When a powerful earthquake struck deep below Morocco’s Atlas mountains last Friday night, the school year had only just begun. Staff from a girls’ education charity who had stayed late at work suddenly found themselves jolted by the force of a 6.8 magnitude quake as the walls of their offices crumbled around them to expose the cold mountain air.
“Many of the girls who we know are at least alive have lost mothers, brothers, fathers, family members and it looks like many of their houses have also been completely destroyed,” said Sonia Omar, the head of Education for All Morocco, her voice cracking. The charity supports a network of six boarding houses for girls across the Atlas, all situated in villages around the epicentre of the quake.
In an instant the force of the quake wrenched apart the walls of the boarding houses, needed in a mountainous region beset by poor infrastructure where schools may otherwise simply be too difficult to access – and 17 years of work to ensure girls in the Atlas can receive an education.
At one boarding house for 52 students in the remote village of Talat N’Yaaqoub, a supervisor filmed the ruins of her bedroom. “Look at all this debris that fell on me during the earthquake,” she said, as piles of exposed bricks lay on her pale lilac bed frame, amid mounds of broken glass and fragments of the building’s exterior.
In the oldest house, which sits in the village of Asni, the quake had torn holes in the walls of the library, destroyed computer equipment and made the building uninhabitable. “This is where they spend their entire week,” said Latifa Aliza, a student coordinator for one of the boarding houses.
An excavator works to clear a mountain road near Talat N’Yaaqoub. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
“We need to start from the beginning again with the building, because the building is very important,” she added, standing aghast in the ruins of a destroyed dormitory. The organisation says that five out of the six boarding houses will probably need to be torn down and completely rebuilt, with some currently unsafe to even enter.
“The situation is difficult right now; there’s so much damage,” Aliza said. “We still haven’t located all of our students, especially those in the area around Talat N’Yaaqoub, which is still difficult to access. Our organisation is doing everything it can to reach them.” Omar said the organisation is still searching for roughly a third of their student body, which numbers about 250 girls.
Moroccan authorities estimate that almost 3,000 people were killed, and more than 5,500 wounded, in the earthquake. It was centred deep under the Atlas mountains about 43 miles south of Marrakech, but shook buildings and sent people running into the streets in fear as far away as the cities of Casablanca and Rabat in northern Morocco.
A strip of villages dotted across the Atlas mountains in the Al Haouz region around the epicentre were by far the worst hit, because of their location and the intense difficulties in conducting rescues.
Much of Al Haouz has long been deprived of even basic infrastructure, and many of the remotest villages tucked high into the mountain peaks can be reached only on foot. Steep mountain roads that villagers traversed on donkeys or motorbikes are now blocked or dangerously cracked, amid fears of rockslides as aftershocks shake the peaks a week after the earthquake struck.
Helicopters continue to ferry the wounded out of the Atlas, with little hope of finding remaining survivors and fears that many villagers in the remotest villagers suffocated under the ruins of their mud-brick homes, which left no space to breathe as they collapsed.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has pledged to rebuild about 50,000 homes damaged by the earthquake.
Education for All was set up to ensure girls access to learning in some of the remotest parts of the Atlas. The challenges of reaching school buildings in the region are often tougher for girls.
Education rates for women in Morocco have slowly risen over the past two decades but as of 2018 64% of girls were in secondary school, according to the World Bank, and fewer than half of the women in Morocco recorded in the most recent figures from 2021 were receiving a tertiary education.
Omar believes ensuring that girls can get into the classroom from a young age is often enough to completely change their future. But with the boarding houses now in ruins, she and her organisation are scrambling to figure out what education facilities remain in the Atlas, and how to keep girls learning even if it means studying online from their tents.
“We’re trying to find out which schools have been damaged. Many teachers in the area lost family members and their homes. They’re sleeping outside in makeshift tents. As the villages are so remote, this is the very reason why we support these communities, because it means the aid that’s trickling in isn’t reaching there at all,” she said.
Many families in Talat N’Yaaqoub are living in tents in the aftermath of the earthquake. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters
“Some areas have zero telephone contact, the roads are blocked and many villages aren’t even near a road. You have to park a car an hour away and walk; there’s no infrastructure.”
Amid the devastation, Omar found some small signs of hope. Many of their former graduates who went on to become, in her words, “pillars of their communities”, have now begun to coordinate aid efforts.
Asma Ait Taleb, a former student who went on to graduate from university in Marrakech, was back home in the village of Ouirgane, when the earthquake struck.
“Once I found six former graduates here in Ouirgane, we began trying to trace some of the other girls,” she said. “As soon as the Internet returned, I began sending out messages anywhere I could, publishing on Instagram, asking girls to contact us and for others to provide information.”
The group compiled a list of missing students and began their search, all while travelling throughout some of the remotest villages in the Atlas to distribute vital aid.
“This earthquake has also shown what’s good about our region,” she said. “I hope somehow things will be better than they were before. We have to remain hopeful.”
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