Chicago’s Moroccan community rallies to help after earthquake

Achraf Issam flew back to his home in Illinois on Thursday after a three-week trip to visit his parents in Morocco. The next day, he got a “surreal” call about a devastating earthquake that hit the country.

“My parents live in Marrakech, so that’s only 40 miles or so from the epicenter,” Issam said. “My mom had been sleeping. My dad was awake, and they said that the whole house was shaking for what seemed like forever.”

The 30-year-old Gurnee resident began searching Google, looking for information from news outlets. Slowly, videos started trickling in — including one from a kids play zone at the mall he and his wife had just visited, he said.

“There’s a train and kids games and arcades,” Isaam said. “One of the first clips we saw was of the place where my kids were playing just a few days earlier, with people in panic running down.”

As of Monday afternoon, more than 2,600 people have died and 2,500 are injured following a rare and powerful earthquake that struck Morocco on Friday. Authorities anticipate that the death count will rise as rescuers work to reach isolated mountain areas that are difficult to access. Historic sites in Marrakech, the nearest major city, were also damaged.

The Moroccan population in the Chicago area is relatively small, according to Marilyn Diamond, honorary consul general for Morocco in Illinois. She estimates that there’s about 3,000 Moroccan people living near Chicago, and 4,700 people throughout Illinois. However, people across the state are rallying to support family, friends and others affected by the quake.

Three days after the magnitude 6.8 quake, Issam said he’s grateful that his parents’ house only suffered minor damage, and they weren’t injured. Issam, who moved to the U.S. to attend college, said he visits Morocco typically once per year to see family.

“I was talking to my parents, they said that it’s really brought the country together like nothing before,” he said. “There was a lot of joy during the World Cup run for Morocco a few months ago, and this is different. This is everybody coming together, helping out in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

As honorary consul general, Diamond receives updates on the quake from the Embassy of Morocco in Washington, D.C. She said many of the structures in the mountain village where the earthquake hit are made of adobe, which isn’t resilient.

“The most consequential effect was that the roads were reduced to rubble, preventing ambulances from getting in there for people that were in dire straits,” she said.

One of the last major earthquakes in Morocco, Diamond said, dates back to 1960, when 12,000 to 15,000 people were killed in the western coastal region. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, no earthquakes with a magnitude of 6 or above have been recorded within about 300 miles of Friday’s quake.

Diamond recommends people donate to World Central Kitchen, High Atlas Foundation or Doctors Without Borders if they’re looking to help people in the country. The Illinois Muslim Chamber of Commerce also teamed up with Helping Hand for Relief and Development to raise money for relief in Morocco.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Diamond said. “One of the things that people desperately need now besides food and water are tents, because the location of the damage is a place where it gets very cold at night.”

About an hour after the quake, Ahlam Hamdaoui started a GoFundMe to help raise money for residents in Aulouz, a rural Berber village. Hamdaoui said she’s been in contact with family members in the area via the messaging app WhatsApp.

“They told me that they lost everything. Because they are in rural areas, as of right now, they have not been contacted by any official government,” she said. “I offered one of the family members to pay rent because they’ve been sleeping on the street. They’re homeless.”

“They don’t even have main roads,” Hamdaoui added. “They’re just trapped. They can’t go anywhere. No food, no shelter, nothing.”

The 44-year-old Aurora resident said she wants to bring attention to the plight of the rural villages. She said the GoFundMe, which has raised about $1,400 so far, will help provide villagers with tents, temporary housing units, food, clean drinking water and basic medical supplies.

For Hiba Elmoumou, 50, of Naperville, the earthquake has been “saddening” and “scary.” She said she learned about the quake Friday when a Moroccan neighbor texted her. Elmoumou’s 72-year-old mother and 84-year-old father live in Oued Zem, about 2 ½ hours from the epicenter.

Hiba Elmoumou, 50, of Naperville, with her husband, Nadeem Iftikhar, in Essaouira, Morocco, during a vacation in June.

“I talked to my parents, and they’re out in the street,” she said. “They were able to feel it. The furniture inside the home — the wardrobe, the bed — was shaking, so the first thing they did is come out and try to be in a safe area.”

While her parents are still stressed about the potential of another earthquake, Elmoumou said they’re trying to adjust back to normal life and help people in badly-damaged areas.

“Even though (Moroccan citizens are) going through a hard time right now, they come together and I’m very proud of them,” she said. “I’m really proud to be Moroccan, Moroccan American.”