TANGIER, Morocco—A 10-year-old boy is standing in front of the whiteboard across from a broken-down bed covered with old Moroccan style multi-colored blankets. In his teacher’s bedroom-turned-classroom, with dim, orange tinted lighting, eroding paint and pen-inked graffiti walls, Chris David, an undocumented migrant from Nigeria, stands erect, arms firmly to his side, head up and recites a poem.
Last August, near the Plaza de Toro square in Tangier in northern Morocco, on Tetouan road, down a steep hill and through an alleyway of gravel, John Churchill, a migrant, created the Neighborhood Education Center. In his apartment, he teaches this class of 17 sub-Saharan undocumented migrant children in an effort to help provide education to a poverty-stricken community that struggles with illiteracy.
“I see them around there,” he says. “Big children cannot even read ABC. So I feel it. Because when I was at their age, I could write. So I decided to do it.” Churchill, 40, is also an undocumented migrant who studied mathematics and physics in Nigeria. He has been in Morocco for 10 years and lives from panhandling.
Last October, the Moroccan Ministry of Education issued guidelines that allow irregular migrants to attend public schools. In the past, most children of migrants were not allowed to attend schools, except for some rare exceptions with the help of charitable organizations. In a country where 56 percent of the population is illiterate, children of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers have an even more intense struggle for adequate schooling.
According to Marc Fawe, director of external relations at the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees Agency, parents face significant paperwork problems and often depend on the kindness of headmasters.
“If a director is open-minded, he will discard administrative obligations,” Fawe said. “It is the case in Rabat [but] less in other provinces, which are less sensitive or aware of the situation of Sub Saharan children.”
“You can estimate that the new policy will not be fully operational and implemented before several months (or years),” he added.
Still, getting access to public schools has not completely solved the problem of illiteracy among this population. Many Christian parents are wary of placing their children in schools that teach Islam. Others, who dream of crossing to Europe, think of their stay as temporary and don’t feel a need to get an education in Morocco.
“Some [parents] are saying, ‘yeah but if we put them in school they will become Muslim,’ and things like that,” said Nadia Khrouz, former program manager of immigrant rights for the Anti-Racist Group to Defend Foreigners and Migrants, a Moroccan organization known by its French acronym Gadem. “Parents say ‘okay we’re not here for long time. So we will move. It’s not necessary to integrate them into the school. They will [learn] Arabic and have the Islamic instruction and we don’t want the Islamic instruction.”
Although no government data track the number of undocumented Sub-Saharan child migrants in Morocco, Fawe, of the U.N. refugees agency, estimates the number to be around 5,000 to 8,000. Even if legally allowed to have their children register in Moroccan public schools, parents find the process daunting. The parents must submit an application along with a handwritten request signed by the father, an identification card or passport and a residence card or birth certificate to prove the child’s identity, according to the Ministry of Education—papers that unregistered migrants often lack.
Vera Omos, an undocumented Nigerian migrant whose 5-year-old daughter is attending Churchill’s school, is now trying to get her daughter into a public school with the help of Caritas, a local charity dedicated to granting migrant youth access to education.
“The reason I did not go [before] is because I’ve been thinking I would not stay long like this,” she said. “I thought if I come I stay two months or three months.”
Badra Alaoui is a clinical psychologist from the Foundation Orient Occident, a Rabat based non-governmental organization that provides migrants with educational workshops and helps them get professional training and access to public schools. She says that migrant students sometimes miss months of school because their parents are constantly on the move.
“Morocco for [them] is a transit country,” she says. “We have a lot of situations where the mothers take the child from school… in order to travel, but she can’t, [so] she comes back after three or four months and it’s a big problem for the child who misses school.”
In Tangier, Churchill’s center is a convenient way for children to receive education during their limbo period between Morocco and Europe without going through a formal, unfamiliar structure. No questions asked. No wait. No fees. No papers signed. “He’s easier because he will not ask you for papers,” Omos said. “He takes the children, he teaches the children.”
Still, not all parents take full advantage of the opportunity.
Parents don’t receive as much money from panhandling when their children are not with them, which results in increased student absences. “Not all of [the children] are usually present everyday,” said Churchill. “A lot of the women, they don’t have chance to get the money, so they telling me now to give evening lectures so that since they don’t have chance to get the money [in the day], they can come in the evening.”
With this understanding, Churchill doesn’t require payment. He teaches classes about social studies, science, math and history, looking up his daily lessons at a nearby Internet café rather than buying textbooks. Though some parents pay Churchill out of gratitude, the school is completely free.
“There are people who don’t have money. I say, ‘where is your book?’ they say ‘my mommy didn’t buy it for me.’ In my own way, this is what I can do,” Churchill said.
For 10-year-old Chris David, learning is a crucial part of his migration to Europe. From Nigeria, after his mother died, David walked through deserts and across borders with his father before he experienced his first year in Morocco. Taking it step by step, with Churchill’s help, David says he is slowly learning how to read so that he can “grow up and have work.”
“I want to go and learn,” he says. “Because I love Europe. Because there’s peace there, I want to see peaceful life to live.” He is alluding to racist attacks that he’s endured while living in Plaza de Toro. “Arab is racist. He collect stone and bust my head. I didn’t do anything,” he said, eyes wide and voice shaky. He almost whispers: “My father…take care of me.”
Out of a day of what he describes as eating, sleeping and playing football, David says his favorite part of the day is reading for his school assignments. Whatever he learns at school, he teaches his father at home.
Like David, many Sub-Saharan migrant youth, see school as a stepping-stone to Europe, a place that parents have engraved in their minds as a dream home. School is a place of refuge amidst the daily struggle with racism and discomfort of a new land.
“I want to sharpen my brain,” he said. “I go to school, I learn to work. Before I grow, I learn before I start work. My work can be a doctor, football, wrestling.”
Imani Brammer, a student at Ithaca College, in the United States, spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists.