Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
Since 2011 Marie Struthers has been working to empower women and children in Morocco.
She is the founder of Leyla's Legacy: Hope for Moroccan Children, an organization that supports children with medical and school costs, birth registrations, and other daily essentials that are required if they hope to one day break the cycle of poverty.
But on Saturday evening, her focus was on assisting the woman who helps makes that all possible.
A benefit dinner was held in the Griffith Auditorium at Spruce Lodge to raise money for her former sister-in-law Meriam Sbai-Tarqi, who requires bypass surgery and has little money of her own.
Sbai-Tarqi lives in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, where she supports Struthers in her humanitarian efforts, often providing lodging for mothers and their children, sometimes months at a time.
"Meriam is a force of nature who is absolutely essential," Struthers told the Gazette last week, noting she once traveled 600 kilometres to a remote village and spent four days there with a translator to support a family in need.
"All she has is her personality and dedication," she said.
Struthers, who lives in the Crystal Lake community northwest of Stratford and teaches at the high school in Listowel, started her projects in Morocco about four years ago. The organization is named after her daughter, Leyla, who in 2011, after years of struggling with mental illness, took her own life.
Struthers said her daughter loved children though she never had any of her own, and had always hoped to one day travel to Morocco, where her father was born, to learn more about her family roots.
She never got the chance, but her memory very much lives on there today.
"It's been a much more positive journey than just grieving," Struthers said about her work in Morocco.
It was around the time she lost her daughter that Struthers met a nine-year-old girl there named Fatima. Her father had abandoned the family and she had no documentation, not even a last name.
It took a year but Struthers was able to help get her a birth certificate, and five days later she started school.
Struthers said a high percentage of Moroccan children, especially girls, are never issued a birth certificate. They are stripped of an identity and an education as a result.
According to Oxfam, she noted, as much as 25 per cent of Morocco's indigenous Berber peoples are not documented citizens, and have an illiteracy rate amongst girls over 90 per cent.
Saturday’s benefit included the traditional Moroccan dish couscous, prepared by Struthers' sister who flew in from Vancouver, live entertainment including a belly dancer, and a live auction. Among the most prized items up for bid was donated heritage Irish crystal valued at $3,500.
Struthers said the benefit - bigger than any fundraiser she's organized before – had sold out days in advance and that a crowd of at least 150 people was expected to attend.
"It's gone way beyond my expectations," she said.
The event raised more than $4,000, and part of the proceeds will also go to support a former street child in Morocco named Hicham. The 15-year-old is hospitalized while recovering from a broken pelvis and two broken knees.
“His immediate needs are nutritional food and colostomy supplies,” Struthers noted.
Struthers still finds time to travel to Morocco three times a year and runs a side business that sells Moroccan products like argan oil. She finances her efforts through the business as well as a network of donors and sponsors, and relies on good-hearted people like Sbai-Tarqi to carry on the work in her absence.
"I'm presented with some very serious problems when I got to Morocco, but there are also solutions,” she said. “I know good people there and I know good people here. I just need to connect them."