Barcelonians of Moroccan origin: two worlds with a common objective

Photo: Dani Codina

Ahmed Abair in the organisation he presides, the Associació Amical dels Immigrants Marroquins a Catalunya (Moroccan Immigrants Friends Association in Catalonia), based in the Raval.
Photo: Dani Codina

Citizens of Moroccan origin make up a very large community as a result of the migratory movements of the seventies. Morocco is just an hour and a half away by plane, but sometimes it seems much farther away. This distance is imaginary, and most likely comes from cultural differences.

According to information from 2017 from the City Council’s Department of Statistics, a total of 12,872 citizens of Moroccan origin live in Barcelona. This represents 4.7% of the total population of foreigners. The districts where they are most present are Ciutat Vella (20.8%), Sants-Montjuïc (15.5%), Nou Barris (14%) and Sant Andreu (9,8%). These numbers do not include those who, despite being of Moroccan origin, have obtained Spanish nationality over the years. Over 50,000 have done so since 2004.

Significant Moroccan immigration to Catalonia began in 1967, and in 1972 the consulate of the Kingdom of Morocco was established in Barcelona. Curiously, the first Moroccans to arrive came from Europe and not from their country of origin. The economic recession faced by France caused them to move the country next door, and they set up here provisionally, hoping to finally settle elsewhere in Europe. Most eventually abandoned these plans thanks to the evolution of the Catalan economy and the growth of the construction sector, which needed plenty of manpower.

Around the same time, a more intense migratory movement began. The type of people immigrating from Morocco has changed over the years: in the beginning it was primarily made up of men without families, and later on, thanks to regroupings, it consisted of more consolidated families. The role of women has also been reinforced: they became a key piece in promoting coexistence, while also gaining visibility in Catalan public life.

One of the first organizations created to accompany newcomers from Morocco was Bayt-al-Thaqafa (House of Culture), promoted in 1974 by Teresa Losada, a Franciscan and doctor in Semitic languages who left behind her academic career to focus on social action. She was a key figure in welcoming Moroccan immigration, and worked extensively on dignifying cultural and religious diversity.

Islam, the predominant religion in the North African country, is key to understanding of the life of Catalano-Moroccans. It isn’t that everything revolves around it, but it does notably mark the identity and cultural character of this community. The first places of worship began to be built in the ’70s, and over time they have become authentic social centres. They house significant cooperative activities, as well as educational activities that go far beyond religious expression.

Building identity

In this social context, in 1979 the Association of Moroccan Immigrants in Barcelona, knowns as Amical, was born in El Raval. This was one of the first organizations created to assist immigrants from this North African country, and to promote their integration into their society of adoption. Its president, Ahmed Abair, who has collaborated with the association since the ‘90s, ensures us that one of their main priorities today is to help young people of Moroccan origin in the process of building their identity.

One of these young people is Ikram, who accompanies Abair to the headquarters of the organization as they prepare an activity for the children of the neighbourhood: “I’m thirty, I work in a clothing store, my parents are of Moroccan origin… and even though I’m really aware of my family origins, I feel fully Barcelonian”, she states. “We’re here to improve this city.” One of the girls that are with her, Saida, agrees entirely. She confidently states: “I was born at the Hospital del Mar, can you be any more from here? It doesn’t make sense to ask if I’ve integrated or not. Why would I have to integrate if I’ve spent my entire life here?”

Ahmed is a charismatic person with an interesting life story. He excitedly explains how, during his youth in Nador, he discovered the power of sport as a tool for social transformation. “I came to Barcelona when I was seventeen to participate in a boxing competition, but I ended up staying”, he recalls. I’ve always been fascinated by the world of boxing. I still remember the first day I stepped into a gym and taped up my hands. I had never imagined how much that would change my life. As a matter of fact, if I’m here it’s because of that day.” A pair of tourists interrupts him: they come in and ask where they can get a good plate of couscous. With a big smile, he leads them out to the street. When he returns, he explains that “as inhabitants of the neighbourhood, we have to show hospitality to any visitor who asks us for help. That’s what we believe, and it’s what we do each day.”

Ahmed took on the responsibility of improving coexistence through his organization, and he did so in the world of education through the school parents’ association, which he led for some time. Later on, he served on the educational council of the local secondary school. From this period, he remembers one of the most revolutionary initiatives they attempted: “I proposed that they stop expelling young people with bad behaviour. We created an emergency committee that would propose community service activities they could take part in in exchange for not being expelled. We need to educate using values and community commitment, never through punishment.”

Photo: Dani Codina

Mohcine Al Maimouni, President of Barcelona’s Associació d’Estudiants Marroquins (Association of Moroccan Students), set up in 2008, photographed in Canaletes.
Photo: Dani Codina

At 76, Ahmed has hundreds of anecdotes that illustrate how he operates as a socially involved individual, while also introducing us to the many committed Barcelonians who have helped him along the way. He has never felt alone: “In everything we do, we always get a positive response from our neighbourhood and the city. One of the activities that excites me the most is when we set up a Bedouin tent during the neighbourhood festival, to which we invite all the neighbours— to try our dishes and listen to our music, but most of all to share in the feeling of neighbourliness.”

Sometimes, he calls on the need to break with the past to start a new period of our lives that allows us to improve. In the case of immigration, it has always been said that this is the best way of understanding the world of our youth. Nevertheless, through his example Ahmed reminds us of the importance of always taking into account the people who have spent years defending peaceful coexistence in our neighbourhoods, with even more complicated conditions than what we now face.

When it comes time to speak of the future of this community, we have to consider the Association of Moroccan Students in Barcelona, created in 2008. In his office, current president Mohcine Al Maimouni and secretary Hafsa Chabaly work to address the concerns of the student community. They were both born in Barcelona, and they know about the importance of using education and training against social exclusion and isolation: “The organization was born with the aim of serving as a bridge between the students and the city. In recent years, we’ve done really positive work in this regard: platforms like ours help to keep young people from ever feeling alone or excluded”, Mohcine assures us.

The association president shows us scores of posters from the activities organized over the years: cultural presentations, expositions, musical performances, conferences, talks… They believe that one of the fundamental pillars of their task is building points of reference for young people: “we often organize gatherings and discussions with Catalans of Moroccan origin with notable professional, social or academic careers; before, it was difficult to find them, but now, fortunately, there are plenty of them.” University and professional training have become key thanks to a change in socioeconomic dynamics. The parents and grandparents who came from Morocco were people with basic educations, who barely knew how to read and write. But now, many of the children of these first waves of immigration have become doctors, nurses, police officers, teachers, lawyers… Education is neither an anecdotal nor occasional element, since it has very clear effects: Hafsa, for example, explains that he has just been given a scholarship to complete his doctorate in civil engineering in Canada.

Defeating fear and prejudice

What currently concerns these young people the most is being able to live in their city without being affected by cultural or religious prejudice. They are saddened that their names or physical appearance can still serve as barriers when renting an apartment or looking for employment. Their big challenge now is overcoming these fears and working towards an egalitarian environment in a country with multiple identities. Nevertheless, those in charge of the association assure us that they have never felt extreme racism. “Barcelona is an open, dynamic, and very human city. We need to defeat our fears and stereotypes and always work on improving”, they state. Another serious problem that concerns them is economic inequality, which prevents many young people from continuing their studies.

The attacks that took place on La Rambla in August endangered all of the work done so far to build a better environment, free of prejudice. “In spite of the significant social shock, citizens responded with notable calm. I felt proud of the people of this land, of this city that I fell in love with the first time I saw it”, declares Imad, the branch director of a Moroccan bank involved in the creation of the Darna Social Centre. This association works to promote coexistence and to prevent the violent radicalization of young people through social action, and especially with the creation of spaces for debate and dialogue. One of its most recent projects is the Gora collective, which takes its name from an Arabic expression referring to solidarity among neighbours. It is made up principally of women of Moroccan origin, and it proposes actions to promote gender equality.

The Moroccan community continues to work to find its place in an increasingly globalized and diverse environment. Its biggest challenge is to orient and help young people to understand, without ever forgetting where they are from, their role as citizens born between two worlds, as an essential value for the future.

Mohamed El Amrani

Communicator and social entrepreneur

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