Throughout the developing world, people with disabilities often struggle to find a job because of legal barriers and social stigmas. But in Morocco, there is an innovative restaurant staffed entirely by people living with down syndrome.
By Andrew Seger
Rabat – The restaurant is run by AMSAT, the Moroccan Association of Support and Assistance for People with Down Syndrome. This is astonishing in a country where more than half of disabled people are unemployed. In the US, unemployment amongst the disabled is only about 10%.
Meryem Moussa places each table setting with extreme delicacy. She takes care to make sure the fork and knife are perfectly straight, and she delivers a bread basket to every table with a beaming smile. Moussa has down syndrome.
“I dream of being a famous actress and singer, but I also want to be a big and successful chef,” she said. “I believe that step by step I can fulfill those dreams.”
Moussa has worked at this restaurant in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, for more than five years. She works alongside 40 other chefs and servers with down syndrome. Special educators teach them cooking techniques, service, and catering. The AMSAT Educational Restaurant is open for lunch, serving upwards of 40 people a day.
The restaurant’s wall décor and placemats are the colorful products of AMSAT’s art class. On display throughout are framed pictures of smiling employees, and shelves are lined with treats from the kitchen: You can take home orange marmalade, assorted cookies or even some fresh crustacean oil.
Visitors can watch through a huge window as the chefs with down syndrome prepare every plate that goes out.
“This person with down syndrome, she has the possibility to have an account in the bank? No— she can’t. You can’t give him an account,” Mounir said. “Can this person use a bank card; can you give him medical coverage? All these problems— you can find nothing in Moroccan law,” said Mohamed Mounir who is with the AMSAT organization.
Mounir said because of their disability, people with down syndrome also struggle to work a full eight-hour workday. That means even when employers are willing to hire someone with a disability, they have to work out a special salary and schedule, and these employees generally need extra supervision and training.
“There is still a very negative view of handicapped people, that they can’t do anything,” Bouchaib Bouzekrawi, a psychologist for AMSAT, explains. He continues, “So there is a lot of work to do to change this view, and this is exactly why we wanted to open the restaurant to the public, so they come and see that these are real meals prepared and served by these young people.”
AMSAT is now working to draft a law that will give legal status to people with mental and developmental disabilities. Mounir said that would give them the opportunity to open bank accounts, sign contracts with employers, and get job insurance. But, he said, AMSAT won’t stop there.
“I think it’s possible. Our dreams are that the person with disability can live alone in an apartment as couple. To love! If you come back in ten years, in the cinema you can sit next to a couple with down syndrome. This is our dream.”
The restaurant was launched in 2010 with funding from the European Union. It began just as a training program, teaching eight or nine workers to prepare traditional Moroccan dishes like chicken tajine with lemons and olives, a traditional Moroccan meal cooked in a special clay pot. The restaurant opened its doors to the public four years ago, and its success has inspired AMSAT to try and open similar facilities nationwide.
‘It’s a beautiful experience’
“The results are magnificent,” Khadija Sebbah, the head chef and director of the restaurant, exclaims. “It’s a beautiful experience!”
Sebbah said after employees have been with them for a few years, AMSAT helps them find internships with other local restaurants. She said there have been even more exciting benefits. Employees including Moussa have traveled to France every year to represent Morocco in culinary competitions.
“When I went to do this challenge, I had a lot of self-confidence… I was surrounded by great chefs who were there to judge us and give us marks,” Moussa recalled. “This was an important experience in my life.”
Moussa ranked fourth in the competition with recipes for chicken legs, squid, and potatoes with fennel. She said she could not have done it without the careful instruction of her guides at AMSAT. The judges applauded her independence and motivation, and she even earned style points for the presentation of her plates.
Moussa said she hopes to share what she’s learned at AMSAT and eventually teach her own students how to cook. Aside from her dream to be an actress and a singer, she said she wishes to one day cook for people all over the world.