Finding a Better Place

She was there in front of me, maybe four or five years old, when I walked out of the adobe shack with the tin roof in the middle of a slum in Casablanca, Morocco. She was wearing a pink, floral-print dress, stained with dirt.

She was too thin. But her brown eyes sparkled and a broad smile creased her face. We just stared at each other, neither saying a word.

Three of us – Brad Jacobsen, Tom Whisenand and I – had just interviewed (and photographed) a mother and her 17-year-old daughter, who made a life and family together thanks to Aïcha Ech Channa and her Association Solidarité Féminine.

In less than two months, the University of St. Thomas and the Opus Prize Foundation will honor three social entrepreneurs from around the world, and one will receive $l million to further humanitarian work. Aïcha is one of the finalists for the Opus Prize.

Aïcha, a 68-year-old Muslim woman, founded her association 25 years ago to provide services to single mothers and their children. Since then, she’s been criticized, castigated, recognized and rewarded. Her critics say she is supporting prostitution. Her supporters say she is fighting for the rights of mothers who are too often maligned and too little supported.

We met several women who managed not only to keep their children but raise them and provide them with opportunities they never had. Adjou Kabob and her daughter, Dounia, live in the slum, one room maybe 10 feet by 12. But Dounia will graduate from high school in a year and has passed her TOEFL exam.

That’s a great story. But the most memorable moments on the trip were with this little girl. After a couple of minutes, I sat down on the pavement, the alley between shacks. We were face-to-face, eye-to-eye and, as strange as this sounds, soul-to-soul.

Her smile seemed so sweet. But that was tempered by an apparent sadness in her eyes, as though she’d seen things I couldn’t imagine and faced uncertainty I could barely understand. She was a youngster, just a kid, with an old soul.

I pointed to the scar on her forehead. Someone said she’d been in an auto accident. I wondered what other misfortunes befell her and what obstacles lay before her. Would she be healthy and strong? Would she go to school? Could she find a skill and get a job?

She reached out to touch my hand. I patted her cheek and she smiled.

And then it was time to get in the car and go. We had another interview lined up, a half-hour away from this neighborhood called El Hank, the site of an old psychiatric hospital that had been invaded by the homeless. They fashioned their own rooms until they could find a better place to stay.

I don’t think it’s likely this little girl will find a better place, at least not for a while. But maybe the same spunk and spirit that allowed her to go up to a stranger will make her a survivor – and give her hope.

Maybe. I’m going to keep her in my morning prayer for awhile, tucked between friends and family.