Designer Maryam Montague was born in Egypt, grew up in the United States and travelled throughout West Africa, South East Asia, Nepal and Namibia doing human rights work. By 2001, this nomadic-lifestyle had led her and her husband, American architect Chris Redecke, to Morocco. “We’d just had our son, Tristan, and we both wanted to put down roots as we started a family,” she says. They considered buying a riad in the medina of Marrakech, but ultimately decided they’d prefer a quiet life in the countryside.
The couple found an idyllic 8.5-acre olive grove in the village of Douar Ladaam, just 20 minutes outside of the city. “It was the first time I’d really had a home. I’d always rented places,” she says. “The act of building and creating a home compelled us to invest in the community, because we knew we’d be staying.” Once Redecke built their dream home, he set about building Peacock Pavilions, a boutique hotel that hosts creative retreats focused on painting, yoga and photography.
Having worked for 25 years in humanitarian need, Montague was quick to notice the gender disparities in her local community. “I’d drive through the village and see boys playing soccer and boys walking to school. Where were all the girls?” she wondered. Montague had recently given birth to a daughter and couldn’t help but think of her when she caught rare glimpses of the local village girls.
Montague began asking questions and received alarming answers. In Morocco, 79 per cent of boys in urban areas attend school, compared with 26 per cent of girls in rural areas; and in some areas up to 83 per cent of women are married before the age of 18. “Girls weren’t getting a chance at a future,” she says. “Girls are extremely vulnerable to a cycle where they drop out of school, marry early and become a young mother.”
In 2012, Montague and her husband created Project Soar, a non-profit aimed at breaking that cycle of girl marriages and early motherhood by keeping girls in school and providing them with options so they can have a productive future. “People don’t talk about the real situation of girls in Morocco,” she says. “I decided I wanted to embrace adifferent model for hospitality. Rather than hide the problem from our guests, we wanted to share the gritty underbelly of the city and try to be part of the solution.” different model for hospitality. Rather than hide the problem from our guests, we wanted to share the gritty underbelly of the city and try to be part of the solution.”
Montague had worked with humanitarian projects on a much larger scale, but for something so intimate, she knew she had to work closely with the community. Douar Ladaam is a conservative village and she intervened cautiously, setting up meetings with the village leaders to earn their trust and support. When she realised that the majority of girls drop of of school when they get their periods, she took action. Project Soar is now the pilot partner organisation in the Muslim world for Be Girl, a programme that provides period kits, with instructions in Arabic.
More than 60 per cent of Moroccan children fail their high school entry exams – girls at a much higher rate than boys, says Montague. Project Soar works with the Peace Corps to provide tutors in the core subjects: French, Arabic, physics, maths, natural sciences. This year, Montague and her husband created the Skylar Scholarship. Named after their daughter, the programme will take two of Project Soar’s most gifted girls and give them the opportunity to attend a private high school.
Traditionally, women have been excluded from sports in Morocco. “I believe sports are an incredibly important aspect of youth, both for physical health and developing leadership skills,” she says. Montague’s 14 year-old daughter coaches the running club and leads the 12-member group on runs beyond the village. “On Field Day she told the girls, ‘only one of you can be a winner today, but in my mind you’re all winners.’ When I heard that I knew my work here was done.” Once the girls started participating in sports, the mothers of the village approached Montague about exercise programmes. “They were inspired to be healthier role models for their daughters,” she says. Project Soar now also offers fitness classes for the women of the village.
“I read a statistic that said 15 out of the 20 female U.S. senators were in the Girl Scouts,” says Montague. “We don’t have uniforms or fancy badges, but I think we have a similar mission of helping girls realise and reach their potential. I always wanted a third child, but now I have 238 girls who I interact with on a very intimate level. My job has always been in policy so this interaction has profoundly changed me.” To date, the organisation has provided over 500 hours of activities and training to 238 adolescent girls.
Many guests arrive expecting to meet quiet, meek Arab girls. “Then they watch a basketball clinic and their attitudes quickly change,” says Montague. “These girls are competitive. I think guests feel closer to their experience at the hotel when they get to interact with the girls and see the impact we have on the local community.” The hotel gives 10 per cent of its profits annually to Project Soar and guests can contribute through donations that support specific programmes, like sports or the arts. “You quickly realise that it doesn’t require very much to keep a girl in school,” she says. It’s quite humbling. Now I keep asking, why can’t I help 500 girls or 10,000 girls? I’m dreaming big because I think this is an achievable solution to a problem that should not be very complicated.”
Montague hopes her model of community work inspires others in the hospitality industry. “I’d like to see more hotels adopting causes rather than just making contributions here and there,” she says. “The Band-Aid approach to aid is not a good one. As social entrepreneurs, we all have a role to play in helping contribute to the countries we are benefiting from.”
Jen Murphy is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Outside, Men’s Journal and Departures.