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Incubator Support Kick-Starts NPI Project to Preserve Historic Moroccan Jewish Neighborhoods

People chopping vegetables
Residents of the mellah in Fes participate in a cooking workshop organized by the Rebuilding Our Homes project to provide job skills and raise awareness of the Moroccan-Jewish food heritage. (Photo credit: Association Mimouna/American Sephardi Federation)
Nov 30, 2021

The narrow streets and sky blue doors and windows of Morocco’s crumbling mellahs, or Jewish quarters, contain a treasure trove of history. But when this history was at risk of being lost, two new USAID partners—Rabat-based Association Mimouna and New York-based American Sephardi Federation (ASF)—co-created a project, supported under USAID’s New Partnerships Initiative (NPI), to train residents of the mellahs to share the history of their neighborhoods as tour guides and through the sale of Judaica-focused handicrafts and traditional food, giving residents an economic lifeline while preserving an important dimension of Morocco’s diverse past. 

The walled neighborhoods of the mellahs were home, for hundreds of years, to Morocco’s once-thriving Jewish population—the largest in the Arab or Islamic world at one time. The walls offered protection but not confinement: Jewish residents were actively involved throughout Moroccan society. But since 1948, when many Moroccan Jews emigrated to the newly formed state of Israel, buildings in the mellahs have fallen into disrepair, and the residents—now predominantly Muslim—struggle economically. Local knowledge about the neighborhoods' important past has been largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the mellahs of Fez, Essaouira, and Rabat remain popular tourist destinations, especially for foreign visitors interested in Jewish history. 

“We tell the people of the mellah, ‘You have a treasure in your hands. Your neighborhood is not poor. It's very rich, not with money, but with respect to its diversity and its history, which is unique,’” said Elmehdi Boudra, founder and president of Association Mimouna. 

To help expand this important work to preserve the Moroccan Jewish heritage in the mellahs, the two organizations—both new USAID partners—submitted a concept note through NPI, proposing to provide skills training for residents of the mellahs, to enable them to serve as tour guides, artisans, and cultural ambassadors in their neighborhoods. Association Mimouna was aiming to serve as the subawardee on the project, with the ASF as the prime. 

“A partner sent us a USAID call for proposals from the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region. I emailed our colleagues at the American Sephardi Federation, and we had a meeting to discuss applying together. From the beginning, it was really a co-creation process with USAID. It was something we had the chance to build with the team,” said Boudra.  

The Agency began to engage with Association Mimouna and the ASF to co-create the project, but, as is often the case with new partners, the organizations ran into difficulty at almost the first step in the process: their registration in the federal systems for USAID awards.

“It was a very difficult process. The most challenging part of the process for us at Mimouna was the DUNS and SAM.gov registration,”  said Boudra. Their registration attempts kept getting rejected, and they had to repeatedly restart the process.

“We were ready to do the work [of implementing the project], but we struggled with key steps early in the registration process,” said Boudra. 

That’s where the Partnerships Incubator was brought in. The Partnerships Incubator is a USAID-funded project implemented by Kaizen, a Tetra Tech company. 

“We knew that NPI wanted to get them up and running and implementing this important project,” said Giorgi Baghishvili, Director of Finance and Operations for the Incubator. “So the Agency asked us to support these partners, to get them the assistance they needed.” 

“As first-time recipients, the hurdles seemed insurmountable, but the co-creation process made everything possible, even with an accelerated schedule,” said Jason Guberman, the ASF’s Executive Director. “The USAID and Incubator staff were incredible, both in terms of their knowledge and dedication,” he added. 

Through multiple WhatsApp messages, emails, and video calls over the course of three months, Baghishvili was able to work alongside key staff from Association Mimouna and the ASF to walk them through the steps in the registration process and to get their information inputted correctly into the various systems.  

“It’s common for organizations to have trouble with SAM.gov registration,” said Baghishvili. “This is something we know is a frequent hurdle for new partners. The system is very unforgiving of any differences in spelling, punctuation, etc. But there are some ways for organizations to improve their chances.”

Baghishvili recommends that organizations that are preparing to register in federal systems should keep a spreadsheet containing all of their basic information. That information can then be copied-and-pasted into each registration system to avoid issues related to inconsistent spelling, punctuation, and spacing. The “character count” feature can also help organizations ensure they have entered identical information in each system.  

Baghishvili provided further assistance to Association Mimouna and the ASF on the budget elements to support their proposal, and the Incubator’s Director of External Partnerships Lovesun Parent provided support for their gender and social inclusion plan. Together, this support helped the organizations get through some of the early hurdles they faced as they became new USAID partners. 

“Working with the Incubator was a very, very positive process,” stated Boudra.  

Now that these early registration and reporting challenges are behind them, the partners are beginning to implement the three-year Rebuilding Our Homes project. 

“Rebuilding Our Homes is dedicated to mobilizing a new generation to be knowledgeable, proud, and proactive with their Moroccan heritage by strengthening the sacred chords of memory that unite all Moroccans, from Muslim youth in the mellahs to Sephardic Jews in Manhattan,” stated Guberman. 

The partners hope that this effort will capture the legacy of the past by educating the current residents of the mellahs about Morocco’s multicultural legacy and providing them the tools to share this history with their fellow citizens and with tourists from around the globe.

“I hope in three years the population of the mellahs will move this effort forward without us, with their own NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], promoting their own neighborhood and making their neighborhood a place where they are proud to live,” said Boudra.

This article first appeared on USAID.gov.

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