments. But while children are at the center, Karima Mkika and the Al Karam team provide a caring environment and a sense of stability through recreational activities, like attending this soccer game. Photo by Erick Gibson.

Advocating for children’s rights

When Karima is not at Al Karam, connecting children and families in crisis to urgent services and support, she is campaigning for children’s rights on a larger scale.

As secretary general of the Committee for the Protection of Children of Marrakech and a human rights consultant to the National Initiative for Human Development, she believes that change must be systemic to be sustainable.

Morocco has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has passed other laws protecting children and preventing child labor, including a law raising the legal working age to 15, which Al Karam helped create.

But ensuring those laws are respected in practice is a continuing effort, Karima says.

“Morocco is one of the countries that has the most beautiful laws,” she says. “Today it is necessary to apply them. It is the effectiveness of laws that we need to work on and raising the awareness of everyone—families, teachers, the state, local communities and others—about the importance and application of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Through her advocacy and on-the-ground work, Karima and her dedicated team are moving toward this goal and achieving recognition of rights and second chances one family and one child at a time.

By Jillian Slutzker
The Promise Pathways project is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. This material does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government. Mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. government. No Promise Pathways project funds were used in the production of this material.