MIUSA: Tell us about your exchange program to the United States.
Mounir: I participated in the Legislative Fellows Exchange Program through an NGO called Citizen Bridges international. The goal is to bring people from Morocco and around the world to the USA for a month to visit American NGOs, see how they work, and then to go back to the countries to apply what is learned. It’s part of a two-way exchange between American fellows and people around the world to develop long-term partnerships between the countries. My boss at the Lighthouse advised me to participate in the program, and I jumped on the idea!
I later found out that there are other people with disabilities who come on these types of programs to learn about professional works and communities, including a group of blind visitors from Palestine placed in Washington!
MIUSA: Where in the United States were you placed?
Mounir: I was placed in Chicago at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind for three and a half weeks. This was a good fit for my goals, and I found it very beneficial to be placed with an NGO which works with people who are blind or visually impaired. In addition, Chicago and Casablanca have been sister cities for over 30 years!
In Chicago, I also visited Equality Illinois, Second Sense, and Access Living. They’re also closely related to my profession because they work on accessibility for people with disabilities. In Washington, DC, I met Judy Heumann [Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the US State Department] to talk about people with disabilities in international exchange!
MIUSA: What did you learn from the people and places you visited in the U.S., and what did you teach them?
Mounir: By visiting the different organizations and NGOs, I learned different ways that they advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, such as through awareness campaigns. I also learned some ways that people with disabilities, including blind people, live independently. I was able to teach them that even in other parts of the world, life for people with disabilities is improving, and they were very happy about that.
MIUSA: What was it like being a visitor in the United States?
Mounir: This was my first time in the USA, but my American host family helped me learn about the American lifestyle. It was their first time meeting a blind person, and they were very open-minded. They let me rely on myself.
“Also, Chicago is a very accessible city. I’ve been to many parts of the world, and I think Chicago is the most accessible to me so far!”
MIUSA: How have your experiences from your exchange program affected your life and work since you returned to Morocco?
Mounir: We are starting a new program for people with disabilities in my city, and we’re working on advocating for laws that would improve the life of people with disabilities, especially visual disabilities, on other fronts. What I learned in the USA is that we can work on specific topics, like education and health.
MIUSA: What is your advice to other people with disabilities considering international exchange?
Mounir: Rely on yourself to visit any country you like. Don’t assume that people will refuse you or see you as inferior to them. Instead, be confident and jump on the first opportunity to see how people live in other parts of the world, and how they can rely on themselves.
The Legislative Fellows Exchange Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, no longer offers this program for Morocco. See related links.