AUSTIN, Texas — Neglect, poverty and abandonment have left tens of thousands of children in Moroccan orphanages. Understaffing and a lack of funding lead to overcrowding and insufficient resources. Yet, increased awareness of this issue is leading more people to support orphanages and fostering greater openness toward adoption in Morocco. BLOOM Charity aims to improve the overall well-being of Morocco’s orphans by supporting Moroccan orphanages.
The Power of Human Contact and Sensory Stimulation
In 2015, Amina Shams, co-founder and executive director of BLOOM Charity, adopted her son from an orphanage in Meknes in Northern Morocco. From her initial visits to the orphanage, she could tell it was clean and well-run. Shams spoke with The Borgen Project in an interview. She says the orphanage held the reputation as one of the best orphanages in the country. Yet, she could tell her future son was missing something. At three months old, he would not make eye contact with her. He was not used to being held. She was concerned he had developmental delays.
While going through the adoption process, Shams frequently visited her future baby, cuddling and playing with him. Through this contact, Shams noticed “more light in his eyes. He was starting to respond… he was blooming.” Shams realized that children in orphanages do not receive a sufficient amount of human contact and sensory stimulation, both of which are essential to development.
According to BLOOM’s website, more than “65,000 children live in Moroccan orphanages.” A 2015 UNICEF study reports that a common reason for child abandonment in Morocco is birth outside of marriage. In Morocco, there is a stigma against unmarried or single mothers. Research suggests that nearly 16% of Moroccan children born out of wedlock are abandoned. Other parents may give up disabled children or children they cannot care for due to poverty or immigration status.
“Adoption” in Morocco: Kafala
As a country that abides by Islamic law, Morocco does not have an “adoption” system. It instead has a system of kafala, which is closer to guardianship. Kafala is similar to adoption in that parents may take in an abandoned or orphaned child, providing protection, education and care. However, through kafala, adoptive parents do not necessarily pass down their family name or provide children with an inheritance. Kafala also mandates that parents who take in a child be Mulsim and promise to raise the child according to their birth culture and religion.
Morocco is one of the few Muslim countries that allow foreign kafala. According to the Moroccan Justice Ministry, in 2011, slightly more than 9% of kafala applications from foreigners were granted. A judge may grant international kafala to Moroccans living abroad or foreigners who practice Islam.
In 2012, Morocco’s then minister of justice, Mustapha Ramid, issued a circular, banning foreigners from adopting Moroccan children through kafala unless they were “regular residents of Morocco.” This was in response to accusations that parents were converting their adopted children to Christianity. While the Moroccan government has since deemed the circular unlawful, Shams says that whether kafala will be granted to a prospective parent is ultimately up to the discretion of individual judges.
The COVID-19 pandemic added complications, halting international kafala from Morocco. To prevent the spread of the virus, Morocco imposed a strict lockdown, completely closing its national borders for three months during the spring of 2020. This lockdown, unfortunately, brought about major delays for adoptive parents. While Morocco has since re-opened its borders to travelers who provide a negative PCR test, the U.S. Department of State does not advise traveling to Morocco at this time due to high levels of COVID-19. However, domestic kafala applications in Morocco have increased.
Planting Seeds of Hope: BLOOM’s PlayGardens
Shams estimates that 80% of funding for Moroccan orphanages comes from donations. Because of this, she says the quality of care in different orphanages varies drastically. In 2017, Shams co-founded the nonprofit BLOOM with her sister Noma Saeed, who also has an adopted son from Morocco. BLOOM supports Moroccan orphanages by fostering early childhood development and mental health. The nonprofit does this by creating play spaces or “PlayGardens” catered to the specific needs of each orphanage.
In 2020, BLOOM built Morocco’s first fully handicap-accessible playground at Baouafi Center Orphanage in Casablanca. This PlayGarden features wheelchair-friendly spaces, accessible playground equipment and shaded areas for those sensitive to sunlight. Since its founding, BLOOM has funded and built nine PlayGardens in orphanages around Morocco, benefitting more than 1,300 children.
In addition to creating play spaces, BLOOM also provides enrichment, which includes holiday parties and sports activities. Shams says that part of the joy in BLOOM’s PlayGardens is that once the nonprofit builds them, the children and the orphanage staff find their own creative ways to use them. She explains that this is important to BLOOM because it wants the children and staff “to feel a sense of pride and ownership in the space” BLOOM creates.
Wassila Kara-Ibrahimi is a resident of Casablanca, Morocco. She and her husband adopted three children through kafala in 2002 and 2003. All three children are from La Crèche de Tanger, an orphanage in Tangier, Morocco.
Kara-Ibrahimi is unaware of any incidents of bullying or harassment toward her children. However, she says that her kids, now adults, have different levels of comfort when it comes to talking about adoption. She says, “The boys didn’t want to talk about it at school while my daughter wanted to tell everyone.” She adds, “I know it bothered them, out of fear I think of not being like everyone.”
Yet, overall, Kara-Ibrahimi believes attitudes toward domestic kafala are changing in Morocco. She says she has friends, especially single women, who have openly adopted children through kafala. Kara-Ibrahimi could not be a prouder parent. She says she has never experienced the stigma of having adopted children and is very proud of her children.
Research also supports a more favorable public opinion toward domestic kafala in Morocco. In a 2015 survey of more than 300 university students in Rabat, 92.4% of respondents said “yes” or “maybe” when asked if they would consider adopting a Moroccan orphan through kafala. Of the fewer than 8% of respondents who answered “no,” the majority stated the reason as simply a preference for having biological children.
Asmaa Benslimane, Director of Association Bébés Du Maroc, also notes that Morocco now allows children to legally take the last name of their adoptive parents or their biological mothers. In the past, only fathers and their biological children reserved this right. While Benslimane believes adoption stigmas remain, legal recognition of non-nuclear families may indicate changing attitudes toward adoption.
Adoption in Morocco is a nuanced topic. Orphanages face numerous challenges, including the accommodation of children with physical and mental disabilities and insufficient funding. Without the proper support, children in these orphanages face psychological trauma and are at high risk of poor educational outcomes and falling into a cycle of poverty and crime. However, organizations like BLOOM, as well as changing attitudes toward kafala in Morocco, provide hope for these vulnerable children.
– Annie Prafcke
Photo: Courtesy of BLOOM Charity