Morocco alumna builds on migrant experience with UN Vatican fellowship

August 7th, 2019   |   Morocco, SIT Study Abroad

Young woman with floral scarf in a Moroccan home
Melinda Davis on SIT Morocco: Migration and Transnational Identity.
Photo courtesy of Melinda Davis.

In May 2018, toward the end of her semester in Rabat, Morocco, Melinda Davis had a memorable encounter.

For some weeks, Melinda and another SIT Study Abroad classmate had been teaching English to a group of teenagers, all of them migrants to Morocco from various sub-Saharan African countries.

The lessons were simple and practical, emphasizing usage more than grammar. For example, the children’s song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” taught basic anatomy. Contemporary pop songs and classroom games built other vocabulary. The group soon gelled around its two young teachers and Melinda could feel her students growing fond of her.

As the teaching stint neared its end, one of the more occasional students, a 17-year-old with a 2-year-old son, asked how long the pair would continue to teach. Just the month, Melinda answered.

“Oh, you’re just like all the other Americans,” said the student. “They only ever come for a month, and then they leave, and we’re still here.”

... I can’t just volunteer. I have to really be all in if I continue to work in aid or teach classes like this again. I need to really be committed.”

The remark struck a nerve.

“That just drove it home,” Melinda said. “It’s like, oh gosh, I can’t just volunteer. I have to really be all in if I continue to work in aid or teach classes like this again. I need to really be committed.”

And so, the following summer, after returning home to New Orleans, Melinda agreed to teach a full, three-month English course to a group of middle-aged women from Yemen, most of whom already held university degrees and were looking to add English to a long list of skills. She applied teaching techniques from her time in Morocco, and little by little the class opened up to her, as the Rabat teenagers had.

With a full-time job in addition to her teaching duties, Melinda remembered that summer as “intense,” but also tremendously rewarding. “I never thought that I’d be good at teaching,” she said. “I got to think about them as people and also remember my students from Morocco, and that helped me to push through.”

Two students riding camels in the desert
Melinda was drawn to Morocco because she knew it would be unlike the United States or western Europe.
Photo courtesy of Melinda Davis.

Long before she traveled to Morocco, Melinda was already a veteran of international travel. Her parents immigrated to the United States from India and often returned with their daughter to visit relatives. Melinda grew up with a sense that “the world is bigger than my little suburb of New Orleans,” and with that came an awareness of how much inequality, injustice, and conflict exists in the world, too.

That knowledge, in turn, nudged her toward her two majors at the University of Notre Dame: peace studies and psychology. She thought of them as two ways to approach the problem of conflict, one external and the other internal. Conflict, Melinda said, results from severed or disrupted relationships. Peace studies teaches how to repair those ties among people. Psychology shows how to heal them within yourself. 

Notre Dame offered no shortage of opportunities to study both conflict and international affairs, but a desire to move beyond the theoretical drew Melinda to SIT Study Abroad’s Migration and Transnational Identity program in Morocco. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time in college learning about migrant flows and push and pull factors and the most common routes that [refugees and migrants] take,” she said. “The reason that I wanted to go to Morocco was to just be with them and talk to them and meet them and actually encounter them.”

The country also attracted her because she knew that it would be entirely unlike the United States or western Europe. Still, upon arrival, she was taken with the unfamiliarity of the first “non-western” country other than India that she had seen.

I’ve spent a lot of time in college learning about migrant flows and push and pull factors and the most common routes that [refugees and migrants] take. The reason that I wanted to go to Morocco was to just be with them and talk to them and meet them and actually encounter them.”

She moved in with a host family in Rabat’s old Medina, still partially enclosed by 12th-century walls. Just outside her new home, merchants sold an array of leather goods and carpets in one of the city’s souks, or markets. Stray cats slunk around the street peripheries. With so many students living with families in close proximity, the group fell into the habit of visiting one another for tea, traditionally a combination of “gunpowder” green tea, mint leaves, and large quantities of sugar. This was also a chance to catch up on the Medina gossip. 

Above all, Melinda adjusted to Morocco’s more languorous “rhythm of life.” Dinner came at 10 p.m. Communal eating was paramount. Chatting for hours with family and friends took precedence over nervous glances at watches or phones. “Not too many clocks,” Melinda recalled. The pace reminded her of Italy, where she spent two months in 2017.

Her host family helped her acclimate, too. Raised Catholic, and a lifetime student of Catholic schools, Melinda found her Muslim family accommodating of religious difference. She bonded with her host sister when the latter decided to compete in the “Miss Maroc” beauty pageant. Melinda helped by lending jewelry and teaching her sister how to walk in six-inch heels—something ”I’m kind of a pro at,” Melinda said.

Home in Rabat provided a base for learning about migration in Morocco, which includes those leaving for and arriving from other countries—as well as some who emigrated but returned to Morocco after finding life abroad more challenging than expected. Many of this last group find their way to the city of Beni Mellal, where Melinda’s group spoke to Moroccans who had reached Spain and Italy—itself a major feat—but then returned for a variety of reasons. 

“They weren’t able to find jobs or they weren’t able to create a life, and so they ended up back in Morocco, which is a big shame—what they would call hshuma,” Melinda said.

It just really opened up a lot of things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know,” she said.

The group also traveled to the Netherlands, which has been an international leader in efforts to settle refugees and migrants. In Amsterdam, Melinda learned about “the other side of emigration,” where even small gestures of warmth and assistance from longtime residents can make a world of difference to new arrivals.

“It just really opened up a lot of things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know,” she said.

Young woman stands in front of a row of UN flags holding out the Vatican flag
Melinda is spending the summer as a fellow with the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.
Photo courtesy of Melinda Davis.

Now newly graduated from Notre Dame, Melinda intends to take what she has learned about migration in both theory and practice and apply it to her broader interests in international peace-building. As to how exactly she will do that, she is not yet certain. But for now, she is spending the summer as a fellow with the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. The Vatican’s formal representative at the United Nations does not vote on resolutions, but otherwise plays an active role in UN business. Melinda sees it as an opportunity to figure out what she wants to do next.

“I’ve always wanted to work with the Catholic Church on a global scale, so it’s pretty crazy to me that this is what I get to do right now,” she said. “I think this will be the first step in discerning where my skills are most well deployed.”

Whatever she decides to pursue, Melinda will bring an international perspective—an awareness of both human diversity and our fundamental similarities.

“I think it’s really important to have even just the conception that there are people out there that are not like you,” she said. Yet, at the same time, “we’re closer than we think we are.”