- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

CASABLANCA, Morocco — The name of this coastal Moroccan city still conjures for many the romance and exoticism of the 1942 Hollywood classic. But modern Casablanca is a far cry from the sleazy, remote place portrayed in the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

With 4 million residents, it is Morocco’s largest city. Although Rabat is the North African nation’s political capital, Casablanca drives Morocco’s economic heartbeat.

Traffic files past banks housed in modern buildings and the grand plazas of the city center. It is the country’s busiest port, and is surrounded by more than half the country’s industry.

Advances in industry and improvements in finance have contributed to a real gross domestic product growth rate of 6 percent, but the wealth has yet to trickle down to some sectors of society. Unemployment in Morocco stood at 19 percent last year, and in 2003 Casablanca had the third highest unemployment rate among the country’s urban areas.

Young adults are the group least likely to benefit from gains in industry and economics. In urban areas, more than a third of people ages 15 to 24 are unemployed. Although the country has more students than ever enrolled in higher education, barely half of children in Casablanca enrolled in the first cycle of primary education — which ends at sixth grade — make it to the next stage.

This hurdle is what led Younes Naoumi to found the Youth Action Association, known by the French acronym AAJ. An earnest man with curly black hair, Mr. Naoumi was born and raised in the Moroccan city of Fez. Like many young Moroccans in search of opportunity, he migrated to France in the 1980s.

Instead of a better life, however, Mr. Naoumi encountered daily discrimination by French people hostile to new arrivals. Disappointed by the experience, he returned to Morocco and began to combat similar feelings of rejection among the young people in his homeland.

AAJ is housed in a train car next to a basketball court. The rail car was donated by the national train service, whose employees and their families make up much of the neighborhood’s residents. It is part of Maillage Maroc, a network of 15 or so sports, social and recreational centers in underprivileged neighborhoods of Casablanca, Sale and Rabat.

The nonprofit organization aims to integrate young people into a society that many of them feel has left them behind. Among its activities for boys and girls are soccer, field hockey and basketball, literacy programs and trips to cultural monuments.

Besides the lack of job prospects, Mr. Naoumi blames disillusionment of the young on the social tendency to disparage people in their late teens and early 20s.

“There is not in our culture yet the idea of considering young people as future adults,” he said through an interpreter. “But that is changing.”

He said running an organization that promotes the interests of a neglected part of society is difficult. AAJ receives about $7,000 a year from the government, a small amount with which to work. “Too often the government would rather give money to the big [nongovernmental organizations],” Mr. Naoumi said.

Despite the difficulties, the need for groups such as AAJ was made painfully clear: “Sadly, the events of May 16, 2003, showed us that we were on the right track,” he said.

Shortly after 9 p.m. on that date, four simultaneous bombings hit the Belgian Consulate in Casablanca, a Spanish restaurant, a Jewish community center and cemetery, and a hotel. Of the 45 persons killed, 12 are thought to be the suicide bombers who carried out the attack.

Moroccan investigators think the suicide bombers were members of the Salafia Jihadia, an Islamist terrorist group that seeks out residents of poor suburbs as potential recruits. Some of those 12 young men came from the same neighborhood as the AAJ and its members.

The Casablanca suicide attacks were a shock to Algeria, considered a moderate Arab country where Islam plays a daily role in the lives of citizens. A strong and respected monarchy and good relations with the United States have prevented radicalism from taking root.

Of the bombers, Mr. Naoumi said, “unfortunately, religion was used as a tool to manipulate them.” For lack of education, he said, the young men were easy prey for terrorist organizers.

He recounted a conversation he had with the younger brother, now 18, of one of the suicide bombers: “I asked him what was going on in his brother’s head. He was young, he would have wanted to go out, play sports. But he chose death.

“The younger brother asked me: ‘Do you think I’m living?’ I didn’t have an answer for him.” Armed with a stronger sense of purpose, Mr. Naoumi continues his work.

Part of the work of AAJ involves an emphasis on understanding U.S. culture.

In conjunction with the U.S. Department of State, the International Association of Students in Economics and Business Management founded the Salaam Program, which promotes cultural exchange between young people in the Arab world and the United States. Through this program, AAJ was able to offer English classes to more than 75 people last summer.

In March, AAJ members were visited by 70 people their age from Chicago as part of a sister-cities program.

Tanya Anderson, public affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca, which helped fund the exchange program, said the United States has begun to recognize the contributions that these local organizations are making to foreign policy goals.

“The benefits of this type of involvement in learning more about the U.S. and exchanges with American youth have been enormous, visible and mutual,” she said via e-mail. Young Moroccans’ “views of the United States have improved remarkably through these interactions with Americans and U.S. institutions.”

A year after the Casablanca explosions, members of the youth group participated in a march against terrorism. They wore T-shirts emblazoned with the hand of Fatima, a popular Muslim symbol to ward off evil, and the slogan “Don’t touch my country.”

“People talk about the people in this neighborhood a little differently now,” Mr. Naoumi said. “We can’t give them any work, but we can fight against doing nothing.”

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