'Our role is to help people, not judge them'

Global charity Caritas offers guidance and counselling to African immigrants stranded in Mahgreb countries while undertaking the perilous journey to Europe. Fatima Boulaalam, a senior social worker responsible for coordinating the charity’s efforts in Rabat, Morocco, recounts a typical day at work

I arrive in the office at 8:30 in the morning, 30 minutes before we start receiving immigrants. We listen to their individual cases before we prioritise how to assist them. Our main objective is to give them legal advice and guide them through the process of applying for refugee or asylum seeker status with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), to protect their rights and put them on the right track. However, we help in any other way we can, whether with human or material support, to make their lives less difficult.

We also try to assist immigrants in finding accommodation. We escort them to the UNHCR and social service centres, and take pregnant women, children and the sick for medical check-ups or treatment at health centres. I usually spend the afternoon doing administrative work, followed by field trips to where immigrants live to check on them and give them support.

What affects me most is to see women and children passing through this experience. It is very hard and insecure living, which can extend to two or more years, with children deprived of education, although we try to provide assistance in this area as well. We also help teenagers who choose to brave the journey, whether because they have lost their families or they hoped for a job in Europe to support their families back home.

It may be even harder for those immigrants who choose to live in the wild with no food, water or shelter, trying to slip into the Spanish enclaves or daring the sea in a dinghy in hope of reaching Spain. Illegal immigrants come from as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but mainly from western Africa, countries like Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

One of the cases that I felt personally connected to was that of a 15-year-old girl from the DRC. She had no family left when she joined a group of immigrants bound for Morocco. When I first saw her, she looked so traumatised and untrusting. She would hardly talk to us. I decided to give her time and extra care, and let her build trust in us. We looked after her, and she stayed with an African woman. It took several visits until she started to open up to me. She finally knew we loved her and truly cared about her. Two years later, she was flown abroad with a family to start a new life. One day before her flight was due, she came to say goodbye. That moment – more than any other – I felt a strong sense of accomplishment; I really helped to make a difference in her life forever.

I believe everyone has the right to decide their own course in life. Our role is to help these immigrants, not judge them. Charity is a key value in Islam and other religions. I have faith in willpower, and that everyone has the capacity to overcome any obstacle no matter how hard the circumstances may be. But we need support from others to make difficulties more bearable. There are millions of people who need help and a lot of causes that need support.

I’ve been working with Caritas for 10 years, and I like my job. I’m always touched when a new immigrant addresses me as ‘sister’. It is, simply, my little daily reward.