“If You Chant the Muslim Call-to-Prayer you will Stay Here in Morocco Forever”

Morocco is a key migratory hub: immigration, emigration and transit migration towards Europe generate an intricate web of stories of mobility. Among them, this research explores the ways young West African children living in Rabat recount their life stories, their experiences of exclusion, racism and inclusion, their multiplicity of belongings and their expectations for their future.
Liminal Lives: between Morocco, Ivory Coast and Canada

Directrice1 is a chatty eleven-year-old girl. She is born in Ivory Coast, she has spent a few years travelling around West Africa and lived in a refugee camp in Ghana before reaching Morocco with her mother and her four siblings. While she guides me along the empty streets of Ausha, a small “ville nouvelle” located just outside Rabat, she starts telling me about her plans for the future:

Directrice: I want to be a doctor, […] because if for example my mum is ill, I can cure her.
Chiara: and you want to study that here in Morocco or-
Directrice: No! Go … for example to Canada … to Germany … I do not like Morocco so much … they are too racist.
Chiara: and what about Ivory Coast, why-
Directrice: Ivory Coast, I love Ivory Coast because it is my country.
Chiara: and would you like to be a doctor in Ivory Coast?
Directrice: No, because if for example I leave for Canada and I grow up I can send my family out for example my ant my cousins to… to another country.
Chiara: and you think that they all want to go to another county?
Directrice: they say they want to see the European countries because they have never been to a European country.
Chiara: and why do they want to see European countries?
Directrice: I do not know.

Directrice’s accounts about her life in Morocco, her experiences of inclusion and exclusion and her plans for the future shed light on an aspect of international migration that receives very little attention. If migrations in the Western world is somehow a “hip” research field and the topic camps on our newspapers on a daily base, very little is said about migrations outside the European border, despite representing the majority of the migration flows. Also, while children are one of the core reasons for family migration, and they are centrally exploited by media to catalyse a sense of guilt around their victimised portrayals, little or no attention is given to their own experiences of migration and the way they make sense and present their stories of mobile childhoods.

To counter this myopic view on migrations, I decided to explore the lives of young children like Directrice, who migrate with their families from West Africa and who have established themselves in Rabat, Morocco. This country is one of the doors to Europe, due to the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and the proximity to the Spanish coasts. For decades, the Kingdom has played a crucial role as EU right hand to stop the flux of migrants from reaching the European shores. The crowing of King Mohammed VI at the beginning of this century has significantly inverted the course of this approach towards Europe, outdistancing Morocco from the Northern neighbours and reinforcing the ties with the other African countries. This political move affected the national approach towards migration, introducing anti-xenophobia campaigns, implementing regularisations for illegal migrants in the country and enacting participation to school for all migrant children, including irregular ones. These policies have eased access to services for many migrants in the country, but barriers to inclusion persist, especially for children. The inability of the families to speak the local languages, persisting racism and religious discrimination, and a high level of unemployment still push migrant families to perceive Morocco only as a temporary residence before being able to move towards Europe or North America.

Expressing plural belongings in contexts of limited agency

The specific combination of policy factors and family expectations place migrant children in Morocco at the crossroad between various instances of belonging. As we can see from the example above from Directrice, she states without doubts that the country she loves is Ivory Coast. She seems to be equally convinced, though, that she does not want to live there in the future, but prefers to live somewhere in Europe or North America. Morocco, on the other hand, is portrayed in negative terms because people are racist. The ambivalence of her experience of belonging towards these three different world-regions is evident by reflecting on the last sentence on the account above: Directrice wants to go to Europe, but she has a very vague idea of what Europe is and why people would want to go there. In other accounts, she talk extensively about her networks of Moroccan friends in school, and how they help when she struggles with Classical Arabic or Darija, the Moroccan dialect. Directrice, like many other migrant children, can fluently speak Darija, while most of the parents cannot, and she claims with pride to be the one that helps her mother at the market. Directrice’s ability to speak these languages provides her with an asset that her mother does not have, giving her access to the Moroccan society in ways her mother cannot. Although for Directrice Ivory Coast embodies her “home country”, a country she loves, she has very little memory of the country itself and little interest in living there, in striking contrast to her mother’s plan to return to Ivory Coast at a certain point in life. If Directrice seems to mimic the mother’s narratives about belonging, inclusion and exclusion, a deeper analysis shows how she presents a much more ambiguous belonging (or desire for belonging) to Morocco, to her country of origin or to the Western world.

Laughter as an Ability to Act: Rethinking Agency and Vulnerability

The central focus of my research is not just that of identifying the elements of children’s narratives that point towards a plurality of relationships and identities. Rather, I am looking at how children present and use this multiplicity of belongings in ways that unsettle the adults’ and parents’ view about their own belonging. In doing so, I am at rethinking the concept of agency and vulnerability in a Global South context. The specific instances and ways in which children opt for presenting particular experiences of inclusions or exclusion are key elements to understand the ways in which the children themselves can make sense of their agency and the limits to their agency.

Migrant children are often subject to a double victimisation: as children, there are generally in a position of powerlessness towards adults, and as migrants they frequently suffer from experiences of isolation and discrimination that limit their chances to act independently. At the same time, though, through school attendance children are able to gain assets that facilitate the creation of networks with the local community. Through these assets, children possess alternative instances for expression of agency, from which parents are often excluded. In Morocco, the duality of their agency/vulnerability status is enhanced by the distinct hierarchical culture embedded in the school system, which emphasises the need for children to be quiet and obedient, imposing strong limitations to their ability to express themselves freely. From an early age, physical and verbal violence against students are not infrequent.

My research indicates that children are able to understand the duality of their condition as simultaneously agents and victims, they make sense of their own vulnerability and they find room for agency within contexts of limited agency. Their strategies to present their experiences of belonging, inclusion and exclusion in environments that limit their possibility for articulation go beyond uttered language and include the “undomesticated one” as well as silences or laughter. This is exemplified in the extract below, taken from my field notes, where I recorded a short interaction between Directrice, Poisson, a seven-year-old boy from Ivory Coast and friend of Directrice, and Aaron Cedric, a neighbour of them from Cameroun, in his thirties, who accompanied us on a walking tour of their neighbourhood:

Shortly before we parted, at the end of our walking tour in Ausha, the Muezzin started calling for the evening prayer. Directrice and Poisson started to sing the prayer along. Aaron Cedric stopped their chanting, reminded them that they are Christians and scolded them saying “you will be staying here in Morocco forever”. The two children looked at each other, laughed together and went on with their chant.

All names have been changed to ensure anonymity. The names have been chosen from the children involved in the research.

(Chiara Massaroni)

Foto MassaroniChiara landed at the University of Innsbruck after a long journey through Europe and Africa working for different NGOs in the field of young children education and inclusion. She is currently doing her PhD in Sociology on the identity and belongings of young migrant children living in Morocco, while she continues her collaborations on similar topics with various organisations such as UNODC, UNESCO and Aflatoun International. She is also part of the Doktoratskolleg “Dynamiken von Ungleichheit und Differenz im Zeitalter der Globalisierung”.

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