If you ask sophomore Iliana Flefel what she misses most about the United States, her answer will be: “My cats. Oh, and organic vegetables.”
Flefel is one of 23 students studying at the University of New England’s new satellite campus in Tangier, Morocco this semester. Like most study abroad students, Flefel said her experience has not been without its challenges but suspects she will miss the crowded, energetic city streets when she leaves in May.
“I love Maine but we are so far removed from a bustling city. I love being able to access the supermarket by foot. I love being able to access shops, cafes or just wander in the streets. There’s something there every day, something new. You don’t really get that in Maine. I’m going to miss going to school in a city.”
Situated on the North African coast directly below Spain, where the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea meet, Tangier enjoys a trio of influences from three vastly different cultures: African, European and Arabian. An exceptionally well-traveled native of Washington D.C., 20-year-old Flefel said she has found the people of Morocco pleasantly surprising.
“I think the people are overly-friendly. I think it took a lot of people by surprise, including me! Everyone is so welcoming and encouraging. They want you to experience their Morocco. They want you to experience how they see their culture,” she said. “Quite frankly, they are just as interested in our culture. ‘What are these Americans doing here? What are they like?’ They’re trying to figure us out and we’re trying to figure them out.”
With construction wrapping up just weeks before the beginning of the semester, these students are literally breaking new ground as they make the state-of-the-art academic building and living facility, designed by preeminent Moroccan architect, Anouar Amaoui, their home for the duration of the semester. An ornate, tiled fountain and bone white marble floors fill the halls of the academic building while cobalt blue balcony railings adorn student dorms, giving the campus a traditional Moroccan asthetic.
Moroccan traditions are also found in the campus dining hall where a local catering company prepares three meals a day, heavily influenced by Moroccan cuisine. From scrambled eggs and fresh, sweet breads and pastries for breakfast to seasoned, local fish and comfort food in the evening, Flefel said she and her classmates are eating well.
“They have a lot of meat, a lot of chicken, a lot of beef, which I really enjoy. The food is full of vegetables: carrots, zucchini and cabbage which, two of those are my favorite vegetables.” Being gluten and dairy free has not stopped Flefel from sampling a staple among Moroccan palates: couscous.
“I tried it, even though I wasn’t suppose to. It’s really good!” she said.
While many study abroad curriculums are rooted in the humanities, UNE Tangier offers classes such as organic chemistry and genetics in two industry-standard laboratories in addition to classes that enhance cultural understanding such as Arabic and a Tangier-centric literature course at its brand new facility. A marine biology major, Flefel said the life experiences gained living abroad, paired with the unique geographic location of Tangier, will undoubtedly help her career by broadening her understanding of her field of study.
“The Mediterranean Sea is so different from what we have back home. The salinity, the organisms. The fact that we are in a different part of the world despite the fact that the oceans are all connected, it’s so different.”
Outside of academics, Flefel and other students have been afforded the opportunity to shape their worldview by living in the Arab world and learning firsthand about the Islamic faith. Given her family heritage and previous travels abroad, Flefel said she arrived in Morocco with a deeper understanding than most.
“I think that I came in with less of a pre-conceived notion (of the Arab world) because my father is Palestinian. I know that a lot of Americans have a preconceived notions that if you are an Arab you have to be Muslim. I feel that being here has really solidified my belief that the Islamic religion is so grounded in non-violence and humility and giving to others. It’s just a select few that have ruined this reputation for so many people around the world,” she said.
Weekends at UNE Tangier are busy with planned trips across the country. From the snowy mountains of Ifrane, the “Little Switzerland” of North Africa, to the winding medinas of Fes and Meknes, students and staff eagerly pack up their bags for a weekend full of exploring and tours. While Flefel relished the chance to visit fellow UNE students studying in Seville, Spain for the weekend, she said her favorite moment outside of Tangier was at dusk in Tetouan, a city at foot of the Rif Mountains running along the Mediterranean. A jaunt through the medina, or “old city,” followed by an uphill hike through an old cemetery yielded an arresting view of the city as adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, rang out.
“The sun was setting and the moon was rising. It was just beautiful.”
(This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.)