by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There wasn’t much at all about a trip to Morocco that excited Patty Morrisey, a parishioner of St. Patrick Parish here.
“They had to really talk me into this one,” said the Catholic Education Foundation director of development
After all, there’s no holiday feel to sleeping in 40-degree temperatures, taking cold showers, and sharing meals with strangers — everyone literally eating out of the same bowl.
Her husband, CEF executive director Michael Morrisey, found the trip a little challenging as well.
“[Moroccan custom] doesn’t allow eating with the left hand,” he said. “I’m left-handed.
“And their taxis are the smallest vehicles you ever saw in your life; it was very difficult to get my size fifteens into a taxi cab.”
But for more than a year, the Morriseys hadn’t seen their son Shane and his new wife Jenay, both Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco.
And as any parent knows, when it comes to your children’s welfare, you’re willing to do anything.
Except maybe eat raw fish and goat.
“We had our limits,” said Patty.
Beginning an adventure
Shane and Jenay Morrisey were married for just over a year when they began a stint with the Peace Corps in March 2012.
It was difficult for Patty and Michael to see them go.
“They gave us a hard time because we called them children,” said Michael. “They said, ‘Dad, we’re married.’
“So now I refer to them as children that are married.”
Although their permanent assignment was at a “dar chabab” (youth center) in Kenitra, Morocco, the young couple spent their first two months in Fes, Morocco, where their host family helped them learn the language and acclimate to the culture.
It was a big adjustment.
“Ninety-nine percent of Morocco is Muslim,” said Patty. “Five times a day, they have [a] call to prayer through these loud speakers on top of the mosques.
“During the month of Ramadan, the entire city shuts down.”
“I think that’s hard,” said Michael. “But add the lifestyle that goes with that — it is totally different from the way we live here.
“And nobody there speaks English; it’s all Moroccan Arabic.”
At the end of May, Shane and Jenay made the move to Kenitra, and started teaching at the youth center. Kenitra is on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, which is in the northwest corner of North Africa.
They’ve been their ever since, teaching English and job skills to high school and college-age students.
Although Internet access was a challenge, through email and Skype, the young couple was able to make contact with their family in the States at least twice a month.
But as Thanksgiving and Christmas approached, Shane and Jenay admitted on their online blog that they were feeling homesick.
“We have been in Morocco for seven months,” they wrote. “We’ve made a lot of new friends.
“However, we’ve missed three weddings, five births and several fantasy football drafts, among the numerous other significant life events happening back home.”
The couple asked for CARE packages of peanut butter, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, pancake syrup and Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Patty and Michael decided to give them a bigger CARE package — by making the long journey to Morocco themselves.
They knew the conditions there were going to be a challenge.
“When we made the decision to do it,” explained Michael, “Shane asked if we wanted to stay in a hotel or do the Peace Corps life.
“And [Patty and I] kind of looked at each other and we said, ‘We’ll do the Peace Corps life.’”
After a long flight, the Morriseys first sight of Morocco made it clear they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
“When we got off the plane, there were soldiers at the airport with machine guns,” said Michael.
But Shane and Jenay were also there.
And though a little thinner, they were healthy, happy and eager to welcome their guests to the apartment they would all share for the next week and a half.
“They have the smallest one-bedroom apartment you’ve ever seen in your life,” said Patty. “No hot water, no dishwasher, no clothes washer, no heat or air-conditioning. We had to sleep on the floor — no beds.”
The apartment was located on the fifth floor and accessed by a long, steep set of dimly-lit stairs.
It was constructed of concrete to hold in the cold during the desert summer. But it wasn’t summer when the Morriseys visited.
“We had long underwear and lots of blankets. And at night, we were able to stay warm,” said Patty, “but it got into the low 40s.”
“So it was a challenge,” said Michael. “But that’s what they do, so that’s what we chose to do.”
The apartment was located a short distance from the youth center where the Morriseys spent much of their trip, quickly learning that Shane and Jenay were greatly appreciated and loved.
“The highlight for me was when the students put together a surprise party for us,” said Patty. “It was just very heartening that the kids were so cared about.
“I think it made us feel that they were safer because they have that support behind them.”
The Morriseys weren’t surprised that the youth center was located in a very poor section of Kenitra, but they were moved by the level of poverty.
“You can see poverty all around them,” said Patty.
“I won’t say it was worse than we expected,” said Michael, “but it was probably more exaggerated.
“And as a result, the setting that the kids work in and how they go about their business, that was an eye-opener for us.”
Life in Kenitra
Aside from the small taxis, walking is the only mode of transportation in Kenitra. The Morriseys estimated they walked six miles a day.
And they soon learned the cost of everything is negotiable.
“Food, clothes, shoes, taxi rides,” said Michael, “there are no set prices. So you have to be able to speak the language — Patty and I were totally helpless.”
That helplessness forced them to rely on their children, and they were soon amazed at Shane and Jenay’s command of the language and their negotiating capabilities.
So they were happy to visit the home of the host family that had helped their children acclimate so well, and they were honored to be invited to share the family’s Friday couscous meal.
“Every Friday at noon,” explained Patty, “in all the family homes, the father comes home, the kids come home from school, and everybody sits down and has [a] couscous meal.”
Couscous, a kind of semolina, is placed in a large bowl and topped with steamed chicken and vegetables. The bowl is then set in the center of the table.
“And everybody just grabs,” said Patty.
“They literally eat out of the same bowl,” added Michael. “So we were kind of looking at each other.”
Only one family member could communicate in English.
“The brother spoke broken English,” said Michael, “and the mom was telling us through him to eat more, eat more.
“And we were saying, ‘Oh no, we’re full, we’re full.’”
A good goodbye
Though they didn’t find a food they would particularly recommend, the Morriseys enjoyed touring the desert city of Kenitra with its beautiful palms and coastal beaches —a landscape very different from home.
“There was one little section of a king’s palace we went through that had some grass,” recalled Patty. “And a guy was mowing.
“I remember specifically Shane said, ‘It’s so good to smell cut grass.’”
In the end, saying goodbye to their children was difficult, but easier than the first goodbye more than a year ago.
“Just because there were so many unknowns back then,” said Patty. “But this time, we’d figured out some of those unknowns, and we felt better about it.”
“The kids have been able to adapt, adjust and figure out the job they’re doing,” said Michael. “And they’re obviously successful at doing it.
“They’re able to function in a whole different world and, at the same time, able to maintain their moral values.”
“We basically lived their life for nine days,” added Patty. “[And] it was a great experience for us.”
A great experience, but one they’re anxious to repeat any time soon?
“No,” said Michael. “Knowing that God will take care of them, we probably won’t see them for 14 months.
“And we’re hoping they’re not thinking about re-upping.”